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Extra Ordinary Food: Yooper Pasties are the original Hot Pockets
Yooper Pasties, or meat hand pies, perfect for fall’s cooler weather
OK, fair warning, I'm going to go a bit off topic this month. Which, if you read my column, you know is really nothing new. Here we go again.
The weather is turning colder. Thankfully. I can't stand the heat anymore, so I got out of the kitchen. I get to wear some layers now, maybe a sweater. So much the better. It got me thinking of living up north in Minnesota where both of my extended families are from. It got me thinking of the comfort food that I grew up on.
I didn't come from a “foodie” family. Both my parents worked a lot. Meals were practical affairs, more for sustenance than pleasure. That meant potpies, TV dinners, mac and cheese. Later on Hot Pockets and ramen noodles were the go to snacks after school. On special occasions like the weekend, we'd have burgers, hot dogs or Hamburger Helper. Not your typical chef story of grandma showing you how to make the old family's traditional dishes.
Then my mom married David, my one and only stepdad. He could cook. He introduced the family to a variety of traditional British foods like shepard's pie and English curries. People like to trash talk British food, but aside from Grandma's big family meals on holidays that was my real introduction to home cooking. It was profound, yet humble. That paradigm: “profound yet humble” has always stuck with me, as the pinnacle to aim for.
Those Hot Pockets, I later learned, turned out to be one of those traditional British foods that I thought were just an instant snack to pop in the microwave. Cornish pasties. A pasty is a hand pie, essentially a stew wrapped in dough and baked. In the Cornish accent, the word "pastry" comes across as "pahss tee." It's a rural accent, sort of what we consider the stereotypical pirate accent.
Pasties were lunch foods made for men who worked in the mines around Cornwall, in Southwest England. It was a complete meal wrapped in a pastry crust, that would hold till the mid day. The original boxed lunch, with an edible pastry box and a thick ridge of crust that one could hold with their dirty miner's hands, and then toss away the soiled edge. Consider it an elevated Hot Pocket. The elevator went down as the years went on, until it degenerated into the microwaveable snack I subsisted off of in my youth.
Somewhere in my head, I got the history and composition of pasties all mixed up. Researching this recipe, I found about a half a million recipes that were all "the only authentic recipe." Yet they were all different. One of the big confusions I was carrying was: what kind of crust is it? I thought it was a "hot water" crust, like a French "Pate au Choux" (think eclairs or churros.) But Cornish pasties were a "short crust," which is a cold and separated pie dough.
What gives? As it turns out, the hot water crust pasties aren't English at all, but they are traditional. They hail from the UP — Upper Peninsula of Michigan — whose residents are affectionately known as Yoopers. So I dug a little further. Iron and copper were found in the UP, and a lot of immigrants with mining experience were brought in. Cornish miners were particularly desired, and they brought the tradition of pasty hand pies with them.
In the cold mines of the Snowbelt, a nice warm hand pie is just the thing to brighten up your day. One of the real cute details that I came across, is that the miners would usually have their initials carved into the pie, so they knew whose was whose — kind of a "mom took a bite out of the corner of my sandwich so she knew it was good." It was practical, though, because in the winter all the pasties would be kept together, near a stove, so they wouldn't freeze, so you had to know whose was whose. Legend has it that a lot of pasties would have a little apple pie filling tucked into one end, so that when they ate their lunch, they had a dessert waiting for them.
The arguments go on and on about what a proper pasty crust is or what is the proper filling. Frankly, it's not my family's honor at stake, so I don't care. The proper thing is what you enjoy eating and preparing for your family and friends.
The other upside about a hot water pasty crust is that it works. It's forgiving and doesn't need to be delicately tickled. You can smash it and knead it for a few minutes. It likes that, really. A cold pasty crust wants to be gently folded together, barely touched. Hot water pasty dough can be smashed and bashed together, yet somehow it comes out light and flaky at the end. Honestly, I don't know the science about it. I do know that it works, though.
One of the extra fun aspects of the UP pasty is that it's usually served with ketchup. Yeah, that ketchup. There are as many heated arguments as the day is long about whether it should be packed with gravy inside or no sauce but it's own renderings or with ketchup. On and on. People love to bicker about trivial things online. Personally, I like a brown sauce, like HP. You do you, and stick to that. Argue your preferences into the grave! That's part of the fun.
