How to make fabulously festive mince pies
Those simple mince pies you see stacked in boxes at the supermarket at Christmas looking ever so manufactured and modern link us to a British heritage that’s essentially been forgotten. Like a species that has eluded evolution, the mince pie that you see in shops around the country in December is virtually the same as it was over 350 years ago: two crusts of pastry holding a rich fruit, sugar and spice mixture, and baked in small tins.
Their history extends back into more drunken and rowdy Saxon Yuletide traditions and though they’re a part of today’s Christian festival of Christmas for many, the association of mince pies with a few good slugs of spirit and bit of festive shoulder rubbing hasn’t gone away. In fact, for a night on the razzle half a dozen warm mince pies can take the place of dinner for some of us.
It’s somewhat of a myth that mincemeat was once always made with meat. Hannah Glasse’s recipe (1784) adds meat as a variation at the end, in a recipe that layers the currant-rich mincemeat with layers of candied citron. There were some that felt that there was enough slaughtering of animals during the season without adding it to mincemeat as well, and others that just didn’t have it to spare, so keeping mincemeat vegetarian today still fits well with tradition. Suet was later added, a relatively stable hard animal fat that melted when the pies were baked and mingled with the filling, making it thicker. Do leave it out if you prefer, or stir in a little thick apple purée to give it more body.
Shop-brought mincemeat can be really good, and the average types are often best: the extra economy ones and the ultra expensive both seem a bit off the mark to me. Start by tasting it, then add extra flavours that suit: nearly always add a little freshly grated lemon or orange zest, extra spice, extra brandy or rum and some cherries or nuts. The old recipes, like this one from Robert Smith’s Court Cookery (1725) used caraway seeds steeped overnight in “sack”, a kind of fortified wine like sherry. Today, you can follow Nigella’s lead and use cranberries and clementine zest to brighten the flavour.
Now, the pastry. Though puff pastry is more traditional, I’m a sucker for the slightly sweetened rich shortcrust pastry. The food writer Orlando Murrin has an utterly simple recipe and method for making a tender all-butter pastry that plenty of readers have commented on. My friend Angela Nilsen wrote a lovely recipe that uses a dollop of custard under the mincemeat so it becomes a mini-dessert in a pastry case. I do make my own pastry, but if you’re not feeling up to it there are some excellent all-butter shortcrust and puff pastries available. Also, there is a certain indestructibility to mince pies, and they can usually be frozen before (in the tin) or after baking (packed in an airtight bag) without a worry. Just make sure to bake them until piping hot inside before serving.
But when to make them, and when to stop? Samuel Pepys writes in his diary from 24th December 1663 that he returned home that evening to find his wife making mince pies, and I must say that I’ve usually had my fill by Christmas Eve. But there’s no historic reason why you shouldn’t make them on New Year’s Eve and into January, even as far the evening of the 5th on what’s known as the “Twelfth Night”.
So tell me, are you a mince pie buyer or a maker? I’ve a few secrets on how to get them out of the tin, but I’m not giving them out without a struggle. And that upper crust, do you crumble, roll, lattice or something else entirely? After years of mince pie making, I’m ready for some new ideas…
Dan Lepard is a food writer for the Guardian and a baking expert.