Usually I like to begin by talking about the history behind a recipe, but there’s not much hard evidence with Cornish pasties. I would, however, like to clear up a few potential misconceptions before getting to the interesting stuff.
Over the years, there has been much discussion over what the proper filling for a Cornish Pasty should be, but it is now all rather academic since the standard for Cornish pasties has been both established and published online by the Cornish Pasty association.
The filling ingredients number just four – beef skirt, potato, swede and onion – and are used raw, with generous seasoning. Meat forms the largest quantity, making up just over one third of the filling. But the filling is only half the story, and I’d like to discuss the half that rarely gets a mention, namely the pastry.
Pastry is made up of a mixture of fat and flour in varying proportions, bound together with a liquid. It is probably common understanding that by varying the proportions of fat to flour, different types of pastry can be made, from crisp shortcrust to butter puff. What is easy to overlook is the role the type of fat plays in the end result.
A ratio of 50% flour/butter makes for delicious pastry, but the end result is rather delicate. Puff pastry’s crisp, light flakes crumble at the slightest touch. A more sturdy result is achievable by reducing the proportion of fat to flour (either 3/4 fat to flour for rough puff/flaky pasty, or half fat to flour for shortcrust) and substituting lard for half of the butter. This produces a tasty pastry thanks to the butter, and also crispness due to the lard. Lard is also the fat of choice for hot water crust used mainly for pork pies.
Unfortunately for some people, this makes pastry something of a forbidden fruit as the use of lard makes pastry unsuitable for vegetarians. Doubly unfortunate is that with the lower fat/flour ratios, an all-butter pastry becomes flabby and tough. Some years ago I discovered a solution in an old Victorian baking book, which is the use of cornflour in an all butter pastry. By substituting 20% of the flour with cornflour, it restores the crispness of a lard/butter pastry, but, to the joy of vegetarians, without the animal fat. Using this principle, I have made a very delicious all-butter, hot water crust.
Despite the butter/lard combo being recommended by the Cornish Pasty Association, I’d like to suggest something a little different, which if you have never tried, is a serious gap in your taste experiences: beef dripping pastry.
Matching the fat of the pastry with the protein in the filling, is a great way to enhance the flavour of the whole pie. Collecting and clarifying your own is obviously the best option in terms of flavour and cost, but you can get blocks of beef dripping in the supermarket. Although it flakes very nicely when sliced thinly, it is a bit lacking in flavour, as evinced by it’s dazzling whiteness. If you know a butcher who renders their own, the flavour would be greatly improved. Otherwise, in the UK, the Morrisons chain of supermarkets stock their own jar of golden beef dripping.
As with lard and butter, beef dripping has it’s own characteristics when it comes to pastry. Firstly, you need less of it, just 40% fat to flour. The price you pay for this positively healthy option is the slight increased effort required to make the pastry. The dough is initially mixed with just ¼ of the fat, then it is rolled out and the remaining fat added by the puff pastry method, i.e. three successive rolling/dotting of fat over the surface/folding/turning. Finally, the dough should be fully rested in the fridge before use. There is no need to use stong bread flour for this pastry, regular plain flour is fine.
What you end up with is a robust (but not heavy or tough), flaky, crisp pastry that can be rolled relatively thinly (5mm), perfect for keeping the filling moist and flavourful. Brushed with a little beaten egg before baking, the pasties come out of the oven bronzed and beautiful.
The filling is essentially proportional – almost equal parts meat and potatoes, half quantities of swede and onion, so whilst this recipe has specific quantities, you can make Cornish pasties with whatever quantities you have to hand.
500g plain white flour
200g beef dripping
ice water to mix
400g beef skirt
300g potatoes – whichever type/texture you like. I prefer mealy Maris Piper
1 egg for glazing
- Put the flour, salt and 50g of beef dripping into the bowl of a food processor fitted with a blade and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
- With the motor running, gradually add the ice water, a spoonful at a time, until the mixture comes together in a ball.
- Tip the pastry out onto a floured surface and knead once or twice until smooth. Don’t work it for more than about 15 seconds, otherwise you’ll get tough pastry.
- Roll the pastry out into a long rectangle and dot 50g of beef dripping over 2/3 of it.
- Fold the plain pastry down over half the fat-covered pastry, and then over again. Turn the pastry 90° and repeat until all the fat is used (3 rollings in total).
- To keep the final block of pastry neat, make the final fold a book fold (fat covering the centre half, fold both ends into the middle, then fold in half like a book.
- Wrap in plastic and chill in the fridge while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
- Cut the meat neatly into 2cm cubes. Although this is larger than the rest of the ingredients, the meat will shrink a little during cooked, and so even everything out.
- Cut the potatoes and onions into slightly smaller cubes, and the swede into 1cm cubes.
- Mix the meat and vegetables together thoroughly and season well with salt and pepper.
- Roll out your chilled pastry to a thickness of 5mm.
- Cut circles of the desired size – whatever size you like is fine, as you can adjust the cooking time accordingly.
- For each pasty, dampen the edges with water, and place a suitable quantity of filling on half of the pastry.
- Gently lift the pastry over the filling. Don’t pull or stretch the pastry – if it won’t meet, then remove some of the filling. Stretched pastry will shrink back and run the risk of tearing or bursting open in the oven.
- Press the edges of the dampened pastry together to make a firm seal.
- Now here’s a bit of heresy: I don’t like the folded and crimped edge – it makes the pastry excessively thick and consequently is rarely cooked properly by the time the rest of the pasty is ready. So I don’t do it. I use the tines of a fork to press down on the edges of the pastry. It makes a nice, simple pattern and means the edge is both sealed properly and not overly thick.
- When all the pasties are done – or you run out of either filling or pastry – set them aside to rest while the oven is heating up.
- Heat the oven to 200°C, 180°C Fan.
- Whisk the egg and brush generously over the pasties.
- Cut a single vent slit in the top of each pasty. The heat of the oven and the moisture from the vegetables will create the steam that cooks the filling, but you don’t want it to be trapped in their otherwise your pasties are going to burst.
- Bake your pasties until the filling is cooked and the pastry is golden brown. Large pasties will take 50-55 minutes, smaller ones 30 minutes. Check the undersides are fully baked before you remove them from the oven.
- Cool on a wire rack.