Cottage pie controversy – Call in the engineers!

Engineered cottage pieMy recent fish pie with waves post has inadvertently reignited an old controversy. Not the lamb v beef cottage / shepherds pie polemic but something I had not foreseen. It started pretty innocuously. At work, Matt started out being quite complementary about my wavy topped fish pie. This led to a discussion about the right toppings for different pies. The conversation moved around the office but agreement was not reached. I now need to make a stand and draw up the definitive set of rules. 

Fish pie
You can top a fish pie with either puff pastry or potato waves. If you can’t trick somebody into making the potato waves for you, it is acceptable (just) to use potato mountains instead. Ploughed potato fields are totally unacceptable.

Shepherds Pie
Pastry topping will make you a laughing-stock. If you do this, use laughing-stock instead of lamb stock while making the pie. Ploughed fields are the way to go. Potato mountains are just about acceptable if you are using mountain sheep meat in the pie.

Cottage Pie
This one has caused some hullaballoo. Like on the Shepherds pie, pastry is intolerable. There are a couple of schools (kindergarten schools in my opinion) of thought. Many go for the ploughed fields. Others suggest that piped mash can be used. Laughable. Truly laughable. The definitive opinion is that as it is a ‘cottage’ it should have a tiled potato roof.

With the pie rules defined, I am now going to create the world’s first Engineered Cottage Pie. It has to be engineered as well as cooked because the roof has to stay on. I have never seen a flat tiled roof on a cottage. It must have an apex and a sloped roof. As we add elevation, we also add weight. Weight on top of a marshy base. This pie is going to need some serious engineering. Vegetable engineering springs to mind. This could go badly wrong.

Cottage pie

For once, all the ingredients needed for a decent cottage pie.

You will need the following ingredients.

  • 1.5 kilos (3 lb) of minced beef
  • 3 onions
  • 6 to 8 carrots
  • 6 stalks of celery
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • Half a litre (1 pint) of beef stock
  • As many peas as you want in the pie
  • Cornstarch diluted in water to thicken the gravy
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper to season
  • Plenty of potatoes (some big ones please)

Here’s what to do:
We may as well get the first bit of engineering greatness out-of-the-way. Measure your carrots and celery for the task in hand. We need them to support the big potato roof. I admit that I am pretty proud of this. I did not study engineering in college or anywhere else.

Vegetable engineering

Some serious vegetable engineering. Look closely at the tongue and grove work around the top of the carrots.

Chop and sweat the onions and garlic for about 40 minutes over a low heat. Add the chopped carrots and celery at about half way (not the ones you have used for engineering purposes).

Peas, carrots, onion and celery sweated (not the peas) and ready for stage two.

Peas, carrots, onion and celery sweated (not the peas) and ready for stage two.

When the onions, garlic, celery and carrots are sweated, remove them from the heat and throw in the peas. Then brown the beef in batches.

The mince meat in the pan being browned.

The mince meat in the pan being browned.

Add the rest of the ingredients to the meat and cook for a few minutes to bind everything together. Fill around your roof supports. This is beginning to feel a bit extreme, even by my standards.

Engineered cottage pie

The engineered cottage pie starting to take shape.

Now comes the second tricky part. Making the roof tiles. Any engineer will tell you that roof tiles need to be a consistent size. To achieve this, you need to take your bigger potatoes and work out how you are going to get enough square potato tiles of consistent size. I had enough trouble with this to not be in a position to guide you. Suffice to say, at the end, I had a lot of surplus potato pieces to go into the mash pot.

Potato tiles

Potato tiles in the manufacturing process. If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

Boil enough potatoes to make enough mash to make the foundation for your roof. You will need lots. Remember also that weight is our enemy and we are aiming for very light, fluffy mash. We are building over a marsh and not withstanding the serious vegetable engineering, weight will work against us. When the potatoes are mashed and as light as possible, fill the gaps between the rafters.

Engineered cottage pie

The first layer of mash added. The celery supports will take the weight about to be added.

Then make an apex shape out of the remaining mash. smooth it over and tile the roof with potato tiles. At this stage, I was wondering if I had really lost my mind.

Cottage pie roof

Getting a coating of egg to help brown the roof.

I do have a stubborn streak in my nature so I persevered. The pie held up and I popped it in the oven for 50 minutes at 200 degrees celsius. The long baking time influenced by the big potato roof.

