"You brought what back with you from the U.P.?"
I replied to my friend’s email: "It’s pronounced with a soft a, as in Patsy. Pasties. I don’t have to drive to Escanaba to buy the twirly sparkly things -- I’ve got a drawerful of them."
The pasty is a true regional specialty, as synonymous with the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as moutarde is in Dijon. It belongs to the baking class of "hand pies," an unappetizing handle that conjures Sweeney Todd, rather than those pasty relatives the empanadas, samosas, saitis and peach turnovers. Like these other handy little pies a pasty is poor folks’ food: hot, filling and amenable to variation.
The Yooper pasty is a direct descendent of the Cornish pasty and comes by its ancestry from the right side of the blanket. In the nineteen century Cornishmen (nicknamed Cousin Jacks) left their cold Celtic tin mines to work in the colder copper mines clustered around the Keweenaw Peninsula of Lake Superior. They brought with them their miner’s lunch: the pasty -- a D-shaped lunch delivery system perfect for the dirt and sweat of the pits. Don’t even consider rolling out your soft and flaky pastry for this recipe: the crust developed in Cornwall was tough enough to drop down a mine shaft without cracking open. In fact, in the Cornish tin mines before the advent of aluminum foil or Monty Python lunchboxes, the miner wouldn’t eat the pastry because it was so dirty -- he ate the filling, peeling off the pastry like the toughest of banana skins. The crust was tossed into the depths to satiate the Knockers -- malevolent spirits who lurked in the shadows and pulled down pilings unless they received their tough dirty dough.
When the copper mines closed, the Cornish left the Upper Peninsula, taking their pasties with them as they migrated through Montana, Wyoming and Arizona to pick up a pick where there was a lode to be mined. Jamie Oliver’s new "America" book includes a recipe from a woman who makes pasties for cowboys. They aren’t Cornish -- or even Yooper -- filled as they are with chicken and squash. They’re mere hand pies.
You think I’m strict? Not as strict as the folks at the Cornish Pasty Association. They’re seeking the equivalent of an Appellation Contrôllée; here are their tough but fair guidelines:
A genuine Cornish pasty has a distinctive ‘D’ shape and is crimped on one side, never on top. The texture of the filling is chunky, made up of uncooked minced or roughly cut chunks of beef (not less than 12.5%), swede or turnip, potato and onion and a light peppery seasoning. The pastry casing is golden in colour, savoury, glazed with milk or egg and robust enough to retain its shape throughout the cooking and cooling process without splitting or cracking. The whole pasty is slow-baked and no flavourings or additives must be used. It must also be made in Cornwall.
I flunk Cornwall, but I’m down with their dictates. The classic Michigan pasty is very, very close, though Yoopers sometimes branch out into flights of ground pork. The Cornish thing gets blurred, because after the copper mines closed in the Upper Peninsula, a huge immigration of Finns adapted to the local cuisine and call the pasty their own. I checked out the menu at the award-winning Dobber's Pasties in Escanaba, (back my day, The Red Onion) and they’re pandering to the Lite and Veggie world with chicken and vegetarian versions. They’re probably pretty good, but a snob like me calls them turnovers.
Pasty Pastry -- the Tough Part
The classic filling requires more or less equal parts of onion, potatoes, turnips or rutabagas (I like the bright orange color and slightly sweeter flavor of the rootytootoots -- their nom de cuisine chez moi,) and beef, all cut into quarter-inch dice. A word about the meat: the pasty is the perfect vehicle for boring lean cuts like round steak -- the small size of the pieces and the steamy interior of the pasty works beautifully to tenderize it. Season with salt and pepper. Done. Restrain your hands from pinching off a little fresh thyme or summer savory, at least at the first time of baking. If you later succumb to a misguided desire for pumped-up flavor, know that purists like me, The Cornish Pasty Association and pasty stand owners from Manistique to Houghton will sneer. Just sayin’.
