I think that the key with a traditional cottage pie is to build up layers of flavour: when Bruce Springsteen was recording Born To Run he asked Phil Spector how he achieved his ‘Wall of Sound’. He was told it was just layer upon layer of music, and a good cottage pie is the same: you build layer upon layer of flavour into the gravy until it reaches an unctuous, gooey, meaty perfection. The buttery-smooth mashed potato on the top is just there to soak it all up…
This recipe serves four to six people, but leftovers can be frozen if that's too much for you.
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To make the filling
To make, cook the carrots in salted boiling water for five minutes. Drain, reserving the water for the gravy, and set aside.
Cook the onion on a low heat with a glug of olive oil until soft and colourless. Add the garlic and cook for a further couple of minutes taking care to avoid burning it, which will give a bitter taste.
Add the mince and cook until brown. If it produces a lot of fat then drain some off.
Add the rest of the ingredients, including the carrots, and stir well. Add as much of the carrot water as necessary until you have a rich, thick gravy. Simmer gently for ten minutes before placing in the bottom of an ovenproof dish.
To make the mashed potato topping
Peel the potatoes. Cut into thick, even slices. Slicing the potato instead of cutting it into chunks makes the pieces more uniform in thickness, helping them cook more evenly.
Cook in a large saucepan of boiling, salted water until soft.
Drain and leave to dry in the colander for a couple of minutes.
Mash or pass through a potato ricer and add the butter. Beat with a wooden spoon until well-mixed and season to taste.
Smooth over the cooked mince mixture and fluff up the top with a fork to make sure you get the lovely crispy bits that are so important to the texture of the dish.
Place in a pre-heated oven for 20 minutes until golden and bubbling. Serve with peas.
Posh cottage pie
If you’re cooking to impress you can use beef stock instead of water and omit the gravy granules, thickening the gravy with a tablespoon of cornflour dissolved in a small amount of water instead.
You can also substitute half (or more) of the minced beef for the same weight of finely diced stewing steak, cooking the final meaty mix in the oven for a couple of hours until it is meltingly tender. Top with mashed potato as usual and sprinkle with 100g of grated cheddar cheese before finishing in a hot oven for 20 minutes.
Of course, you can substitute lamb mince for the beef, turning it into a shepherd’s pie.
You can use finely diced beef from the Sunday roast instead of the mince. In either case, leftovers will freeze very well.
Visit our beef section for more recipes