Cornish pasties are one of those traditional British creations that can be absolutely wonderful. Made well – using simple, good quality ingredients – they consist of a light, flaky pastry case surrounding a relatively minimal, but well-seasoned and intensely flavoured mixture of beef, swede, potato and onion. It doesn’t sound much, does it? But the best ones really are good.
Made badly, of course, they are awful. The best word I can think of (which surprisingly does seem to describe the taste and texture, as well as colour itself) is “grey”. Anyway, if you’re in the UK, you really don’t have to make them yourself to experience a good Cornish pasty (there are many excellent producers to be found across the country; there is certainly no need to limit yourself to those for sale in Cornwall), but it’s probably best to avoid the ones found almost everywhere in convenience stores or corner shops.
Now, although the Cornish pasty has Protected Geographical Indication status (just like champagne and Parma ham), and the recipe for the filling is well-defined (and does not include carrot), the type of pastry used is not stipulated. Although most recipes today use a shortcrust pastry, I prefer rough puff. It’s a cheat’s version of a far more sophisticated pastry, but as making pastry is simply not something that I excel at, then as far as I’m concerned, it’s just fine. And I really enjoy how it tastes – buttery and light – which I guess is the important thing.
They can be eaten hot, but are also incredibly good when warm or even cold, which is how they were customarily consumed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when they were popularised by Cornish tin miners who took them to work as a complete meal that was easy to carry and could be eaten by hand.
And it’s for similar reasons that they are great for taking on hikes and picnics. Not only do they taste really good, they are also incredibly convenient and remarkably filling – which is exactly what you need if you’re going to be out exploring all day. These Cornish pasties were made to sustain us on a recent visit to Big Bear Lake – a beautiful recreation area in the mountains north-east of the city of San Bernadino (itself approximately 60 miles east of Los Angeles). It was a glorious day, and after walking to Grand View Point along the Pine Knot Trail, they provided the perfect nourishment.
Recipe: Cornish Pasties
For the rough puff pastry
300g plain flour
A pinch of salt
150g chilled unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
For the filling
1 medium – large potato
Although it’s not exactly traditional, I used sweet potato here which worked really well
1 large onion
1 small swede (rutabaga)
400g rump or sirloin steak
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp olive oil
20g butter, diced
I medium egg, lightly beaten
Makes four large pasties
To make the pastry, mix the flour with the salt, then add the cubed butter and toss until the pieces are covered with flour. Add just enough iced water (8-10 tablespoons) to bring the mixture together into a fairly firm dough.
Shape the dough into a rectangle with your hands and, on a well-floured surface, roll it out in one direction, away from you, so end up with a rectangle about 1cm thick. Fold the far third towards you, then fold the nearest third over that, so that you know have a rectangle made up of 3 equal layers. Give the pastry a quarter-turn, then repeat the rolling, folding and turning process 5 more times. Wrap the pastry in cling film and rest it in the fridge for about 30 minutes, or up to an hour.
For the filling, peel the potato, onion and swede and cut into 1cm dice. Cut the beef into similar sized pieces and season with a generous pinch each of salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil and half the butter in a wide frying pan over a medium-high heat. When hot, sear the beef in batches for a couple of minutes, until brown all over. Transfer to a plate.
Add the remaining butter to the pan and fry the diced vegetables for about 5 minutes, until they start to soften. Tip any juices from the resting beef into the pan and cook until absorbed and the vegetables are tender. Add to the beef and leave to cool.
Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured work surface to about 3mm thick. Using a plate as a template, cut out four 20cm circles; if necessary gathering the trimmings and re-rolling them to get the fourth circle.
Spoon the meat mixture on to one half of each circle. Brush the pastry edges with a little beaten egg, fold the other half of the pastry over the filling to form a half moon shape and crimp well to seal (which will stop the filling leaking during baking).
Place on a lightly oiled baking sheet and brush the tops of the pasties with beaten egg. Bake for 10 minutes in an oven pre-heated to 220°C / 425°F / Gas Mark 7 for 10 minutes, then lower the oven setting to 180°C / 350°F / Gas Mark 4 for a further 20-25 minutes. If the pastry appears to be over-browning, cover with greaseproof paper. Eat hot or cold.