On a similar note, people like to argue about the ingredients. Cheap cuts of beef with a lot of attached fat actually seems to work out the best. The fat renders off and binds with the starches of the vegetables to make a binding sauce as it all cooks. More traditional recipes will tell you to put all the ingredients in raw, including the meat, so there is a decent amount of moisture in there. The beef juices steam the vegetables, and they take on that meat flavor.
The Yooper Pasty traditionally has only beef, potato and onion in it — sometimes a rutabaga. I've seen variations with carrots, turnips, parsnips and herbs like fresh time. Some variations have gravy or cheese in them. As long as it's in that hot water pasty crust, it's going to be great.
Chef Tibbs, also known as Joshua “Tibbs” Tibbetts, is a Cedar Rapids native who has been a professional chef for more than 30 years.
Makes 4 meal sized hand pies. This recipe is easily doubled to make 8 pasties.
For the Crust:
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
5 1/2 ounces unsalted butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1 beaten egg (to brush on top before baking)
For the Filling:
3/4 pound chuck pot roast, find a well marbled piece with a good amount of fat on it
1/2 a medium potato, about 1/3 pound
1/2 a small rutabaga, about 1/3 pound
1/2 a medium onion, about 1/2 pound
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon butter or rendered bacon fat
Put flour and salt in a mixing bowl. Cut the butter into pats and add it to the flour. Work the butter into the dough with your hands until it's mixed in pretty well (You could do this part with a food processor if you want, but that's just more stuff to clean.) The flour and butter mix should look like wet sand.
Get the water boiling and add a cup and a half of it to the dough. Mix it up with a heavy wooden spoon while the water still is hot. We want it to cook the flour a little bit. It will start to look like mashed potatoes, and then transition into a very smooth dough.
When it comes together as a dough, turn it out onto a clean counter top and knead it for 3 to 5 minutes. The dough will seem really soft, but it should hold together very well and not stick to your hands or the counter top.
Divide into 4 equal sized balls, then put them on a plate with plastic wrap on top and move them to the refrigerator.
Cut the onion into small dice.
Get a cast-iron pan good and hot until you start to see vapors come off it. Dry sear the chuck steak briefly on both sides, about a minute per side, them flip it and sear it again on both sides. You shouldn't need any oil if the cut is well marbled. Put it on a plate. Throw the onions in the pan while it's still hot and spread them around to soak up any juices the meat might have rendered off. Turn the heat off right away and let the onions rest in the pan for a minute.
This should get it the meat and onions nicely browned without actually cooking them. We're just deepening the flavor here. Put the steak in the fridge to stop it from cooking.
Transfer the onions to a mixing bowl. Dice up the potato and add it to the bowl. Sprinkle salt over the potatoes and then mix it up with the onions. Add the tablespoon of melted butter or bacon fat and toss it again. The salt will leach some of the starches out and the fat will prevent the potatoes from oxidizing and developing an off flavor.
Dice up the rutabaga or whatever other vegetables you are using and add them to the bowl. When the meat has cooled off, cut it into half inch dice and mix it in with the rest of the filling.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Clean your counter top and lightly dust it with flour. Take one of the dough balls and roll it out to an 8 1/2 or 9 inch round. Don't dust the top surface of the dough, and don't flip the dough. We only want that little bit of extra flour on the bottom.
Put 3/4 cup of filling in the middle of the round and gently fold one end over. If the dough is very soft you might want to pry the edge up with a flat spatula. Press the outside edge together to seal it and get a nice thick edge on it, about 3/4 inch wide. A traditional pasty has a rolled crust, where you pinch a piece of the edge out and tuck it back down. Repeat the pull and tuck motion all the way down the edge so the folds overlap each other.
Transfer pasty to a well cured baking sheet (or line it with parchment paper.) Repeat the process for the rest of the pasties. Make sure there are no little holes in the crust, we want to trap all of the juices and steam inside. If any little holes do pop up, gently pinch them back together.
Brush the tops with beaten egg and bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour, until the top is nicely browned. Let them cool at room temperature for 20 minutes to half an hour to finish steaming inside.
Eat with ketchup or brown sauce. These hold pretty well in the fridge and reheat easily in the oven. Warming them up for 20 minutes at 350 degrees has worked well for me. Enjoy!
Source: Joshua Tibbetts