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What is a Pasty?

Slices of rutabaga may be included in the interior of a Cornish Patsy.
William Shakespeare mentions pasties in several of his plays.
A vegetarian pasty might include mushrooms.
Summer squash can make a tasty vegetarian pasty.
A traditional Cornish pasty includes chopped beef.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2014
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A pasty is a meat pie thought to have originated in Cornwall, England in the 1800s. Earlier references to pasties do exist, however, confusing origins. They are referred to in work by Chrétien de Troyes, a French writer of the 12th century. He was one of the first known writers of the Grail legend who suggested that Percival, not Galahad, was the finder of the Grail. Shakespeare refers to the pasty in three plays, but his most gruesome use of them occurs in the play Titus Andronicus where the title character forces the mother of Chiron and Demetrius to eat her sons, minced finely in a pasty.

The pasty originating from Cornwall, and thus referred to as the Cornish Pasty, was carried into the mines. Miners got a bit of warmth from carrying the hot pasty, and would be provided with a portable meal, usually still warm because of the thick exterior crust. Americans used the turnover or meat pies in much the same way in the 19th century.

Louisa May Alcott, in her renowned book Little Women describes how Hannah, the servant, would make apple turnovers for the older girls to take to work. They served the purpose of keeping the hands warm, as the girls were too poor to own muffs, and provided the only dinner the girls received.

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The traditional Cornish Pasty contains very specific ingredients. The crust is composed of flour, lard, salt and water. The interior holds chopped raw beef, salt, pepper, diced onions, potatoes, and occasionally rutabaga. The ingredients are added to a thickly rolled round of crust which is then folded over, pinched, and may have an egg wash to aid in browning during the baking process. The formed pasty is generally baked for about 15 minutes in a 400° F (204.44° C) oven. The temperature is then reduced to 350 ° F (176.67° C) and the pasty continues to cook until fully brown, approximately 15-20 minutes more in a conventional oven.

Some food historians suggest that miners, because of their poverty, may have added more vegetables since meat was too expensive. Today, additions of vegetables like carrots in the traditional Cornish pasty are thought to indicate a lower quality product. However, many enjoy vegetarian pasties, which can include mushrooms, summer squash and other vegetables, and are made with a margarine or butter crust.

Pasties which are made today often substitute ground beef for chopped beef. Again this is considered nontraditional, but it is frequently served in American restaurants that offer pub fare or Irish cuisine. The pasty may be topped with ketchup or can be served with rich brown gravy, often desirable, as the interior of the pasty is not very moist.

The pasty is thought to be inspiration for the Spanish or Latin empanada. Empanadas differ in the addition of cumin, sometimes raisins, and occasionally are fried rather than baked. Pasties also share similarities with piroshkis, though piroshkis of Russian origin are usually covered with yeasted dough rather than a pastry crust.

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