Give 'em a hand

Pocket-sized comfort foods
By BRIAN DUFF  |  April 10, 2014

 food_handpies1_main

A mouthwatering selection from Little Bigs.

Last month a young New Hampshire man made love to a ham and cheese Hot Pocket; the resulting video is what led the mobile app Vine to change its policy on adult content. The incident calls to mind another anecdote, this one at a Midwestern Wendy’s, where the poet Joe Wenderoth “saw a guy with three Biggies at once.” Wenderoth reflected that, “one wonders not about him but about what it is that holds us back.”

Here in Maine we are no less avid about a savory hand pie than our New Hampshire neighbors. But we choose to appreciate them the old fashioned way, thanks to a group of local bakers whose pastry expertise result in hand pies worth eating — with pleasure and with gusto.
It is not hard to understand the appeal of a savory hand pie. Just about every culture has its own version — portable, but including many of the best qualities of food at home: warm, buttery, comforting — from the empanada to the pasty to the samosa. Given the global hand pie diversity, there is no sense arguing right and wrong methods, ingredients, thickness of crust, styles of crimping. What matters is the overall effect, and in this sense local bakers offer an interesting variety. 

On any given day the greatest variety is available at Little Bigs Bakery, on a busy corner of Route 1 in South Portland (207.747.4233; facebook.com/littlebigs). Each hand pie at Little Bigs has a different mien — in terms of shape, chubbiness, color of crust, and crimping pattern — and they look fantastic on a big rack that sits near the entrance. A chalkboard gives the details on at least eight options. 

Their pork pie looks like a mini version of a grown up meat pie — round, with a top crust decorated with a pig made from dough. Generous pieces of untrimmed pork, fat and rich, soak up a subtle Dijon sauce. The flavor of the sauce manages to infuse the crust without making it soggy, and caramelized onion adds a touch of sweetness. Their classic chicken pot pie has a crust so flaky, delicate, and buttery that I needed a fork to eat it. Another with spinach, artichoke, and carrot had a thicker crust in a triangle shape. The hand pie didn’t get too dense or heavy, despite a tangy goat cheese mixing with the spinach.

Little Bigs also has the greatest variety in terms of international approach. Their Thai chicken had a musky red curry sauce, with the right just-thick consistency for this style of eating. We wished the bamboo shoots had added more crunch. The Indian samosa was fantastic; in fact, it is better than the typical samosa in many ways — nicely spiced, baked instead of fried, with bigger pieces of cauliflower and fresher spinach.

At Maine Pie Line (207.249.5121; mainepieline.com) four varieties of hand pies all looked alike — darkly gorgeous half-moons — and had the same fantastic flaky, buttery, and just salty crust. We especially liked their vegetarian versions, like one with corn, tomato, and feta, plus fresh basil and a touch of heat. Another with squash and white bean was thoughtfully spiced, and satisfying without heaviness. In another, earthy dark mushrooms and tart goat cheese balanced the sweetness of cranberries and caramelized onion.

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