The Participant Observer Recipe of the Month is for Cornish Pasties. They grew to immense popularity in Cornwall England because they solved a dangerous lunchtime problem faced by 19th century tin and arsenic miners. Pasties are now a ubiquitous signature food in Southwestern England. Eventually, the pasty was brought to Michigan by immigrant tin minors and soon also gained great popularity with miners from Finland and Italy.
England is famous for its meat pies, with Steak and Kidney Pies being the most famous variations. Such pies date to medieval times although originally they were mostly filled with beef—and vegetables were rarely found between the crusts. Cornish Pasties more closely resemble empanadas, where a flat circle of dough is folded over a filling, sealed by pinching the edge and then deep fat fried. By the way, "pasty" rhymes with "nasty" rather than tasty. Although they have been compared to a pot pie that is fully encased in dough, pasties are drier as they don't have any sauce in them.
Pasties have a long history not only in England but also elsewhere in Europe, but their true origin is perhaps lost to history. They are mentioned in the mid 1200's by Chretien de Troyes who penned tales of King Arthur for the Contess of Champaign in regards to two fictional characters who hailed from southwestern England (now Cornwall). A century later they are found in France where they ultimately became the bases for the French tourtiere. Several centuries later they are mentioned in the Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor when the perhaps overly affable and guileless Page says "Wife bid these gentlemen welcome: come, we have hot venison pasty to dinner."
But Pasties really came into widespread favor in Cornwall in the 1800s, because they addressed the problem of getting food to minors laboring deep in mines who didn't have the ability to wash their hands before eating. Pasties have a rather prominent ridge of crust where along the half-circle where they are pinched together. This allowed miners to hold the pasty with their thumb and finger(s) and eat everything but the part they were holding with their hands. This is not simply a matter of not wanting "dirt" in their food. Cornish mines produced nearly one half of all the mined arsenic in the world, and most of the tin mine in the area also were heavily laced with arsenic. So creating a satisfying and filling food that could be eaten without poisoning the miners, was indeed a potentially life-saving innovation! The crusts of the pasties could also be "engraved" with a first or family name insuring that the right pastry ended up with the right miner. But pasties became instantly popular throughout the region and if you visit Cornwall you will find pasty shops just about everywhere.
Another place that pasties have become extremely popular in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, being introduced to the area by Cornish minors in the mid 1800s. They were soon adopted by both Finnish and Italian miners and their families and, as is always the case when a recipe jumps the cultural divide, ingredients changed to suit the adopters' traditions. Most notably Finns substituted carrots for rutabaga (aka swede) which was more popular among English immigrant families.
Like many foods and drinks in the European Union which seek to protect the cultural culinary traditions, as well as the economic survival of places known for producing foods with known heritages, the appellation "Cornish Pasties" can only be used for pasties that are made in Cornwall. Furthermore, the specific ingredients used and their proportions are regulated by law: True Cornish Pasties are required to be at least 25% vegetables, 12.5% meat, and must contain beef, potato, rutabaga and onion. There is also a Cornish Pasty Association that insists on similar standards. However, if no one is looking, you can probably add or subtract ingredients at will without the Pasty Police knocking on your door! Skirt or flank steak is rumored to work best for this recipe. Some recipes say to start the oven out at a higher temperature and then reduce it and some say just the opposite. The goal is to have a golden brown crust with all the interior ingredients fully cooked with the flavors melded together. Our method will do that.
Cooks Notes: We tried using pre-made pie crusts for this recipe and it simply did not work because pasties are more stuffed with filling than other similar pastries such as empandanas. The dough in store-bought pie crusts (at least the brands we tried) are not elastic enough to make pasties. Perhaps you will have better luck. The usual pastry dough required for this recipe is known as "short crust" pastry. We highly recommend viewing an internet video to see how to make such a dough, but it is the most basic of recipes, you only need flour, butter, lard (or shortening), salt and water. It is possible to exclude lard or shortening and use only butter. Here is how to make short crust pastry:
To Make Short Crust Dough:
- Measure out one-pound of plain flour into a mixing bowl
- Cut 4 ounces of butter and and for ounces of shortening into 1/2 inch chunks and mix into the mixing bowl.
- With a fork, press the flour coated butter and shortening agains the side of the mixing bowl until all the butter/shortening is incorporated into the flour and the flour resembles crumbled cheese.
- Mix in 1 teaspoon of salt.
- Very slowly mix 1/4 to a third cup of cold water with your hands or a knife.
- Add water or flour to make sure the dough is not sticky but is moist enough that it incorporates all of the flour from the side and bottom of the bowl.
- On a pastry board, knead the dough for about a minute until it can be pressed into a ball without forcing it.
- Return the dough to the mixing bowl and cover the dough (not the bowl) with plastic wrap.
- Refrigerate the dough for at least 1/2 hour (but much longer is fine).
- After the dough is completely chilled, divide it into 4 quarters.
- Roll out each portion of the dough to make a sheet that is 8" square.
- Use an eight inch round plate as a guide to cut the dough into a circle.
- Separate the dough rounds by wax or parchment paper and store in the refrigerator until they are used.
- 4 rounds of dough (see above)
- 1 pound of skirt or flank steak finely cubed
- 1 small onion, sliced small
- 1 rutabaga or turnip cut into small slices
- 1 medium potato cut into small slices
- 1 lightly beaten egg
- salt and pepper to taste
- Make the pastry dough (or use pie crust dough) per instructions above.
- Cut up the roots and onions into small slices 1/2" by 1/2" X 3/16". Do this by first slicing the potato and rutabaga (or turnip) into 1/2" by 1/2" sticks and then cut these into thin slices.
- Preheat your oven to 350°.
- Layer the ingredients in the center of one of the rounds of dough making a long mound.
- Brush beaten egg on the edges of the round.
- lift both sides of the dough and pinch it together starting in the center and then toward the edges. Please note: some cooks create a line of filling on one side of the centerline and then fold the side that has no filling over the filled side. This will not affect the taste, but will affect its appearance.
- Crimp the sealed edge by making a series of small folds along the edge (see picture). The result should look somewhat like a braid.
- Repeat the above steps for all the pastry rounds.
- Brush beaten egg over the entire outside of the pasty.
- Place the pasties on a greased cooking sheet
- Make a small slits in the top of each pasty to let steam escape.
- Personalize your pasty by inscribing a name or design into the top.
- Bake until they are golden brown (about 45 minutes).
- Serve with a mixed green salad, a good ale or some tea.
Recipe by T Johnston-O'Neill
Photo by Shari Johnston-O'Neill
Recipe suggested by Edwin Ching
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