Although I grew up in Michigan, I was not one of those people who went Up North at every opportunity; I spent my summers in Maine or in Europe, and never crossed the Mackinac Bridge to the Upper Peninsula until I was 30. I knew about pasties, though, the hearty meat-filled pockets that are the State Flower of Michigan. Rudy, a friend of my mother’s who grew up in a logging camp in the Upper Peninsula, made them annually with his sister, using the family recipe. At their best theyu are a collation of tender beef, potatoes, rutabagas, and onions wrapped in a pastry crust – not unlike empanadas, or the pierogen my grandmother and mother made from leftover brisket. It is likely that pasties originated in Cornwall, and were made so that miners had a portable lunch to carry into the mines; they are now found in England, and in parts of Minnesota as well as Up North Michigan.
Rudy’s version was sublime, but the closer one gets to the Upper Peninsula, the more likely it is that one will be served a pasty that seems to have been made by a cook who chewed up the contents, spit them into a circle of dough, and baked them. The meat is tough, the crust is tough, and it is hard to imagine any self-respecting Cornish immigrant carrying such a thing willingly to work. There is also an ongoing and vigorous controversy about condiments; apparently it is customary to serve them with gravy in parts of England, but no self-respecting Yooper (a person from the “U.P.”) would use anything but catsup. Gravy, I am given to understand, indicates that one’s pasties are dry and require the unctuous camouflage of a blanket of slime.
At their best, pasties are worth their considerable weight in gold. Theyare carried down from Up North in waxed paper and in bags from reputable pasty purveyors and doled out to the fortunate recipients. They are made in local kitchens as a form of love made visible in a half-moon shape. When I discovered that a colleague, a real Yooper Person from Escanaba had a treasured family pasty recipe and was willing to share it and his time, I boldly went where no sane cook would go – from never having made a pasty in my life to producing more than 60 of them in one day for my weekly Wednesday Night Live dinner service. Even Mrs. M., a veteran Pasteur (Pasterina?) had never made more than 25, and that was the night a local restaurant burned and she and the other Fire Belles produced pasties to feed the firefighters.
There were goofs along the way; accustomed to making regular pie crust for fruit pies, I didn’t at first understand that it was necessary to violate all known rules for “flaky” crust by cutting way back on shortening and adding more water. A traditional piecrust would never withstand the handling necessary to make a pasty, and would fall apart if anyone attempted to eat one out of hand, as folks often do. I was skeptical about the safety and ick-factor of cooking raw meat inside the pastry crust, and about the notion that it was important to use really fatty meat so that the fat would enrich and effectively “shorten” the crust, but the meat cooked beautifully, and the crust straddled the line between durable and tender. I also cut my thumb open peeling and dicing what seemed like 500 potatoes, and required rescue in the form of a bandager and my husband who came in to help me make up the time I had lost to blood and gauze, but that probably won’t happen to you.
I am forever indebted to Mrs. M., my colleague’s mother, for sharing her recipe, right down to the “good coffee mug of potatoes,” and for her wise counsel by cell phone when we were a little unsure about time and temperature. The pasties were magnificent, the crowd was thrilled, and nary a speck of gravy was needed. This is the basic recipe we used, which allows variations. Mrs. M. adds carrots, which gave the pasties a slight hit of sweetness. She doesn’t use rutabagas, which are traditional, but her son does, and I did, and I thought they were wonderful. If you don’t like them, can’t find them, or can’t deal with peeling and cutting them (which, honestly, is a bitch) you may omit them and bump up the quantity of other filling ingredients. DO buy the fatties ground beef you can find; it is counterintuitive in these days of healthy cooking, but pasties are not health food, they are filling, hearty sustenance from places where people work hard, the sun doesn’t shine for days, and the world is made infinitely better by knowing that in some pocket or bag there is a half moon of pastry rolled and filled with love.
Serves 3 lumberjacks, 6 regular people, or any combination thereof
Prep Time: 2.0 hours
Cooking Time: 1 Hour and 15 minutes
For the Dough:
- 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 cup shortening
- 1 cup cold water
For the Filling:
- 1 pound Ground Chuck, or the fattiest ground beef you can find (ask your butcher)
- 2 large baking potatoes, peeled and diced
- 1/4 large rutabaga, peeled, diced and finely diced
- 1 large or 2 small onions, diced
- 1 carrot, grated
- Salt and Pepper to taste (I like lots of pepper)
- Make dough by mixing flour, shortening and salt with fingers until the mixture resembles coarse sand. Add water until the dough will easily hold together in a ball and is not crumbly. It should not crumble. Wrap the ball of dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 425
- While the oven heats, mix meat, potatoes, rutabagas, onions, and carrots in a bowl, preferably with your (clean) hands. Add salt and pepper, cover mixture and refrigerate so that the flavors can mix. According to Mrs. M., this step is essential.
- Divide dough into three parts. One at a time, roll the sections into circles about ¼ inch thick on a lightly floured surface.
- Imagine the circle cit in half, and place a third of the filling mixture into the center of one half, leaving at least half an inch of dough around the filling.
- Pull the “empty” half of the dough over the filling to make a half moon, pinch the edges to seal them, and slash the top to allow steam to escape. I like to make cute designs, but it isn’t necessary.
- When all three pasties are made (and they will be LARGE), place on parchment paper on a baking sheet and bake at 425 for 15 minutes.
- Reduce temperature to 350 and bake for an hour. You can test for doneness by poking a fork into one of your ventilation holes; if the rutabagas and potatoes yield easily to the tines, you’re ready to eat.
- Serve whole or in halves, with catsup available.
These are great with coleslaw, and also with beer. Drinking wine with pasties is against the law in Michigan.