Traditional Christmas Tourtière Recipe
Tourtière is a traditional French Canadian meat pie that’s made only at Christmas time, but this tourtière recipe is good enough to enjoy all year long!
According to this article by Food Network Canada, tourtière can be traced back to 17th century Québec. French settlers would attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve and then celebrate afterwards with a late-night feast called a réveillon, which featured a table overflowing with indulgences of all sorts.
One of these indulgences was tourtière, a pie traditionally served in a cast-iron cauldron and stuffed with cubed meats, including wild game like rabbit, pheasant, or moose meat. So it’s sort of a special treat, reserved for a special time of year. In fact, the first time I ever made tourtière was at Christmas time a few years ago, and it was like a three or four-day affair. I’d only recently learned to cook for myself and was enthralled with this idea of cooking from scratch and being able to create something out of nothing with just my own two hands. But I was still learning the basics of cooking and baking, so taking on a traditional homemade meat pie for Christmas was a BIG deal.
I can’t find the specific tourtière recipe I was using anymore, but I remember it felt like it was such an ordeal. I had to make the crust and refrigerate it overnight. Then I had to make the filling and the recipe I was following said it needed to cook it and then chill overnight too. But because I was so preoccupied with getting the crust just right, I didn’t read the directions for the filling until the next day. So I had to wait a whole other day for the filling to be ready. And then there was assembly and bake time…
It was honestly just my inexperience that made it take so long. But nevertheless, it seemed like an awful lot of time and effort for one dish. Especially when I was still pretty used to opening up a freezer meal, tossing it in the microwave for a couple minutes and calling it good. I had to check every ingredient and every step about a million times because I had no idea what I was doing. I think I had made maybe one other pie crust before in my life. So I just remember spending days planning and preparing this pie.
But still, there was a sense of pride that I got from pulling off a homemade pie (of any kind) at that point in my life. To be honest, I STILL get that same sense of pride from the cooking and baking (and growing and creating…) And it made all of the time and effort worth it;)
Luckily as my kitchen skills have improved, cooking and pie-baking has become much easier (and the process now goes a lot quicker too). So this year when I attempted tourtière again, it was actually a pretty simple, straightforward process.
Making the perfect pie crust
The key to a good tourtière (or any pie for that matter) is to start with a good crust. Because it doesn’t matter how good the filing is, if your crust is too tough or too soggy it ruins the whole pie. I always start with this recipe for perfect, flaky pie crust and it never fails me.
I like to use lard in place of butter for this pie because I just love the extra flaky texture it give this crust, but butter works just as well. You can make your crust in advance (either make it the night before you plan on baking and put it in the fridge, or keep in the fridge for up to three days, or you can even make your crust ahead and freeze it for up to three months and put it in the fridge to thaw the night before baking day). OR you can make it the same day and just pop it in the fridge to chill for an hour or so while you make your filling.
Regional filling variations
The basic filling for a classic tourtière consists of a mixture of ground pork, ground beef, potatoes, onions, garlic and spices, namely cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and allspice, as well as salt and pepper of course. (Can you smell Christmas wafting from the oven yet??) This tourtière recipe also calls for dried thyme, sage and ground ginger. I even like to put about ¼ cup of pure maple syrup in with my meat filling, but this is totally optional.
There are, however, many variations of tourtière that exist. Different regions of French Canada (including Québec and the Maritimes) would make their filling based on what was available locally. Some rural regions favoured wild game meat while coastal regions used seafood. Other regions used cubed meat instead of ground. But in Montreal, it was ground pork and ground beef or veal that made a true tourtière.
Of course, since its invention, many chefs and home cooks have put their own spin on this classic dish. Some add vegetables like carrots and celery to their tourtière recipe. Others have even made their pies into spring rolls or phyllo pastries. For the purposes of authenticity, I’ve stuck as close to the traditional tourtière recipe as possible. And because, quite honestly, it’s damn delicious just the way it is.
How to make traditional tourtière
To make your filling, first start by peeling a large potato, then cut it into large chunks and placing it in a pot of boiling water. While it’s boiling, melt a knob of butter in your pan (I love using my cast iron pan for this). Then sauté up your onions and garlic and throw in one pound (or slightly more) each of ground pork and ground beef. Brown your meat for a minute or two and then add in your spice mixture, which consists of the following herbs and spices:
- Two teaspoons salt
- One teaspoon dried thyme
- One teaspoon dried sage
- One teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon ground clove
- ½ teaspoon ground allspice
- ½ teaspoon ground ginger
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Stir in your spice mix well, making sure to coat all of the meat. While you’re cooking your meats, make sure to mix them together well and break them up as best you can. You don’t want lumps and clumps of meat. You want the filling to be almost paste-like if possible.
Once your potato is cooked and soft enough to mash (check with a fork), scoop ½ cup of the potato water out of the pot and add it to the ground meat mixture. The starch from the potato water will help the meat bind together. Strain the rest of the potatoes and mash them in a pot with another teaspoon of salt and set aside. Let the meat filling cook on medium, stirring occasionally for about half an hour or until all of the liquid has evaporated from the pie filling. Then add in the mashed potato and mix everything together really well to combine. Turn off the heat and let your filling cool for about 45 minutes (or place in the fridge and cool overnight).
While the filling is cooling, roll out your pie crust and prepare your bottom crust in a 9-inch pie plate. A 9 or 10-inch cast iron pan is another good option. Spoon the cooled meat filling into your bottom crust. Then roll out your top crust and place on top. Make sure there’s at least one hole in the top of the crust through which steam can escape. I like to cut a small star into the middle of my tourtière with a small star-shaped cookie cutter. Then place in the oven and bake at 375ºF (190ºC) for one hour. Remove from the oven and let cool before serving.
Bringing Christmas to the table, any time of year
This pie is delicious with a little homemade cranberry sauce on the side, or my personal favourite, homemade apple rhubarb chutney. The best part is, even though this is a special dish that’s typically reserved for a special time of year, it really doesn’t take too much time or energy to actually make one of these bad boys from scratch. In fact, I made one on an ordinary Monday. And I made another one on Tuesday to test my recipe (and I’m happy to say it came out excellent both times!), so you don’t have to wait for Christmas to enjoy this tourtière recipe, and you don’t need to spend days making it like I did the first time around;)
I do, however, think there’s something to be said for waiting until after midnight on Christmas Eve to dig in that makes this meat pie all the more special. And that, along with the delicious, spiced meat filling and perfect flaky crust, is what makes this tourtière recipe something to look forward to (and drool over) all year long.
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