Those Cakes We Like … Are Heading Down The Mine
Today we’re heading down into a Cornish tin mine, not usually a pleasant experience, and decidedly lacking in semi-naked Aiden Turner as Ross Poldark. Despite these negatives, the Cornish mining community is the place of origin for one of my favourite savoury treats, the humble Cornish Pasty — a delicious shortcrust pastry with a thick crust, encasing a filling of chunks of beef and root vegetables.
Pasties have been around since the 13th century, originally part of the indulgent diet of the upper classes and filled with such rich fillings as venison, lamb, and even eels. It was the mining boom in 17th and 18th century Cornwall that saw these savoury treats become a staple of working-class families. The rich fillings of the past were replaced with potato, swede, onion, and whatever cheap pieces of meat could be obtained by the household. A miner’s day was long and arduous; miners worked a 10-hour day, six days a week, and for the men who worked underground there would be no returning to the open air until their shift ended. Tin lodes frequently contained arsenides and sulphides, miners’ hands would be coated in these toxic chemicals so eating lunch on their short crib breaks was a hazardous business. This is where the pasty came into its own; the thick crust provided a handle by which the pasty could be held whilst being eaten, this handle could then be discarded, thus avoiding ingesting any potentially deadly substances along with the meal. Pasties were traditionally prepared for the miners by their spouses, who would carve their husband’s initials into the pastry case to enable him to identify his lunch from that of his shift mates; sometimes the pasty would be divided into two sections, with one half containing a savoury element, and the other filled with fruit — a variation known as the “tinners pasty.”
The secret to a good pasty is the pastry: You need a strong yet pliable pastry dough to encase the filling and provide the strong crust by which the pasty would traditionally be held. To achieve this you need to use a strong bread flour rather than an all purpose flour. You’ll also need to ignore the traditional advice not to over-work pastry, this dough really needs to be kneaded. I recommend making use of a stand mixer if you have one, if not then knead as you would a bread dough for about 10 minutes.
This Cornish Pasty recipe will make 6 large pasties, or 12 small ones. They can be frozen after they have been glazed, and baked later. They will safely freeze for up to 3 months.
The carbohydrate count for this recipe is 423 g in total, 70.5 g per large pasty, or 35.25 g for a small pasty.
Large mixing bowl (and stand mixer if you don’t feel like kneading the pastry yourself)
Baking tray, lined with baking paper
2 chopping boards
Electric kitchen scales (no, I am not going to give measurements in cups, measuring by volume is not accurate enough to allow me to carb count, and conversion is a pain in the neck)
500 g strong bread flour, I’ve used a 50/50 mix of white and wholemeal flour
120 g lard or white shortening, cut into cubes
125 g good quality butter, cut into cubes
1 tsp salt
175 ml cold water
400 g or 14 oz beef skirt/plate — this is from the underside of the belly, it is the cut traditionally used for Cornish pasties.
300 g potatoes, peeled and diced into ½ inch cubes — use a firm, waxy potato such as Maris Peer or Wilja
150 g yellow swede/rutabaga
150 g onion
Salt and pepper
Beaten egg to glaze
First up, it’s the pastry. You’ll need to mix your flour and salt in your large mixing bowl, then add your cubed butter and lard. Rub the fats into the flour mix using your fingertips until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs. Now add the water and bring the mixture to together, I find a butter knife is perfect for this.
You now need to knead your dough for about 10 minutes, or until the dough becomes elastic — I find 5 minutes in the stand mixer on a medium-low setting with the dough hook attachment works perfectly. Cover the dough with cling film and let it rest in the refrigerator for 3 hours.
Preheat your oven to 330F/165C. If cooking from frozen reduce temperature slightly, 320F/160C would be ideal.
Remove your pastry from the fridge and roll out to approximately ¼ inch thickness. To make 6 pasties, cut your pastry into circles of about 8 inch diameter; a side plate is a good stencil to use for this. For 12 small pasties use a 4 inch circle cutter, or a wide rimmed drinking glass.
Layer the vegetables and meat in the centre of your pastry discs. With each layer add salt and pepper to taste (a good rule is 1 good pinch of salt and 1 small pinch of pepper for each layer).
Use a little cold water on your fingertip to moisten the edge of half of your pastry dough, now bring both sides of the dough together so the filling is enclosed in the middle like a little parcel — the moistened edge of the pastry should lie on top of the un-moistened edge. There are many ways to create a crust, the simplest is to press the overlapping edges together to make a raised ridge along your pasty, you then roll this over to make a thick, tube-like crust along the top of your pasty.
Brush the top of your pasties with the beaten egg, and place into the oven for 50-55 minutes. If you’re cooking from frozen then cook for an extra 5-10 minutes.
Remove from the oven, allow to cool slightly, then enjoy.
The Cornish Pasty is essentially a poor man’s lunch — as such, it was usually free from all but the most basic spices. Feel free to experiment with the addition of different herbs and spices in the future or change the filling entirely — I am rather partial to a cheese and onion pasty on occasion, but chicken and leek, potato and bleu cheese, turkey and cranberry, etc., are all perfectly viable fillings. Alternatively, replace the salt in the pastry with a teaspoon of confectioner’s sugar and make a sweet pasty; apple and raspberry would be one of many possible variations.
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