I’d never heard of a pasty until I visited Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Once I tasted one of these delicious folded potpies I wouldn’t forget them. A flaky crust, filled with fresh vegetables, and traditionally meat, the pasty is a savory portable meal intended for a lunch box, a picnic basket or eaten as a meal at the table, fork and knife optional.
Though traditional pasties had meat and vegetable fillings, the pasty is easily adapted to accommodate strictly vegetarian ingredients. With the many varieties of heirloom vegetables available by seed today and at markets, the pasty is the perfect way to bring them together.
Historians believe the pasty made its way into the Upper Peninsula by way of Cornwall, Great Britain, as Cornish miners immigrated to the copper mines of America. It seems wherever the Cornish and Welsh miners arrived, the pasty came along. The pasty is a beloved national dish in Cornwall.
Traditional pasties used vegetables such as sliced potato, onion and swede (rutabaga, or yellow turnip). The pastry is D-shaped and crimped on the sides. The heavily crimped edges are thought not only to hold the filling in and keep the ingredients warm for a long period of time, but also to serve as a place the miners could hold onto with their dirty, and possibly arsenic-tainted hands while they ate, and then discard the edge.
Aside from the traditional veggies, the pasty lends itself to accommodate a variety of seasonal ingredients in abundance at different times of the year. For the sweet tooth, some cooks fill them with a pudding or fruit filling for a dessert pasty. Some pasty makers make theirs with the vegetable filling at one end, the pastry dough is pressed or sealed in the middle to create another pocket, and the other end is filled with the pudding or fruit filling. Both the main course and the dessert are tucked into one perfect pasty.
Carrots were not traditionally used in Cornish pasties, but there are many variations and differences on how the pasty is prepared outside of Cornwall. I rarely make a batch without carrots. I’ve also grown to appreciate the stronger, sweeter flavor of parsnips as a pasty ingredient.
There are so many wonderful vegetable, herb and seasoning ingredient combinations available; the fun of preparing pasties is to experiment with different ingredients. Once you’ve found a pastry shell recipe you like, you’ll want to fill your pasties with all sorts of delicious combinations. Try the pasty as an alternative to plain roasted root vegetables by wrapping them in the pastry shell and baking.
A traditional ingredient, the rutabaga, or swede, is a cabbage relative grown for its tasty root. Larger, sweeter, and milder than a turnip, the rutabaga lends a rich, hardy flavor to the pasty. If you’ve never tried rutabagas, the pasty is a great place to start. Rutabagas are also delicious eaten raw, cooked, fried, boiled, roasted, or baked. A common variety that can be found in most grocery stores here in the U.S. is the heirloom variety ‘American Purple Top’. Rutabagas can tolerate cooler temperatures, and their flavor often improves with light frosts in the fall.
Tips for preparing pasties; cut the vegetables into small pieces, so they cook evenly. Filling ingredients should be raw, and the pasty is slow-baked to bring out the flavor of all the ingredients.
According to Brian Harsch of Jean Kay’s Pasties Shop near Marquette, Michigan, you should never pre-cook the filling:
“Use the freshest vegetables you can find and don’t pre-cook them. When you encrust the vegetables in the pastry shell, you lock in the moisture and as they cook they get steamed. This steaming keeps the integrity of the vegetables, making them flavorful and not mushy.”
Harsch uses a whole-wheat crust with a 60/40 European-type butter blend. His veggie pasties are filled with cauliflower, broccoli, potatoes, and rutabagas. “I only use sweet red onions, too, and, of course, some seasoning,” he added.
While a pasty made the traditional way doesn’t precook the veggies, if you’re pinched for time, there’s no reason why the ingredients can’t be prepared ahead, saving time when it comes to putting them together to bake.
I’ve sliced, cubed, and shredded vegetables for pasties experimenting to see if one method works or tastes better than the other. A food processor makes prep very easy. The result: each pasty turned out delicious whether the vegetables were sliced, cubed or shredded. I prefer the sliced vegetables a wee bit better only because you get a nice, flavorful bite of each type of vegetable. The slices tend to poke through the pastry crust when sealing the dough, so they take a little more care when folding the dough over. For ease of filling, mixing all the ingredients together and filling the shells is easier than the time-consuming task of layering each separate ingredient. A drizzle of butter on top before sealing adds to the flavor.
Placing the pasties on a lightly oiled piece of foil on the baking sheet keeps them from sticking. If they leak a little, the foil saves clean-up time. Be sure to seal them well so all the delicious flavored juices don’t leak out, causing the pasty to become dry inside.