So, we’re talking pot pie, and not just any pot pie, but, Berks County Pot Pie! When most people think or talk about pot pie they’re generally referring to the deep dish, crust on bottom, crust on top pot pie made famous by Mrs. Smith, Swanson, et al. While the homemade variant of that type of pot pie can be good, they haven’t nearly the complexity of sensory taste and texture that the unique cultural dish that those of us from southeastern Pennsylvania and especially Berks County call pot pie.
Berks County Pot Pie is a symphony of onion, potato, parsley, sometimes butter and those handmade, hand kneaded, hand rolled, squares or rectangles of dough that differentiate our pot pie from those of the rest of the country. There are many variations of pot pie and most people are familiar with chicken, turkey, beef and if there is a hunter in the home, squirrel, rabbit or groundhog. All of those recipes are excellent, but, the recipe that I will put forth in this blog is one that has been and remains a staple in my Bertolet Family repertoire. Clam Pot Pie!
I can’t even really tell you how I learned to make it. I “watched” my Gremmom and Grempop make it a hundred times and talked about making it with my Father and Uncle Herbie about the same number of times, but I can’t remember ever making it with them. I guess I just learned to make it by osmosis.
Ingredients for 8-10 servings
Pot pie dough:
2 ¼ cups all purpose unbleached flour
3 large eggs
2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
25 shucked top neck clams (cut clams in half and reserve the clam liquor/juice)
2 bottles clam juice
3 russet potatoes (cut into ½”-1” cubes)
3 yellow onions (chopped medium size pieces)
½ – ¾ cups (finely chopped parsley)
1-½ sticks (12 tbsp) butter
Making you own dough is relatively easy, but it takes some practice, so make a couple of practice runs before you proceed to the main event. It’s well worth the effort. (If you would like to begin by practicing with a smaller amount, I have found that a ratio of 1 large egg to ¾ cup of flour along with ½ – ¾ tsp salt and ½ – ¾ tsp baking powder works very well.)
Traditional dough preparation:
To prepare the dough, combine the flour, eggs, salt and baking powder in a bowl. Keep a small glass of tepid water handy if extra moisture is needed.
Begin folding the above ingredients together until a dough ball forms (this may require adding 1 tbsp of tepid water at a time until the dough ball forms). About 3-5 minutes.
After dough ball forms, knead the dough ball until it acquires a smooth texture/finish. About 8-10 minutes.
At this point, cover or wrap the dough ball in a towel or plastic wrap and let it “rest” for 2-3 hours, or place the wrapped dough ball in the refrigerator if you are making it ahead.
Alternative dough preparation:
Now, mixing and kneading dough by hand is the reason our otherwise petite grandmothers were so strong. It’s work! So, I’ll offer an alternative method for mixing and kneading dough with the photos and directions below. (The ingredients and quantities remain the same.)
This method of dough preparation is called modernity and if you have a Kitchen Aid mixer it really makes the job a whole lot easier. Begin by mixing all the ingredients using the unit’s mixing paddle (as shown in Alternate dough making photos 1 & 2) until the dough ball forms (again, adding 1 tbsp. of tepid water at a time if more moisture is needed) When the dough ball is pretty well-formed, switch out the mixing paddle with the dough hook (as shown in Alternate dough making photo 3). Begin kneading with the dough hook. The dough ball will form once and then break apart, this is normal, keep kneading with the dough hook until the doug ball reforms a 2nd time and continue kneading it until the dough takes on that smooth texture/finish.
Now that the dough ball has “rested,” begin rolling out the dough until you achieve the desired thickness.
I gauge the desired dough thickness with the help of Stella, my Black Lab. When the dough thickness approximates that of Stella’s ear, it right!
Now that the dough has been rolled out to the desired thickness it’s time to cut the dough. See photos below:
Now, a word about the clams. It used to be that you could purchase shucked clams in their liquor/juice from any seafood market, but not anymore. What I do now is purchase top neck clams in their shells and prepare the clams for use in the pot pie.
I start by scrubbing the clams under cold water to get the sand off of them and then cover them in cold water in the sink to let them purge. I change the water about 3 times until the last change of water remains clean, indicating the clams have purged all the sand they were holding.
Following the purging, I put the clams in the freezer for 24 hours until they are frozen. After the 24 hours, I remove the clams and let them sit a room temperature 4-5 hours until they begin to thaw slightly and I can open them easily with a clam knife. By shucking the clams this way the clams and all their liquor/juice remain in a nice frozen ball which can be placed in a bowl until thawed completely. When thawed, I cut each clam in half and drain them reserving the liquor/juice.
Next, cut/chop your potatoes, onions and parsley as described in the ingredients list. If preparing ahead of time, cover the potatoes with cold water to keep them from turning brown and cover the onions with plastic wrap.
Now that we’re at the assembly line stage of the preparation, bring all the components within reasonable proximity to the pot you will cook the pot pie in.
Put the clam liquor/juice in a large pot along with the two bottles of clam juice and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a fast simmer and when the clam juice begins to “froth,” skim off all the froth and discard. With the clam juice at a very fast simmer/near boil begin layering the potatoes first, onions second and a layer of cut pot pie dough last, repeating the layering until all the potatoes, onions and pot pie dough are used up.
Cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes until the potatoes are tender.
While the pot pie is simmering, begin melting the butter over medium heat until it browns. Don’t let it burn! The butter should be a “nutty” brown, not black.
After the 15-20 minutes check the pot pie to make sure the potatoes are done and when they are, add the clams and mix well. Cover the pat again and cook until the clams are done.
When the clams are done, add the brown butter and the chopped parsley and mix well.
Well, that’s all there is to it. If you like pot pie and you like clams, you’ll love my Gremmom’ s Berks County Clam Pot Pie. Serve with pepper cabbage, cole slaw or chow-chow and you’ve got a Berks County Dutch dinner on the highest order.
Ess dich satt!
Written by BHC Executive Director, Sime Bertolet
This article was written as part of the Berks History Center’s 2018 Berks County Foodways Project. Click here to learn more about Berks County Foodways.