Say the word “Pasty” (pronounced “past-ee”), and you’ll likely receive a passionate Pavlovian response from hungry folks from several regions of the U.S. (i.e., Michigan’s U.P., or parts of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Montana, and California). Echoes of the lip-smacking cheers reverberate across the globe from distant parts in Mexico, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. But the loudest ruckus of all comes from enthusiasts in a western region of England; whose fierce pride is expressed through laws and regulations that define authenticity while protecting the tried-and-true recipes of old — making the Cornish Pasty a National Heritage Food (and some would argue, a national treasure more valuable than even the Crown Jewels).
While other forms of hardy meat turnovers exist elsewhere around the world, the pasties so beloved in the regions mentioned above, find their common culinary roots in English cooking. Food historians tell us that the free-form pasty co-migrated with 19th and 20th-century Cornish tin miners as the tin mines at home dried up and other hard-rock employment opportunities opened abroad.
Pasties have been a popular dish on English tables for centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary claims the earliest use of the word in English literature was in 1300. The OED’s definition of a pasty matches most modern expectations of the dish: a meat filling, enclosed in a crust of pastry, and baked without a dish. I have traced similar definitions at least as far back as 1764. Earlier definitions seem to be a bit more generic or obscure, describing a pasty as “a great pie” or “a pie made with flesh or fruit.”
I think it’s important, however, to try to consider such definitions apart from our modern expectations. For instance, “baked without a dish” could mean the pie used a standing crust instead. But when one examines 18th century pasty recipes, contrary to contemporary definitions, a completely different sort of dish takes shape: most often it’s a meat pie prepared in an earthen dish that is partially lined with a thick puff paste and then topped with the same.
Now that’s not to say that the free-form versions of the pasty are an inaccurate option for historical re-enactors and foodies. I’ll share some period recipes free-form pasties in my next post. But today, I want to give you a typical 18th-century recipe for a beef pasty that uses what some cookbooks called “a proper paste” (I say that at the risk of raising the hackles of many free-form fans).
Our recipe comes from Charles Carter’s 1749 cookbook, “The London and Country Cook.”
While most 18th century recipes were for venison pasties, other types of meats were used (e.g., beef, pork, mutton, and poultry). Most period pasty recipes also call for either neck, shoulder, or breast meat (brisket), while a few call for rump or sirloin. The previous cuts are from the front end of the animal, and are usually more flavorful than those from the rear. They are, however, also tougher due to high levels of collagen or connective tissue between the strands of muscle.
Collagen is broken down through slow roasting or boiling. Some of the best modern barbecue brisket can be roasted for 12 hours or more. If you try to roast your meat too quickly, it will turn out too tough to eat. Some 18th century recipes for venison pasties argue against what was apparently conventional wisdom: that one had to be careful not to overcook venison. To the contrary, these recipes claim that when it comes to pasties, you can’t overcook the meat. I suspect, that is why the pastry crusts on these pies are so extraordinarily thick — up to 1/2″ thick…before it’s baked! One such recipe even suggested covering the thick paste with buttered paper to prevent it from scorching due to the long baking time.
Many period recipes also suggest marinating and aging meat for several days, as well as beating it to a pulp with a rolling pin. This was done to further tenderize the meat. Beef was likely much tougher then than it is today. Most of the meat sold in U.S. markets is aged prior to hitting the store shelves, so we skipped this step…it’s another example of how modern food developments have made exact historic food reproduction difficult, if not in some cases impossible.
Carter’s recipe also uses cochineal — a red dye (“Natural Red 4”) derived from parasitic scale insects living off cacti throughout warmer climates. Carter’s recipe was the only one I found that used this ingredient. We’ve eliminated it from our rendition primarily because many people today are highly allergic to it. If you want to try it, you can purchase it online.
18th-Century Beef Pasty
- 1 to 1-1/2 pound Beef, cut into 1-1/2″ to 2″ chunks (we used chuck roast (or shoulder) …in honor of Charles Carter!)
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon each, Salt & Pepper
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup Burgundy wine
- 3 to 4 Tablespoons Suet, grated or crumbled fine (multiple period recipes suggest using butter instead)
- 1 pound Beef Bones, cut or broken into chunks
- salt and pepper
Several hours before you wish to serve your pie, or even the night before, combine the beef, salt, pepper, and wine in a ceramic or glass bowl. Set aside to marinate.
Preheat your oven to 350-degrees (F).
Roll out your puff pastry dough to between 3/8″ and 1/2″. Lay an inverted pie pan on top of your pastry and cut out a circle slightly larger than the pan. In the center of this circle, cut out a hold approximately 2″ in diameter. Save the plug from this hole.
Turn your pan back over, and with the larger scraps of pastry, line only the walls (not the bottom) of your pan, keeping the pastry about 3/8″ thick.
Combine and roll out the remaining pastry scraps until it is about 1/8″ thick. Cut out your decorations from this piece of pastry dough, and arrange them on the top of your pastry round.
Fill your pastry-lined dish with your meat mixture. Top the meat mixture with the suet or butter. (If you are planning to use suet, be sure to first read our post on what suet is and what it is not.) Finally, cover the meat with the pastry round, and replace the plug that was cut from the center hole.
Prior to placing the pasty in the oven, place your beef bones into a cooking pot, season with salt and pepper, and pour in just enough water to cover them. This will be placed in the oven and baked alongside the pasty. This will make a lear or thin gravy that will be poured into the pie once it’s done baking. Other recipes suggest placing the bones in a pot over medium heat and simmering the bones until the liquid is reduced by half.
Bake the pasty (and lear pot) for 2 to 2-1/2 hours. If your crust looks as though it’s getting too dark, cover it with paper.
Once the pie has finished baking, remove the center plug from the crust. Strain the lear, discarding the bones, and pour the lear into the hole. Then replace the plug. Allow this to set for about 15 minutes before serving.