My grandmother, unlike many others, was not a great cook.
Hailing from Dutch stock who settled in northern New Jersey around the turn of the twentieth century, she had a limited repertoire of dishes, most of them involving overcooked meat and soggy vegetables.
But for Christmas breakfast, I do fondly recall her serving something that sounded like “sissisan.” This was basically hamburger meat wrapped in pie crust, at least the way she made it. It was not until a few years ago while visiting a friend who also has some Dutch heritage that I realized this was not something my grandmother had invented. My friend served some meat-filled pastries for a snack that she said were called saucijzenbroodjes. Her version was somewhat more elegant than my grandmother’s, made with puff pastry instead of pie crust and with more spices—but the Dutch linguistic and foodways connection was clear.
Fast forward to our move to Vermont when I was ten years old. My mother (who is a much better cook) was inspired by a French Canadian coworker to make tourtière, another take on meat in crust. Although she claims there was no connection between the two—sissisan and tourtiere—and Christmas breakfast, when we started a tradition of serving the meat pie, the two are inextricably tied together in my holiday memories.
I would like to say that the tourtière recipe we make today for Christmas breakfast has some folk roots, but my mother claims she got it from a women’s magazine. Still, I believe there is some sort of cosmic link between the two dishes, and the savory smell of rich meat and crust baking in the oven signals Christmas morning to me.
This year I am going to try making saucijzenbroojes in an attempt to get back to my Dutch roots, but replacing tourtière has already been nixed by my sister. She thinks we should make both and have a taste test. Which version of meat in crust will win the Christmas morning prize? Perhaps a new tradition of serving both?
Tourtière Meat Pie
Makes two pies
2 lbs each of lean ground pork and beef
2 large onions, chopped
1 clove garlic (add more if you like garlic)
2 1/2 tsp poultry seasoning
1 tsp celery salt
1 1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp sage
1 cup water
3 medium to large potatoes, cooked and mashed
2 packages prepared pie crust (or make your own)
1 egg, beaten, for brushing on top of crust
1. Brown pork, beef, onion and garlic in a large skillet. Stir in spices and water, cover the skillet and simmer mixture for 20 minutes.
2. Uncover and simmer for another 10 minutes, or until most of the liquid is absorbed into the mixture. Remove from heat and stir in mashed potatoes. Cool mixture to room temperature.
3. Line two large pie plates with pastry, leaving extra crust to hang over the sides of the plates. Spoon cooled meat and potato mixture into each crust and add top crusts. Crimp edges, folding over extra crust, and make some slits in the top (in a decorative design if you like). Brush top crusts with a beaten egg.
4. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. Lower oven temperature to 350 and bake 25 minutes more or until nicely browned. Serve hot with relish or ketchup. (Freezes well if you want to save the second pie for another occasion.)
Betty Belanus is a curator and education specialist at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She enjoys cooking for the holidays and hopes if she has grandchildren, they will remember her cooking fondly.