Engineered cottage pie

Engineered cottage pie. Now that I have proved it can be done, I might leave the concept alone.

Engineering and culinary success! The pie was pretty good. We enjoyed it and I think I have elevated myself to the status of the world’s definitive reference point on pie topping. Perhaps it was worth the effort after all?

Cottage pie

The engineered cottage pie was just as tasty as previous versions without the big roof. One benefit is plenty of potato. And I mean plenty!

I almost forgot the important bit. Wine paring. An engineered pie needs a powerful wine. Enough said:

Red wine

A robust red from southern France. I thought robust and engineering would go well together.

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Latest comments
  • I couldn’t give a f about the controversy! When do I come for dinner??!

  • First World Problem: What should the roof over my cottage pie look like?
    Third World Problem: Where do I get a roof over my head tonight?

    Just pulling your leg, sure you’re not in the construction industry, Conor?

    Looks delectable and congratulations on a very well build roof!



    • Thanks Willie. I don’t think that my engineering skills will go beyond the kitchen.

  • Stubborn streak? 🙂

    By the way, that’s 2.5kg minced beef – what’s the difference between the two types Connor?

    • Thanks for spotting my deliberate mistake. I have corrected it now. It was a test to see if you were reading all the post…. Honestly, it was.

  • Clever, funny Conor! A beautiful, delicious construction.

    • Thanks Rosemary, I don’t know if it was worth the trouble. That is what I was thinking while I was cutting the potato tiles, for sure.

  • Where is the chimney? 🙂 This looks amazing! How much time did this take to construct?

    • Hi Barb, With a full crew on site without tea breaks, I managed it in an afternoon. A long afternoon. I had planned to put in a celery chimney but abandoned it as things were getting just a bit too complicated for me.

    • Brilliant stuff MD, It puts my meagre efforts to shame. However, we ate mine. I suspect the biscuit city is ‘look, don’t touch’.

  • I am amazed at the effort that has went into this cottage pie.. I just chuck mine in the oven. You are definitely now the world’s reference point for pie toppings now! Not to rock the boat… but surely there has to be scope for a thatched roof among one of these pies?!

    • Don’t start me off. I could just do something with that….

  • Now if it were to be a thatched cottage roof…potato matchsticks? Truly an architectural marvel and loads of fun to read!!! I will be sharing on my Hot, Cheap & Easy Facebook page!

    • Thanks Natalia. I twas a bit of fun to do, if slightly too much work for the end result.

  • LOL That’s pretty cool looking. Not something I would ever have thought to do. 🙂

    • Hi Jessica, I have to admit it did not have a huge influence on the flavour. Though, for the potato lovers amongst us, it meant plenty.

  • Wow! This is impressive. I wonder if this is a subliminal impulse from your brain telling you that you need a career change.

  • Interesting. The pie looks cracking, but I’m now convinced that you’re a little bonkers. Then again, all the best people are… including me 😀 – nice roof.

    • You’re only now figuring out that Conor is a little off? You must be a new reader!

      Love it, Conor!

      • Thanks Flori, I appreciate the vote of confidence!

    • Thanks Nick, The best fun usually comes from the slightly bonkers ideas. I was proud of my roof.

      • Oh good fun, definitely :D. I feel a certain sense of pride to even be affiliated with you 😀

  • mad. totally mad. the first layer of mash would be the lintel, fyi

  • By rights the celery rafters should have collapsed and bought the roof in. Lucky pie man.

    • Not by my internal pie temperature calculations. It’s all in the science. There was no luck involved. Honestly…

  • Looks pretty delicious, tiles, pillows, mountains or whatever ! Love the construction. And yes, you’re completely mad. 🙂

    • Thanks Luffy. I like it when people are straight with me.

  • Did you play with the food on your plate as a child, I wonder? 🙂 Or is this a deep seated desire to be a structural engineer well supressed beneath a layer of mashed potato..

  • Oh! so different and well calculated! you did great and it looks delicious 🙂

    • Thank you. It was tasty despite the engineering focus.

  • You’ve really outdone yourself this time Conor! Tongue and grove work on top of the carrots… It certainly is more true to the name cottage pie than I would have imagined possible! Agree with Barb on the chimney though 😉 Good stuff

    • Thanks Stefan. The remarkable thing is that it worked!

