Conventional wisdom dates the origin of steak and kidney pudding or pie only to the middle of the nineteenth century. The despised Mrs. Beeton appears to have published the first recipe during 1859 in The Book of Household Management. Jane Grigson notes in her Fish Book (London 1993) that:
“Oysters or mushrooms were the extra flavouring ingredient. In those days, oysters were the cheaper of the two as mushroom cultivation in Europe was a spasmodic and ill-understood business….” ( Fish 258)
We are not necessarily convinced, however, that the dish is of so recent a vintage. A cookbook published by Fraunces Tavern some years ago, for example, claims without citation that George Washington ate steak and kidney pie there; admittedly not a convincing source, but kitchen practice, particularly outside the grand house, has frequently predated publication as so many culinary scholars from Elizabeth David down to Gilly Lehmann have pointed out.
This is not the place for that debate but an excellent eighteenth-century recipe offers a tantalizing hint that kidneys may have been commoner in pies than we might otherwise think. It is essentially a steak and kidney pie with marrow instead of meat and appears in Elizabeth Moxon’s English Houswifry from 1764, the year that Brown University was founded across the sea. The original recipe makes one pie “that is Proper for a side dish, either for noon or night.” We like to make individual pies in ramekins as a main course for dinner. Four servings or individual pies.
-a veal kidney, trimmed, cored and sliced into coins about ¼ inch thick
-flour for dredging generously seasoned with salt and pepper
-about a Tablespoon unsalted butter
-about 1 pint shucked oysters and their liquor
-3 minced scallions
-about 2 teaspoons Worcestershire
-about 2 Tablespoons white wine
-about 2 Tablespoons beef marrow (preferred) or unsalted butter
-puff pastry (thawed from storebought frozen is fine)
Preheat the oven to 425°.
- Lightly dredge the sliced kidney in the flour.
- Heat the butter until foaming over high heat and sear the kidney quickly: Fry them in batches if necessary to avoid crowding; you may need a supplemental pat of butter.
- Line the bottom of each ramekin (or a pie plate) with the kidney, top it with the oysters and season them with a little salt, pepper and cayenne.
- Scatter the scallion over the oysters.
- Mix together the oyster liquor, Worcestershire and wine, then apportion a dose to each pie.
- Daub the filling of each pie (or the pie) with the marrow or butter.
- Top each (or the ) pie with a disc of puff pastry that extends roughly 3/8 of an inch beyond the rim and crimp it vertically with your thumb and forefinger.
- Vent the pie(s) and decorate the pastry with its scraps.
- Bake until the crust turns golden, usually in 20-25 minutes.
- If you would like to make four individual pies you will need 4 ½ inch diameter ramekins (Number 3 French) or the equivalent.
- This preparation may sound strange to a twenty-first century sensibility but the ingredients marry extremely well. Try it: Easy to make too, and hard to destroy.
- Bone marrow appears in a lot of the old recipes and adds an agreeable richness and texture that nothing else provides. Do not be squeamish; try it.
- The original recipe puts the kidney into the pie raw; that way you would either get ultrarare kidney or a burnt crust. It also omits the flour, which we have added to thicken the sauce. No cayenne, scallions or Worcesteershire in the eighteenth century pie either.
- You could replace the Worcestershire with a little anchovy essence for an authentic change of pace.