When I read that National Pasty Week began on February 27th and ran through March 5th, I knew I had to write about one of our beloved family members, Esther, and her famous pasty pie.
For those not familiar with a pasty, it’s a meat pie that originated in Cornwall England called a Cornish Pasty. It’s traditionally a large turnover filled with chopped beef, onion, rutabagas, and potatoes. Pasties can also be made into a small hand pie or a large free-form round pie. Or, you can make “cheater pasty” as our beloved Finnish relative Esther called her pie, as she made it like a traditional two-crust pie method and cut into wedges.
Pasties made their way to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as a meal the Finnish miners would eat when down in the depths of the iron ore mines. The wives and daughters would make and wrap the pasties while still hot and they kept warm for hours. They were made with a thick crimped edge along one side so the miners could use the crimp as a handle to hold onto while eating. Since the miners’ hands would often be covered in arsenic from the mine, they would discard the handle when they were done. The miners believed that ghosts they called “knockers” inhabited the mines, and the leftover crusts dropped on the ground would keep these ghosts content.
Pasty stores can be found all over the Upper Peninsula. There are still many Finns in the U.P. who have carried on the tradition in their own kitchens. Our Esther has sadly passed away but her recipe for “cheater pasty pie” lives on. About thirty or so years ago when we were visiting relatives, Esther included, I learned that she kept up her tradition of making one or two pasty pies every Saturday to be enjoyed at a noon meal for whoever wanted to come over. That was my first taste of her pie. Of course I asked her if she would share the recipe, but she laughed and pointed to her head and said, ‘It’s all in here!” Well, you know that wasn’t going to stop me! I asked her if I could come over and watch her make one while writing everything down. I can still hear her laugh as I would stop her at each stage and measure things exactly before she threw them in a bowl. I am so happy I did this or Esther’s recipe could have died with her.
Here is Esther’s pie just as she made it, with the one slit right in the middle.
Look how flaky that crust is made with lard. Esther said she would sometimes use Crisco solid instead, but I think the lard makes an exceptional crust.
The pie is served warm cut into wedges. Esther liked a bit of carrot in hers, along with (raw) ground meat instead of the traditional (raw) cubed steak, and potatoes and onions sliced thin. Her trick to having the potatoes and carrots from getting soggy was to soak them in ice water for about an hour before slicing.
This is how I will always remember Esther, with that happy smiling face and always ready to give a hug. Those two little girls are my daughters when they were young.
When Bill and I were married, Esther gave us a very large cast iron skillet for a wedding gift which I still use all the time. She said that every cook needs a big cast iron pan. So true.
You are missed Esther, and your “cheater pasty pie” will live on for generations to come.
- Flaky Crust:
- 6 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons table salt
- 1 pound package lard, at room temperature and cut into small chunks (or 1 pound Solid Crisco)*
- 1 egg
- 1 Tablespoon cider vinegar or white vinegar
- Ice water, as needed
- *Note: Lard makes a wonderful flaky and delicious crust, but Solid Crisco can be used instead.
- For Meat Filling:
- 3-4 medium potatoes, peeled
- 2-3 medium carrots
- Ice water, as needed
- 1 medium onion, peeled, halved, and sliced very thin
- 1-1/2 pounds ground beef
- Table salt and ground black pepper, to taste
- 3 Tablespoons butter, divided and cut into bits
- For Crust: Mix flour and salt together in a large mixing bowl. Scatter small pieces of lard into the bowl. Using a pastry blender, blend lard into flour until coarse crumbs form. Break the egg into a 1 cup liquid measuring cup. Add the vinegar to the cup and stir to combine with the egg. Add enough ice water to make 1 cup of liquid. Drizzle over crumb mixture in bowl and mix with a fork until blended. Using floured hands, form into a ball, then divide into 4 equal size pieces. (it's best to weigh them so they are exactly equal). Form each piece into a ball, flatten slightly, and wrap each in wax paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate while preparing the filling. This is enough dough to make two double-crust pasty pies, so two of the dough discs can be frozen for later use.
- For Filling: Place peeled potatoes and whole carrots in a bowl of ice water to cover. Let soak for an hour, then drain and pat dry. Slice the potatoes in half lengthwise, then crosswise into thin slices. Coarsely grate or chop carrots. Slice the onion into thin slices; set all these aside.
- Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Remove one of the dough discs from the refrigerator and place on a lightly floured surface. Roll into a 12-inch circle and ease into a 10-inch pie pan.
- Now you are going to layer the ingredients. Layer ⅓ of the potatoes onto bottom of crust, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place ⅓ of the carrots, ⅓ of the onions, then salt and pepper. Using ⅓ of the raw ground meat, pick off small pieces of the meat and scatter over the onions. Dot with ⅓ (1 Tablespoon) of the butter pieces. Repeat layers 2 more times. Press filling down with your hands lightly but firmly.
- Roll out the second dough disc to a 12-inch circle and ease on top of pie. Fold under edges and crimp all the way around. Cut one slit on top of pie to allow steam to escape. Bake for 1 hour, 5 minutes or until pie is a deep golden brown. Remove to a cooling rack for 5 to 10 minutes before cutting. Serve warm cut into wedges.