Solving a dilemma with cheese and onions

Updated: Nov 17, 2021


"Cheese and onion, like Morecambe and Wise or gin and tonic, is one of those combinations that just works. It is far and away the best flavour of crisp (though one to be avoided on a first date), and it is also one of the finest sandwich fillings known to man. But in a pie – well, that’s two Great British traditions rolled into one crumbly pastry case."

Felicity Cloake


So I have this charred tomato salsa leftover from Yotam Ottolenghi's potato salad. What to do with it? I pondered on pasta and then decided on pie - with perhaps some frozen peas and the remaining potatoes. Anyway I went looking for ideas and coincidentally came across cheese and onion pie, - two articles - in the Guardian newsletter. Apparently it's a Northern English traditional dish, which would explain why we never had it at home when I was a child. The north is a foreign country. Anyway I have tomatoes as my starting point, so I'm not really going to be making a cheese and onion pie. But exploring the notion has given me some ideas for how to tackle my own problem. And being tempted by the cheese and onion thing I'm looking at that too.


So back to the cheese and onion pie of the north. Specifically, I gather, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cheshire - which means that the cheese is most commonly Lancashire or Cheshire - though I did see Red Leicester and Stilton suggested too - which means maybe Leicestershire is a sort of honorary Northern county. Is it? It's Midlands really isn't it? But then where does the north begin and the Midlands end. Are they one and the same? To a southerner perhaps. To a northerner probably not. David would probably think that the north begins at Stevenage - a north London outer suburb - just as he thinks that beyond St. Paul's to the east is not really London. Well that's what he used to jokingly tell me many years ago. And where does East Anglia fit in? North, south, midlands? The English are very parochial - a fact that was obvious to my very young son who remarked on his second trip to England at the age of about seven that London was really just a series of villages joined together. Which, of course, it is. I was impressed and have no idea where that idea in his very young head came from.


I'm rambling again. Sorry.


So just to reiterate - northern cheeses.


"cheese and onion pie is generally made with the crumbly lactic cheeses particular to the north-west " Felicity Cloake


And it does seem to be the most common factor, Well some slip in a bit of cheddar - and some of the moderns add a bit of Parmesan. Oh the horror!


As I said at the beginning I had no idea that onion and cheese pie - or indeed cheese and onion pie is a British traditional dish. According to one blog - The Kitchen Sanctuary - it was - is? - a feature of northern chippies - a fish and chip shop to the uninitiated. Along with your fish and chips you could purchase an individual cheese and onion pie like her version shown here.


Honestly though I cannot remember ever eating one, and they certainly were not a feature in our southern fish and chip shops.


Like a lot of English, nay British food, it is pretty plain and simple.


"Cheese and onion pie is just that: cheese and onion – nothing more, nothing less. It is a straightforward, smashing pie, a soft filling encased in short, crumbling pastry, meaning you need to chase the last few crumbs around the plate with a finger tip." Rachel Roddy


Not that there is anything wrong with being plain and simple. Actually the biggest argument is not about the cheese, or even the onions - the argument here being how long to cook them and in what - butter, oil, water or a combination of two or all three? No the biggest argument is about the pastry.


"Frankly, the most important aspect of any pie" Felicity Cloake


Flaky, short-crust, or hot-water crust - and I have to say I think the scales tip in favour of the hot-water crust, even though the Kitchen Sanctuary lady goes for shortcrust, and the Hairy Bikers put eggs in theirs - and bake it blind as well. The recipe that most people seem to think is the best, the most 'authentic' and the tastiest is Simon Hopkinson's and various people have a go at it - with virtually all of them unable to resist tweaking it to make it their own. The first two pictures below are of his original recipe on the BBC site, and Rachel Roddy's version. (She lives in Rome so no Lancashire cheese - she had to substitute a mix of young pecorino and caciocavallo.) And actually the picture at the top of the page is yet another version of the same recipe - he claims it is his mother's.


"I have, in the past, written various recipes fashioned around this delicious pie, but I don’t think I have ever given the original. Here it is, adapted from her old and slightly battered recipe book, handwritten by Mother. This favourite is one among many others, some having been already handed down by her mother. Well, as it always was, in their day." Simon Hopkinson


On the second row below are Felicity Cloake's two versions - the interesting thing is that they are the same recipe but they look different, which just goes to prove that whenever you cook something twice it won't be the same. The Hairy Biker's version, besides the eggs in the pastry has potatoes, cream and cayenne in the filling. Very inauthentic, which is interesting considering one of them is a northerner. And the Americans at Bon Appétit use Blarney(what's that?), Fontina or Swiss cheese as well as half and half which I think is a kind of cream - and oh dear I have just noticed it's a tart not a pie.

Then there are those that seriously meddle by adding things like lettuce or spring onions or feta or spinach. Well this is how you gradually transform from something plainly British to something exotically Middle-Eastern, or at least Greek and by now you might be considering filo pastry too, or making it into a tart. All absolutely delicious so let us not mock. Here are just a few examples: Donna Hay's Caramelised onion, potato and feta tart - the onions are caramelised of course, and yes, it's a tart not a pie. Puff pastry as well. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Lettuce, green onion and cheese pie (also more of a tart than pie), and last but not least a hybrid tart/pie from Not Quite Nigella - Feta and onion pie. Note the red onions. So much more today.

Neither Jamie nor Delia seem to have such a thing as an onion and cheese pie, though Delia has a quiche. Well they are both southerners aren't they?


And where does this leave me with my tomato and potato leftovers? Obviously rather a long way from plain and simple cheese and onion pie - which I vow to make sometime soon. Well all the talk of pies made me yearn for a pie and the onions and cheese just made my mouth water. And, as luck would have it I have leftover feta too which would go rather better with Ottolenghi's tomatoes. Perhaps a bit of frozen spinach added to the mix. And the potatoes. Now what kind of pastry? Shall I venture out with the hot-crust or shall I stick to the tried and true shortcrust? I should be adventurous. After all it's Friday and there is wine. Though hot-crust is not very Middle-eastern is it and my ingredients are. Would hot-crust be an interesting hybrid or disaster?


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