A series about foods we miss and our quests to recreate them.
While there are many things that Michigan is known for (Motown; the dying American auto industry; Robocop), its cuisine is probably not what springs first to mind. When Michigan foods are mentioned, the references tend to be agricultural—corn, morels, muskmelons, blueberries, cherries—rather than culinary. But there is one dish that allows us to, rightfully, wax rhapsodic: the humble pasty.
The pasty is the definitive dish of Michigan, particularly the Upper Peninsula, although the downstate natives (I am one) can be equally passionate about it and partisan in their wars over the right ingredients. It was brought across the waters by Cornish miners who came to work the UP’s copper mines. The Northern Michigan Pasty’s thread here is a veritable deluge of pasty trivia. Mention is made to the references to pasties in Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian legends (“Next Guivret opened a chest and took out two pasties”) and Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (“Come, we have a hot pasty to dinner”). Additional pasty lore includes a legend that holds that the Devil refused to enter Cornwall “on account of the well-known habit of Cornish women of putting everything into a pasty, and that he was not sufficiently courageous to risk such a fate!” To put your mind at rest (or perhaps disappoint you), Beelzebub is not listed as a common ingredient in any of the recipes I’ve examined (although vegetarians are certainly free to toss in their own Satan / seitan jokes); in tangential demon-pasty-lore, apparently the copper miners left the corners of their pasties in the mine for gremlins, in hopes of placating these minor (miner!) demons.
It’s easy to see why the pasty would be so popular with miners. It’s the perfect working man’s lunch: highly portable, containing all necessary food groups (meat, potato, pastry crust), and it can apparently easily be warmed up on a shovel held over a mining candle (this I did not attempt). Pasties were appropriated by other ethnic groups, including the Finns, and I, a half-Finn, grew up thinking they were as much a Finnish dish as pulla (delicious cardamon coffee bread) or lutefisk (don’t ask). But this isn’t so.
I grew up in western Michigan—Spring Lake to be precise; a town more notable for its proximity to the so-called “World’s Largest Musical Fountain” (not actually the world’s largest, nor even really in Spring Lake so much as a short drive over the bridge to our sister-town, Grand Haven) than its pasties, but eating them was the highlight of “school’s out!” road trips to visit friends in the Upper Peninsula, and, every Halloween, my mother would heat frozen pasties culled from these trips while my dad took me and my sister trick-or-treating around the neighborhood. There is something both exotic and comforting about pasties to me, signaling, as they do, both the thrill of the summer open road and the comfort of coming home laden with bags of candy. I suppose it’s that combination of security and freedom that made me want to try to make my own pasties now. I’ve lived in New York for twelve years now and, although I love borscht, bánh mì, and goat curry as much as anyone else, when I’m stumbling home hungry after a night of drinking in Brooklyn, what I truly crave is a pasty. If no one in New York will sell them to me, by God I’m old enough now that it’s time I started making them for myself.
Many of the recipes I initially found called for such travesties as the use of MSG and margarine, but eventually, I tracked down a less heretical recipe on the website Upper-Peninsula-Now, one with the impossible-to-resist title “Homemade Pasty Recipe, Mmmmm, good!” by the mysterious one-name-only “Jim.” Jim’s recipe claims to make 8-10 pasties. I halved it; and even with the proportions halved, got six decent-sized pasties out of the recipes, enough to serve the guests I’d invited over for pasty-tasting. I also ran out of pie crust and room on the baking sheet, and so left about half the filling unused. I would suggest halving the filling recipe again if you truly only want 4-5 pasties, or doubling the amount of crust if you want more. Jim also suggests using store-bought pie crust, but I’m sorry, store-bought pie crusts are never as good as homemade, and if you’ve suddenly decided to spend a summer heat wave baking pasties, you might as well throw in the extra effort of making a crust.
I know that many purists believe that the proper crust should be made with lard or butter, but they are wrong. My pie-crust recipe, which I learned from my grandmother, calls for Crisco. Crisco is better for baking, transfats be damned, and it’s approved by grandmothers.
FOR THE CRUST
• 2 c. all-purpose flour
• 1 tsp. salt
• 3/4 c. chilled Crisco shortening
• 4 T very cold (as close to ice as you can get without it actually being ice) water
Note: I truly suggest doubling this recipe to make sure you have enough crust for your pasties.