The drama is in the pastry; I had to unlearn everything I know about the flaky, the tender, the buttery. I tried a vegetable shortening boiling water pastry (good flavor, too crumbly) a half-butter half-shortening pâte brisée (too rich) and a straightforward 1950s shortening piecrust (too flaky, too soft.) I didn’t want toughness that could dive down a mineshaft; nevertheless, sturdiness was in order. Nor had I been impressed with the dough produced by the Michigan pasty patisseries -- it was serviceable and sturdy: a container for the thing contained. It wouldn’t survive a fall of six feet, but I didn’t feel guilty about rejecting the thick crimped edges as tough and tasteless.
I checked the pantry and discovered that I had just enough flour to dust one onion ring. I grabbed my cars keys and made the further unwelcome discovery that my car wouldn’t start -- what is it with that battery? It was a glorious early November day, the jack-o’-lanterns provided a suburban gallery crawl and what the heck’s a ten minute walk? A ten-minute walk was long enough for me to ponder pastry and self-administer a head smack. D’oh! I’d reduce the classic fat/flour pastry ratio from 1:3 to 1:4 for a less short dough. A tub of manteca from the local supermercado lurked somewhere behind last week’s leftovers in the fridge, and I knew I’d find some Crisco behind the family- sized jar of neon green Chicago pickle relish. It felt good to have a plan: the 1:4 fat-to-flour ratio, and cheap mixed fat at that.
My deductive reasoning skills mostly fail me, except in cooking problems (or speculation of my friends’ love lives). Reader, I got it right: the pastry was sturdy, not tough, and that porky presence from the manteca added an elusive meaty flavor. I tried the proportions again using straight shortening, and it was darn near as good. This is the time to use an old-fashioned pastry blender, two knives or your fingertips to blend the cold fat into the flour; one pulse too many in the food processor could overmix the shortening.
I don’t fuss with side dishes on Pasty Night, because a pasty is a balanced meal, almost Pollanesque in its scanty meat to lavish (delicious nutritious) vegetables. If you crave more vegetables, remember that the only condiment permitted with pasties (put that jar of homemade chowchow down!) is ketchup.
Makes six nine-inch pies
This is adapted from the recipe in American Cooking: The Eastern Heartland, one of the books in the peerless, out-of-print Time-Life series "Foods of the World."
4 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. cold vegetable shortening
2 t. salt
10-12 T. very cold water
With pastry blender or fingertips, work the shortening, lightning-fast, into the flour until it looks like "flakes of coarse meal." Mix in 10 tablespoons of water, toss the ingredients together, and try to gather up into a ball. If it’s too crumbly, add another 2 tablespoons of water and re-form the ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge.
Set the oven to 400˚F.
5 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into ¼ cubes. (About 1-½ pounds)
1 smallish rutabaga, peeled and cut into ¼ inch dice (About 1-½ cups)
2 lbs top round (or similar cut) in ¼ inch dice
1-½ cups chopped onion (you can guess the size by now)
1 T. salt
1 t. fresh ground black pepper
Mix everything together in a big bowl.
Beat the egg lightly for an egg wash. Divide the dough into 6 approximately equal pieces. Find a plate or pot cover 9 inches across. Between floured pieces of plastic wrap, roll out each piece of dough until it’s large enough so that, using the plate as a template, (remove the top layer of plastic wrap!) you can cut out a neat circle. Repeat five times.
Place about 1-½ cups of filling down the center of the pastry, leaving a half-inch hem at the circumference. Fold in half, then crimp the edges together, firmly. Place the pasties on cookie sheets and slash a small slit on the top of each. Brush on the egg wash. Bake for 45 minutes, or until golden brown.
If you have leftovers, wrap them in foil and refrigerate. They reheat beautifully in the oven.
Margaret McArthur, aka maggiethecat, author of the blog Cheap and Cheerful, cooks and tends her garden near Chicago. Her Daily Gullet piece "Eggs Enough and Time" appears in Best Food Writing 2009.
Illustration by Dave Scantland, based on a photo from the Consolidation Coal Company collection, National Museum of American History. Photographer unknown.