The appeal of a single-serving potpie plucked from the supermarket freezer case is not lost on Julia Sullivan, the sous chef at the rollicking Pinewood Social in Nashville. Her mother used to feed the kids a steady diet of suppers built on easy-fix foods like frozen potpies. “My mother was a very post–World War II Southern kind of economical cook,” she says.
Even after Sullivan left her Nashville home for the New York kitchens of Manhattan’s Per Se, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, and the Southern Italian gem Franny’s in Brooklyn, the childhood joy of one’s own personal potpie was hard to shake. One day, when she was using veal trimmings to make a creamy stew called veal blanquette for the staff meal at Per Se, it occurred to her that the dish could make a great potpie. Further inspiration for the versatility of the form came from a chestnut-filled number that had a star turn on the menu. “The creaminess of the filling and the pastry is just such a perfect combination,” she says.
When Sullivan headed back to Nashville last fall to help shape the menu at Pinewood Social, she turned once again to the potpie, this time configuring a seasonal main dish that could accommodate the earthy flavors of the bounty of mushrooms that grow wild this time of year in the Tennessee woods, as well as a bagful of creminis from the supermarket. She mixed in root vegetables, herbs, and a splash of sherry vinegar for a hearty filling, topping it off with rounds of flaky, puffy crust to create an impressive fall dish that’s every bit as rich and satisfying as its meat-based forebears.
Her pro tips? Chill the pastry rounds so they are stiff when you press them onto the rim of the individual oven-safe bowls. “Use the warmth of your hand to work the pastry around and make sure it adheres,” she says. The filling should be at room temperature before the lid is added so the pastry won’t begin to steam into a soggy mess before you even get the pies into the oven. And the dough should never touch the filling, so it bakes up light and slightly crisp.
The filling can also be scaled up to anchor one large casserole-size potpie, as Sullivan did for a recent Thanksgiving with her extended family. It was a poetic return to her childhood suppers. “You never really get those flavors out of your head,” she says.