1. Sift the flour into a bowl. My grandmother’s secret (maybe this isn’t really a secret but it’s usually not listed in recipes so I think of it as a secret, albeit not one up there on par with what really happened at Area 51) is that, for a truly tender flaky pie crust, you should measure and resift your flour after this initial sifting.
2. Sift the remeasured 2 c. flour together with the salt.
3. Add 1/2 of your shortening. Some people use a pastry fork; you can also use your (washed) hands. Mix the shortening with your dry ingredients until it looks like coarse cornmeal.
4. Add the other half of your shortening and mix until the dough looks like small peas.
5. Add 4 T of very cold water, sprinkling it in an even distribution across the dough and then gently pushing the dough together into a compact ball. Wrap in wax paper and chill in the fridge for at least 1 1/2 hours.
My helpers and I drank a lot of beer during this process. Mostly Michigan beer, from Founders and Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, but Smuttynose crept in at the finish.
FOR THE FILLING
• 1 lb ground beef (uncooked)
• 1 1/2-2 medium-sized potatoes
• 1/4 large onion
• 2 celery stalks
• 1/4 rutabaga (some people will tell you the rutabaga is optional, but here my Finnish heritage raises its hackles and growls, “it’s required”)
• Jim’s recipe also calls for an optional 1/4 turnip and 6-8 required baby carrots, but one of my guests despises carrots and the pasties of my youth didn’t contain them anyway so we didn’t bother. I’d planned on leaving the turnip out too, but the rutabaga Whole Foods sold to me was really a very large turnip in mislabeled disguise and I couldn’t bear the idea of going back out in the heat to brave those lines; thus my pasties contained turnip and no rutabaga despite my best intentions.
• Salt and pepper to taste
1. Peel the potatoes, and chop them into small squares.
2. Peel and cube rutabaga, and the carrots and turnip if you are using them. Chop up the onion and celery now too. Add them together in a bowl.
3. Add the ground beef. (If you are me and handling raw meat makes you squeamish, this is when you suddenly decide that you need to walk your dog and ask one of your guests (thank you, Dave; you are stunningly handsome) to mix the raw meat in with the chopped vegetables in your absence.)
4. Add salt and pepper. Don’t make our mistake: add your pepper with a liberal hand.
5. On lightly floured wax paper, roll out the pie crust to approximately 9” diameter circles (not neglecting to make a series of jokes about what 9” really looks like), one for each pasty. If you lack a rolling pin, a beer or wine bottle is a good substitute.
6. Place about 2/3 cup of filling onto one half of the crust. Jim’s recipe suggests 1 cup but we found that didn’t leave enough room to fold the edges over and crimp them. Perhaps other non-culinary experiences have made my estimate of 9” overly generous and our shells were too small. Regardless, don’t overdo it.
7. Fold over the crust and crimp the edges together. This will be infinitely easier if you don’t profligately overstuff your pasty. (After stuffing four pasties, we ran out of dough. Hopefully, if this happens to you, you will also have a guest heroic enough to brave the heat on a quest to the nearest bodega and buy emergency factory-made pie crust, as well as ice cream. (Thank you, Andy; you are also extremely good-looking.))
8. Cut small slits on the top of the crusts. Some people also brush the tops with beaten egg but I like my pasties unadorned.
9. Bake at 375 for one hour, but check it 5-10 minutes before your timer, otherwise you risk burning the edges.
10. Unveil your pasties and let them cool for as long as you can stand so that you don’t burn your tongue. For us, this was probably only about 5 minutes.
11. Some people like to have ketchup with their pasties. I am not one of them and thus, by default, neither are my guests (although one of them expressed a wistful desire to be).
These were not the dream pasties of my childhood. For those, I’d need to go back to Michigan to Joe’s Pasty Shop in Ironwood or Muldoon’s Pasties in Munising. However, my non-Michigan friends seemed smitten. We all agreed: more pepper, and I still regret the mislabeled rutabaga. It’s true also that my edge-crimping could use a little work. But, overall, I’m happy with how they turned out. I doubt I’ll make them again this summer—I had a pang of anxiety thinking of my electric bill as both my oven and my AC unit kicked into high gear—but I’m imagining an autumn of pasties, served with crisp cider as I sit in my apartment, remembering how, outside of the city in the forests where I grew up, there are flurries of beautiful falling leaves.
Previously: My Attempt To Make The Perfect Nebraska Runza and How To Enjoy A Beef On Weck When You’re Not In Buffalo
Kate Angus is a poet, a teacher at Gotham Writers’ Workshop and LIM College, and an editor at Augury Books.