Bonfires, brisk walks on the beach, fall-color road trips, leaf-raking sessions, football tailgates, Halloween parties and trick-or-treating. Crisp Michigan air and invigorating autumn activity will have you, your family, and guests craving the comfort of warm, filling nourishment — and nothing fits that bill better than an Upper Peninsula favorite, the pasty.
Dating back to medieval times, the pasty originated in Cornwall, England, and was the staple of fishermen, farmers, families, and, especially, tin miners. This calorie-packed, hand-held pie was — and still is — a hearty meal of meat, potatoes, onions, and rutabaga (later, Finnish miners substituted carrots for the rutabaga) that maintained its warmth until meal time. The rope-like edge of the crust served as a disposable handle for the tin-miners, whose hands were often tainted with arsenic-laden dust.
Many of today’s pasty shops still use traditional recipes. Barb’s Pizza and Pasties (barbspizzaandpasties.com), on Main Street in Clawson, is renowned in metro Detroit and has been serving beef, chicken, and vegetable pasties daily since 1984. A stay-at-home mom of six, Barb Sell began making pasties for the neighborhood from her home 10 years before she and her husband, Jerry, opened the shop that, since their passing, has been owned and run by the six siblings.
“My great-grandparents were immigrants who mined in Michigan’s copper country,” says Thor Sell, Barb’s son and one of the owners, “and my great-aunt owned a pasty shop near Copper Harbor. Now, people buy our pasties by the half-dozen or dozen — half of those sold are frozen — to take to their cottages, hunting, or just to have on hand for unexpected company.
“Everything here is made from scratch, including our pizza sauce, carrot cake, and salad dressing. We can continue to do what we do because we have absolutely the best employees in the world; they’ve stood with us through thick and thin. We also have the best customers.”
If you’re traveling to the Upper Peninsula, St. Ignace has two locations of Lehto’s Pasties (lehtospasties.com), or you can pick up an online order. The original location (it’s known as Michigan’s oldest pasty shop) is on U.S. 2 and serves beef pasties, homemade beef jerky, smoked fish, and salads. The newer location, in downtown St. Ignace, offers beef, vegetable, or chicken pasties, as well as salads and another favorite hand-held food: chocolate chip cookies. Owners Laurie Walker, niece of Johnny Lehto (who started the business in 1947 after serving in World War II), and her husband, Bill, ship their pasties from Labor Day to Memorial Day.
As a former restaurant owner who also served many convenient, hand-held foods (roll-ups, pita pockets, and Big Red’s All-American Chocolate Chip Cookies), I did try my hand at pasties during hunting seasons (the recipe follows).
MICHIGAN MEAT PASTIES (with options for ease and versatility)
For the dough (will need one hour in the refrigerator after being mixed and kneaded)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup vegetable shortening or lard
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons melted butter
1 cup ice water; only a portion will
Option for ease
Forego the ingredients above and substitute 2 packages of pre-made, refrigerated pie crusts, following package directions for rolling and filling.
In a large mixing bowl, mix the dough ingredients well, using your hands. Add ice water a spoonful at a time, until the dough stays together and can be formed into a large ball. On a lightly-floured hard surface, knead the dough for two minutes, adding spoonfuls of water if needed. Re-form into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for one hour. This allows the gluten to soften and makes rolling out the dough much easier.
Tip for success
Add the ice water to the mixed dough ingredients just a little at a time. You might only need a few spoonfuls. Unlike making pie crusts, don’t worry about over-mixing or over-kneading this pasty dough.
For the filling
1 pound of stewing beef or skirt steak, cubed small
Options for ease and versatility
Substitute 1 pound ground beef; can also use 1 pound of uncooked chicken, cut into small chunks; or 1 pound of cooked rotisserie chicken, cut into small chunks. Meat can be totally omitted and additional vegetables (canned peas, spinach, par-boiled broccoli, a mix of frozen vegetables, etc.) can be substituted. One-half of a rutabaga (you can omit this and still have a great-tasting, “Finnish-style” pasty) 5 carrots, diced small
Option for ease
Use about 3 cups of packaged, shredded carrots (many pasty recipes actually call for shredded, not chopped, carrots)
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
Option for ease: Use a frozen, chopped onion
4-5 russet potatoes, finely chopped
Option for ease
Use 1 16-ounce can of whole, white, cooked potatoes, drained and cut into quarter-inch cubes
3 tablespoons salt
1 ½ teaspoons black pepper
6 teaspoons butter (one for each pasty)
3 teaspoons flour (divided between pasties)
In a large bowl, mix together all but the reserved filling ingredients. Each pasty will use 1/6 of this mixture.
Tip for success
When cubing and chopping the meat and vegetables, make the size quite small, about a quarter of an inch, for thorough, even cooking and blending of flavors.
Forming the pasties
Remove the dough from the refrigerator after at least one hour and, on a lightly floured, hard surface, roll into a thick log that can be divided into six equal portions. Roll each portion into a ball.
One at a time, roll out each ball into a circle of about a quarter-inch thickness. Using a 9-inch plate or pot lid as a guide, cut the dough into a circle. Take 1/6 of the filling and place it in the center of the dough circle, arranging it so there’s an inch of space between the filling and the dough’s edge. Break up 1 teaspoon of the reserved butter and a sprinkling of the reserved flour over the filling. Fold the dough into a semi-circle shape, crimping or folding the edges to make a half-inch border. Cut two half-inch slashes into the top of each pasty. Place them on an ungreased baking sheet, using baking parchment if desired. Two baking sheets will be needed.
Bake in a preheated, 375-degree oven for 50 minutes, or until the top is brown and the meat is cooked.
Although the Cornish tin-miners are said to have eaten their pasties without any gravy or condiment, many folks in the Upper Peninsula insist that the only way to truly enjoy a hot pasty is with a rich, thick pouring of ketchup.
With scores of pasty shops throughout the state, especially near lakeside towns and resorts, the simplest way to serve up pasties is to reheat them!
Reheating from thawed
Lehto’s Pasties suggests: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the thawed, unwrapped pasties on an ungreased cookie sheet on the center rack in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes. If frozen, heat for 45 minutes.
Reheating from frozen
On the center rack of an oven preheated to 350 degrees, bake the frozen pasties for 45 minutes.
Tip for success
With these reheating directions (for purchased or homemade pasties that have been previously cooked), it’s important not to over-extend the baking time, to avoid making them dry.
With the extra time saved by not making the pasties yourself, you can have a family game night, watch a fall-themed movie (“October Sky”? “You’ve Got Mail”?), or even finish reading this issue of Michigan Blue magazine.
By Honey Murray & Photography by Martin Vecchio