I have to admit, I was a little shocked at how beautiful the weather was today. I walked out of my office this morning and was pleasantly surprised to feel the warmth of the sun on my back. The usual chill in the air was virtually non-existent and the birds were happily singing away. This weather completely defies my reasoning behind the perfect timing of this post.
A piping hot, hearty cottage pie is perfect food for bitterly cold, rainy, windy days. The kind of weather where the wind and rain are so extreme you MUST wear a coat with a hood because there is no hope of getting an umbrella to stay up. It’s the hood or get soaked. I usually get soaked (note to self: buy a coat with a hood). Yup, that pretty much sums up the last 6 weeks. That’s why I pulled out the old cottage pie recipe, a classic in these parts for very good reason. I even made a portion of this recipe in my cute little soup terrines for added cheerfulness.
But we can be honest here. This is northern England. It’s February. There’s no way I’m feeling that warm sun on my back again until at least the end of May. I think it’s safe to keep the recipe out for another couple of months.
I’m a little ashamed to say this, but I’ve lived in the UK for nearly 7 years now and last November was the first time I ever cooked a Cottage Pie at home. Now I don’t do bland food. I don’t care if it’s just minced beef and potatoes, it’s going to be lick-your-bowl clean minced beef and potatoes. However, I decided to do the smart thing and seek initial inspiration from the authority that is Delia Smith, the mother of British cooking. I am particularly fond of her Shepherd’s Pie with Cheese-Crusted Leeks, which you can view here.
I realize that what I’m next going to say may be considered by many to be a controversial statement: My adaptation of her Shepherd’s Pie tastes better than the original. I have testimonials from multiple witnesses that this is true. I understand this may be hard to fathom, but you’ll just have to make my version and see what you think.
She starts her recipe with a base of onion, carrot and swede. Excellent. I fully support that. I’d highly recommend chopping the veg in a food processor to save time. Plan on the chopping taking about 15 minutes if done by hand. The sauce has a better consistency if the veg is very finely chopped.
The vegetables and beef are cooked first, then the seasonings are added (salt, pepper, cinnamon, thyme, parsley, tomato purée). One of the reasons I really like Delia’s recipe is her addition of cinnamon. The cinnamon adds something special, but it’s hard to guess what it is if you don’t know it’s there. Sadly, she doesn’t call for enough it. Or for enough thyme and parsley. I’ve fixed that though, don’t worry.
My own addition is plenty of Worcestershire Sauce. This is another seasoning that goes extremely well with beef and I can’t imagine ever making a Cottage Pie without it. It adds a hint of both sweetness and acidity that gives the sauce a greater depth of flavor.
The last step is to add flour (to thicken) and stir in the beef stock. The sauce is left to simmer until it is nicely thickened and the flavors are well married. I should also mention I don’t add as much liquid as Delia suggests. I found the sauce to be too soupy and I’d rather not wait two hours for the excess liquid to reduce.
On to the potato topping. Now, it takes a similar amount of time to simmer the sauce as it does to boil and mash the potatoes. I’ve found it’s more efficient to get all the chopping done for the sauce at the start and then peel and chop the potatoes while cooking the sauce. Please use this advice if you’re into the whole efficiency thing. Otherwise, ignore said advice.
Moving on, I add both sour cream and butter to the mashed potatoes. Delia strongly suggests that butter should be the only addition, but I find the consistency to be too heavy this way. The sour cream lightens the texture without making the topping too runny. I also add leeks, but I sweat them down in a little butter first and add them directly to the potatoes. Although it’s an extra step, it’s worth it. I’m not a fan of crusty leeks. The texture and taste of the mashed potatoes is so much better this way.
Tip: Make vertical incisions in the leek, then rinse upside down under cold water. This also makes chopping a breeze.
Once the sauce and potatoes are done, fill your baking dish (or dishes) about 2/3 full with sauce, top with mashed potatoes and sprinkle over plenty of strong cheddar.
They take about 25 – 30 minutes to bake in a hot oven (400 F/200 C) until the sauce is bubbly and the topping is golden. All it needs is a bit of salad, but I could honestly eat this on its own and be perfectly satisfied.
Note #1: Extremely freezer and child friendly.
Note #2: The recipe below can easily be halved. I prefer to make a big batch and freeze the extra portions as I find this recipe can be a bit labor-intensive to prepare. If you choose to freeze a part of the recipe, skip the baking step. Assemble the dish, sprinkle with cheese, let cool completely, then wrap well and freeze. I defrost my cottage pie overnight in the fridge and then add about 10 – 15 minutes to the bake time in the recipe.
- Olive oil: 3 tablespoons
- Onions, finely chopped: 4 large (750g, 1½ lbs)
- Carrot, finely chopped: (2 small, 250g, ½ lb)
- Swede, finely chopped: (1/4 large, 250g/1/2 lb)
- Minced beef: 1,200 grams (1.2kg/ 2 lbs, 10 oz.)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Ground cinnamon: 2½ teaspoons
- Fresh thyme: 4 teaspoons
- Fresh Italian, flat leaf parsley: 4 tablespoons, ¼ cup
- Worcestershire sauce: 3 tablespoons
- Tomato puree (paste): 4 tablespoons, ¼ cup
- Plain, all-purpose flour: 3½ tablespoons
- Beef stock: 700 ml (3 cups)
- King Edward, Desiree or Yukon Gold Potatoes: 1,700g (3 lbs, 9 oz)
- Unsalted butter: 150g (5 oz, 1 stick + 3 tablespoons)
- Leek, finely chopped: 1 large
- Sour cream: 150 ml (2/3 cup)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Strong cheddar, grated: 150g (2/3 cup)
- Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a deep casserole dish or large dutch oven. Add the onions and cook for 8 – 10 minutes until soft and transparent, but not browned. Add the carrots and swede and cook for another 8 – 10 minutes until softened. Remove the vegetables from the pan and set aside.
- Turn the heat up to high and cook the minced beef in batches until browned. I use two forks to separate the meat. Add plenty of salt and pepper, along with the vegetables you cooked earlier and all of the other seasonings: cinnamon, thyme, parsley, Worcestershire sauce and tomato puree.
- Sprinkle in the flour. This will help thicken the sauce as it cooks. Slowly pour in the beef stock and mix well until combined. Turn the heat down to medium low, cover and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and continue to cook for 15 – 20 minutes until the sauce is nicely thickened and the consistency you prefer.
- Preheat the oven to 200 C/400 F and start preparing the potatoes. Peel and chop them into even pieces and place them in large saucepan filled with cold water. Bring the potatoes to the boil, sprinkle with salt and cook for 20 – 25 minutes until fork tender.
- Meanwhile, prepare the leeks while the sauce and potatoes cook. Cut away the dark green top and make vertical incisions in the leek. Rinse thoroughly with water to remove any dirt then pat dry and chop finely. Heat a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat and melt a tablespoon of butter. Add the leeks to the pan and cook for about 5 minutes until softened.
- When the potatoes are tender, drain away the water and allow them to sit under a clean cloth for about 5 minutes. This will remove excess moisture. Add the butter, sour cream, salt and pepper and mash to a very smooth consistency, then stir in the cooked leeks. I use my kitchen aid stand mixer with the paddle attachment, but you can definitely use a handheld mixer.
- Taste the finished beef filling and mashed potato topping and add more seasoning if needed.
- Fill your baking dishes ⅔ full with the meat filling then top evenly with the mashed potatoes. Top with the grated cheddar and bake for 25 – 30 minutes until the sauce is bubbly and the top is golden brown.