As anyone who's seen "Sweeney Todd" knows, British cooks will put almost anything into a pie. So it's not surprising that when Colonists from the Old Country arrived on Long Island shores in the 1600s, they began incorporating clams. While other food was scarce, these tasty and nutritious bivalves were available to anyone with a rake and a bucket. Over centuries, clam pie has persisted as an East End tradition. Clam pies are sold at several seafood shops out east. Various fairs and festivals feature clam pie contests, attracting local bakers in possession of heirloom recipes.
I'm always eager to honor my baking forbears. But I can't say that the clam pies I've tasted since moving to Sag Harbor 20 years ago have made me eager to bake one myself. There are a couple of problems, in my opinion. One is the baking time. After a pie shell filled with a mixture of clams, potatoes, and cooking liquid sits in the oven for 40 or 50 minutes, the flavors of the filling ingredients become muddled. The clams overcook. The potatoes fall apart. In addition, it is difficult to crisp up the bottom crust when it is in constant contact with a large quantity of what is essentially clam chowder.
To wind up with a palatable filling and a crisp crust, I rethought the recipe, turning for inspiration to a beloved method for making chicken potpie. First, I cut out circles of store-bought puff pastry, using my ovenproof soup crocks as a guide. I brushed the rounds with a little egg to give them a nice sheen, and cut vents, not so much to release steam but because vents would look nice. Then I baked these circles on a parchment-lined baking sheet until they were puffed and golden.
Turning to the filling, I made a quick, thick chowder on top of the stove. Fresh clams, shucked by my local fishmonger so I didn't have to bother, were delicious. And at only $8 a pound, they were a seafood bargain. I threw in some local corn, which added sweetness. Red potatoes, cut into tiny cubes, became tender in minutes. I was careful not to overcook any of these ingredients. I wanted the clams to remain yielding, the potatoes to hold their shape, and the corn to be appealingly firm. A little flour thickened a broth made with bottled clam juice and heavy cream.
I ladled the filling into the soup crocks, topped each crock with a puff pastry round, and baked the potpies briefly. Five minutes was long enough to moisten the undersides of the pastry rounds and get the filling to bubble, but not so long that the pastry would lose its crunch and the filling would lose its bright, fresh taste.
CLAM AND CORN CHOWDER POTPIES
1 (14-ounce) sheet all-butter puff pastry
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 (8-ounce) bottles clam juice
1 pint fresh shucked clams, chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon butter
1 large shallot, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/3 cup dry white wine
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 medium red potato, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 1/2 cups fresh corn kernels
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut 4 circles from the puff pastry, using a 1 1/4-cup crock or ramekin as a guide. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush with egg. Cut 4 (1-inch) vents in each round. Bake until golden, about 15 minutes. Cool on sheet.
2. Bring clam juice to a boil in a small pot. Turn heat down to a bare simmer, stir in clams, and cook, stirring, until clams are just opaque, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain clams in a strainer with a bowl underneath to catch the liquid. Set clams and liquid aside.
3. Whisk together cream and flour in small bowl.
4. Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook until translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. Add garlic and cook another minute. Add wine and cook until liquid evaporates, about 3 minutes. Add strained clam juice and thyme and bring to a simmer. Add potato and cook uncovered until tender, about 6 minutes.
5. Add the cream mixture. Cook, stirring, until sauce thickens and boils, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat. Stir in the corn and clams.
6. Place 4 (1 1/4-cup) soup crocks on a rimmed baking sheet. Divide hot filling among dishes. Top each with pastry round. Bake until filling bubbles, about 5 minutes. Makes 4 potpies.