Lancashire Hotpot: the first casserole?

lancashire hotpot

You know how your mind latches onto things and you don't always understand why? That's how I have been feeling about historic food for a real long time now. While I've known for decades that I am deeply, weirdly obsessed by Mid-century American cooking, coming clean to myself about my interest in what seems like mostly British historic foodways has been a slower burn. The first indications were easily mistaken for the already well established love of all things Middle Earth sci-fi/fantasy, and British period dramas. I guess after I became a for real food stylist, stopping the TV to rewind and re-watch the food scenes in virtually any film/TV show was the first real hint that I was onto something new. Then I noticed I was maintaining a ton of open tabs in my browser window about historic food. I think the breaking point was when I discovered The Inn at the Crossroads, the crowd sourced Game of Thrones food recreation recipe blog. That, and that one day when I obsessively researched the food of Poldark. It was probably then that I finally had to admit to myself that this particular period and point of origin was actually a depth I needed to plumb some more. Then came the book I bought with that Amazon gift certificate my brother gave me - I mean it's expensive, and in French. And then finally, the all-historic-food-pinterest-boards-lead-to-Ivan-Day's blog thing I bumped into. That's when I actually created my own pinterest board dedicated to historic British foodways. 

So, one day, when I was digging around the interwebs about posset, I discovered the Guardian British food and drink column that featured, yes, posset, but also this thing called Lancashire hotpot, and I knew immediately that I wanted to make it. What is Lancashire hotpot, you ask? It's pretty much a casserole. It's meat, potatoes, onions, and stock layered in a deep sided dish, and cooked slowly with the top layer of potatoes buttered and placed just out of reach of the stock. Apparently, long ago, in the Lakes District of England, when industrialization came to Lancashire, the way that local people made dinner while they worked was to make a hotpot and drop it at the communal bread oven to smolder slowly in the collected heat of the brick oven all day. When work was through, you just pick up your hotpot, and dinner is ready.

I kept asking myself if something so simple would taste good, and HOLY MOLY it does. It's savory, and has a brilliant combination of textures. The potatoes at the bottom about disintegrate, the lamb is cooked to just done, the onions become soft and pliable, and the top layer of potatoes have crunch and resistance. In short, it's amazing. If you like stews, you'll like this. About the only caveat I have for you, is that the broth is not spoon stand up thick, because it has very little flour in it. Because Hubs is currently working on a TV pilot, polishing off the hotpot was up to me. I ate it for lunch every single day for a week, sometimes going back for seconds, and I looked forward to that lunch with relish the entire week. Take my word for it, you'll love this. You'll see the light about half way through the cook time when your house starts to smell totally out of this world. 


lancashire hotpot

LANCASHIRE HOTPOT

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 medium sized yellow onions, thinly sliced
  • 2-3 medium-large Russet potatoes, thinly sliced
  • 2 pound leg of lamb: 1 pound cubed & 1 pound in 4-5 small cutlets
  • 2 TBS - 1/4 cup of flour, give or take
  • lamb stock, about .5-.75 quarts
  • melted butter for brushing
  • fresh thyme leaves plucked from 3-5 sprigs
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt & pepper for seasoning
  • pinch of sugar for seasoning

DIRECTIONS

preheat oven to 340 degrees
  1. Butter your dish well. Use a deep sided casserole dish or dutch oven. 
  2. Lay down the potato base. Layer the bottom of the pot with approximately 1/3 of your potatoes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and one third of your thyme leaves.
  3. Flour the lamb. Toss the cubed lamb and the cutlets in the flour, and add a pinch of sugar. Use as much or as little of the flour as you as you like - it's just there to thicken the stock into a kind of light gravy. See #2 in TIPS! below regarding the chops & cubed lamb.
  4. Season & arrange the lamb. Place the cubed lamb over the potatoes in the pot. Lay the 4-5 cutlets on top of the cubed pieces. Fill in any spots between the cutlets with some of the cubes (see photo). Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and thyme leaves. Place a bay leaf on top.
  5. Add the onions. Place thinly sliced onions on top of the lamb. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and the last of your thyme leaves.
  6. Top it all off. Arrange the rest of your potatoes like overlapping fish scales. You'll probably have about 3 layers of potatoes. Brush the top of the potatoes with butter, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. 
  7. Pour on the stock. Gently raise up some of the potatoes and pour the stock in (see photos). You want to go just up to the potatoes, but not higher.  
  8. Bake covered for 2 hours. Then uncover and bake for another thirty minutes, or until well browned.
Adapted from a recipe by Felicity Cloake for The Guardian 

TIPS!

  1. Ingredient measurements like "medium" are imprecise, so don't worry if you have extra potatoes and/or onions. Just pop them in the fridge and use them for omelettes later in the week. The alternative - not enough potatoes/onions, is no bueno, so err on the side of generous, and don't worry about leftovers.
  2. The original recipe calls for cuts of lamb I wasn't able to find at my local store, and mutton, which is near impossible to find in America. Instead, I used a 2 pound leg of lamb. I sliced the leg into pieces about 3/4" thick. Most of these I then cubed. Due to the fat pattern in the lamb, it will be easy to pull small chops out of some of the slices, and cube the rest of that slice. The end slices are basically small chops in and of themselves. For me, I created 5 chops, and these made up the top layer of lamb in my hotpot. If you wind up with 4 or 6, or just want to cube all the lamb, that's fine.
  3. The first time I made this I used only about 1.5 TBS of flour. It was delicious and didn't matter, but it didn't really thicken my stock into gravy. If you want to be cautious, use less flour. If you want to ensure a thicker gravy, be more generous. The only real way to be certain you'll have really thick gravy is to make it first and add it, and that seems ridiculous and unnecessary to me. 
  4. If your top layer of potatoes is submerged in stock, they wont crisp. If, after cooking, you find you are suffering from this tragedy, simply ladle out some stock and set aside for later when you eat it - you'll want to eat it trust me. The process of ladling out stock will depress your top potatoes into the stock, so take a butter knife and pry them back up out of the liquid. 
  5. As long as your potatoes get crisp, don't worry about the overall liquid look of this dish. You'll be glad you have all that broth, because it is the tastiest part of the dish. On the topic of crispness, the potatoes up top only crisp partially. The part of the potato that is under another potato will not fully crisp. Maybe a better way of describing the potatoes is dried down a bit, and crisp in some parts. See the pics, and you'll have a clearer picture of what is supposed to happen. I put in pics that show the hotpot in three stages of cooking.
  6. Don't worry. When I was cooking mine, I texted my brother a bunch of times worrying that I wasn't doing it right because so little had gone into making the Lancashire hotpot. He comforted me by reminding me that any iteration of lamb and potato pie was going to be good. He was right. You'll know how right when your house starts to smell real good.
  7. To reheat, just pop the whole thing back in the oven for 20-30 minutes at about 250 degrees. 
lancashire hotpot

Emily MarshallComment