Clam Forcemeat Pie

Although the entire eastern seaboard abounded in clams with thick hard shells and clams with thin “soft” shells, English colonists did not hold them in high repute. The word “clam,” in fact, related to “clamp” and “cramp,” was an Anglo-Saxon generic term for all kinds of bivalves, and bivalves even in neolithic Britain were a main source of food only for “very poor and backward groups of people,” Anne Wilson tells us in Food and Drink in Britain (1973). When John Josselyn tried to describe the most common of bivalves in his New England Rarities (1672), he named the “Clam, or Cramp, a kind of Shell Fish, a white Muscle.”

Pilgrims picked up the word “quahog,” which suggests a hoggish-sized clam, from the Narraganset poquauhock. Middle-sized clams eventually were named “cherrystones” after Cherrystone Creek, Virginia. And the smallest-sized clams became “littlenecks” not for their littleness but their location in Littleneck Bay, one in Long Island and another in Ipswich, Massachusetts.

Recipes for clams seldom appeared in English cook books because of their low status, but Hannah Glasse did furnish a recipe for Muscle Pie, which became the standard for New England bivalve pies to come. New England favored oysters for its pies and left clams to chowders and broths, pancakes, and fritters. Lydia Child, for example, tells us how to make a clam soup by steaming clams in their own juice. Mrs. A. L. Webster tells us how to roast clams in a skillet over the coals. Indian methods of roasting shells in their campfires or steaming them in earth pits would have seemed to the new settlers a reversion to the barbarisms of their own Celtic tribes. As soon as they could, they substituted pots and pies.

One of the most delectable bivalve pies I’ve come across is an egg and oyster pie in an eighteenth-century manuscript receipt book in Salem, Massachusetts (quoted by Kathleen Smallzried in The Everlasting Pleasure [1956]). This Salem pie, misleadingly called “a fine Potatoe Pye,” is a countrified version of Hannah Glasse’s Lobster Pie, in which she pounds lobster meat and roe to make a forcemeat thickened by egg yolks and bread crumbs. Fannie Farmer continues this forcemeat tradition by chopping oysters or clams to be shaped and cooked as quenelles. For a clam pie, I have found that a layer of clam forcemeat inside a pie crust does wonders in preventing the crust from turning soggy with a clam filling. If you are dealing with large clams, or qua-hogs, a forcemeat is a good way to tenderize those tough clam “feet.” Don’t take alarm at the large quantity of egg yolks—fourteen! The eggs are as important here as the clams.

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Ingredients

  • pie dough for a 2-crust 9-inch pie
  • 2 quarts, or 48, hard-shelled clams (to yield 2 cups meat)

Forcemeat

  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 6 hard-cooked egg yolks, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon minced parsley
  • ½ teaspoon thyme
  • teaspoon nutmeg
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 6 hard-cooked egg yolks, plus 2 raw yolks, beaten
  • ½ cup grated raw potato
  • ¼ cup minced onion
  • ¼ teaspoon mace
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • ½ cup clam broth
  • 1 tablespoon vermouth
  • 6 tablespoons butter, melted

Method

Roll out two-thirds of the pastry to line the pie plate and remaining third to make a top crust. Chill for 30 minutes. Steam open the clams in a covered pan with a little water and strain the broth carefully to remove any sand. If the clams are large, remove and discard the black skins, then cut off and mince the hard feet (for the forcemeat). Reserve the whole soft bodies. If the clams are small, mince half of them for the forcemeat and leave the rest whole.

Add the minced clams to the onion, chopped egg yolks, and seasonings and line the bottom and sides of the pie crust with this forcemeat.

Layer the remaining clams and 6 hard-cooked yolks on top of the forcemeat, then add potato, onion, and seasonings. Mix the broth, vermouth, and butter, beat in the 2 raw yolks, and pour the mixture over the clams and potatoes. Quickly cover with the top pie crust, sealing the edges and cutting a vent in the top. Bake at 325° for about 1 hour.