Cheese and onion pies stretch back to at least the days of medieval England. Yet it's no surprise their popularity lingers today. The meatless dishes pack a hearty punch, travel well and boast an unfussy filling. In addition, the pies are adaptable, allowing you to alter cheeses, herbs and other ingredients to take you from merry old England to the Swiss Alps -- or anywhere else where starchy, cheesy dishes are appreciated.
The hallmark of a classic two-crust cheese and onion pie is a deep-dish, short-crust dough that contains at least one fat -- such as butter, lard or shortening -- and white flour. A basic short-crust has twice the flour, by weight, as it does fat. To this are added a beaten egg yolk and a handful of hard cheese. Once you've blended these ingredients until they take on the consistency of coarse crumbs, gradually add cold water until the dough comes together. The ball of dough chills while you prepare the filling.
Finesse the Filling
Brits often include a peeled, cubed potato in their cheese and onion pie filling. You can omit the spud, however, and up your onion count from 2 to 3 medium-size onions. The peeled, chopped onions are sauteed in a skillet, along with the briefly boiled potato chunks. One version of the pie includes dollops of milk and cream, which cook down into the vegetables before the cheese is added. Alternatively, omit these liquids and add a couple of beaten eggs. Once the skillet comes off the heat, season the filling to taste, and blend in 1 to 2 cups of grated Lancashire, Cheshire or cheddar cheese.
To add a medieval touch, bake the cheese and onion pie in a two-piece pan with removable sides, so that you'll be able to show off the pie's crusty sides, along with its top. Failing that, opt for a deep-dish pie plate rather than a standard-size pie pan. After rolling about two-thirds of your chilled short-crust dough out and patting it into the bottom and sides of the tin, poke holes in the bottom of the crust. Some recipes call for baking the crust for about 10 minutes, while others proceed directly to the pie assembly stage.
Once it's cooled slightly, your filling can be ladled into the raw or briefly cooked pie shell. After this, it's time to roll the remaining short-crust dough into a disk slightly larger than your pie tin. After you've eased this top crust over the filling, pinch the top and bottom crusts together. Just before baking, brush on an egg wash and cut a few slits in the top. Finally, bake the cheese and onion pie in a medium oven until the crust turns golden.
If you like your savory pies more tartlike than deep, use a tart tin or shallow pie plate. You may also opt to omit the top crust, so that the pie is somewhat quichelike. Instead of cheddar cheese, consider Saveur magazine's Swiss onion tart, with Gruyère or Swiss cheese, bacon and a dash of nutmeg; or the goat cheese and thyme version from Gourmet magazine, as presented at epicurious.com. Or go Mexican with a pepper-studded cheese and/or queso fresco, along with cilantro and oregano. Whatever cheese you opt for in your filling, make sure to either use a hard one in the crust, or omit it altogether.