      • It may be my lack of engineering skills, but I wonder whether the roof would work without the construction with the carrots and celery? It would certainly be less fun though…

        • I would have to say that it would fall in without the engineering. I could not face it being that easy…

  • Just like your recipes, your engineering skills blow me away. I’ve never seen a Cottage Pie that actually looks like a cottage! This is one for the books. Well done, Conor!

    • Thanks Tommy. Others are wondering why I did not put a chimney on it. What next if I did? door and windows, no doubt.

      • And then a garden, shed, trees, the little forest bunnies … you’d have yourself an entire Cottage Diorama.

  • I hope you made extra because I’m coming over!! I would feel terrible for destroying the beautiful roof, but I don’t think I’d care since I’m sure the taste would be enough to justify the act.

    • Thanks Casey, you know there is a place at our table any time. Even if you come through the roof to get there.

  • Delicious! But, like Natalia above, I now can’t stop thinking about a thatched roof variation.

    • Now I am thinking. It would need to be a very Irish pie to have a thatch. Hmmm….

  • I didn’t know you did craft! Just didn’t think you were the craft kinda person. Haha…just kidding! Love the roof…totally!

    • The roof was the high point of this, if you will forgive me stating the obvious.

  • Hmmm, I’ll pretend to be a six-year-old at my beloved father’s knee, hearing him say ‘Why waste time doing things complicated when there is a simple way to get there’ . . . . still adjudicate each step in my life that way . . . . oh, loved reading the post . . .

    • I do suffer from complication syndrome. Still, it keeps me out of the pub.

  • You are too much, Conor! I thought you were joking when you showed the cottage’s framework, tongue & groove included. I had a good laugh when I saw that you actually used it and built your cottage’s roof upon it. How very inventive and what a great post! My hat’s off to you!

    • Thanks John, all in the interest of building bridges (pardon the pun) between cooks and engineers.

  • I salute you sir, even if it did reminded me of the mashed potato scene in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’…

    • When you put it that way, I do seem like a nut!

  • Ha! Very clever post and the pie looks delish! What lens do you use on your camera? The photos looks great.

    • I am using a fixed 50mm f1.8 Canon lens on a 5D Mk11 (lucky to have access to camera through the business). The lens only set me back €120 or so. Best camera value ever.

      • Thanks. I’ve read that is a great lens and the price is excellent as well. The photography part of this is not my thing… more about the cooking, so I’m always interested in learning what everyone is using. Great pics!

        • Thank you. I am experimenting with focal length at present. I have been getting some mixed and frustrating results. All part of the learning process.

  • Genius humor. And the pie looks damn tasty.

    • Thanks Wendy, fun or madness drove me to it.

  • You crack me up! And your cottage (pie) looks delicious. Was paring the wine another reading comprehension test? Because I know you didn’t mean cut back on the elixir of life!

    • Well spotted. Damnation! I hate it when I make these errors of English. No paring of the wine. You know what I mean. I’ll fix it when I get to my computer. Too difficult on the phone. I am out and about to pair myself with a nice Chinese meal.

  • Simply awesome. 🙂 I plan on making cottage pie soon and will post but it will definitely look more rustic than this! Yes I’ll use mash but not piped. Serioulsy, piping? I don’t understand the silliness there.

  • Brilliant! Great post and very nice looking dish.

    • Thanks Phil, enjoying reading your blog. Keep at it.

  • Plenty of potato, structural engineering and a bottle of wine to boot! I think you might have just created Ireland’s most infamous pie dish and it looks amazing!

  • Very ingenious, Conor. Well done. You have my vote for the position of “world’s definitive reference point on pie topping”.

  • “A roof by any other name would taste as sweet”.. having come from a line of engineers, I really loved this post today!! *grinning* This reminded me of the old “spaghetti” bridges projects at school.. only much more creative and flavorful. I’m thinking you should enter some sort of contest with this one!! Unbelievably awesome!!

    • Thanks Barbara, high praise from an engineering family!

  • A man of many talents…I’m sure this will lead to much recognition from cottage engineers worldwide. I think I would actually enjoy having two textures of potato on the pie.

  • I was reading anothers blog (Our Growing Paynes) and they said your Cottage Pie was Epic! So I came to check it out and they were right, it is – great post and I love the pie too!

    • Thanks Claire. I appreciate the kind words. The pie was a bit extreme but fun to do.

  • What’s the advantage of a 40 minute sweat? Something to do with shingle adhesion?

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