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How to make fabulously festive mince pies

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Dan Lepard Dan Lepard | 13:44 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010

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.

Mince pies

 

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.

Christmas mincemeat

 

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.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Mince pies are too nice to have just for Christmas, I like to make them when ever I fancy them.

    They make a lovely dessert with custard, at any time.

  • Comment number 2.

    I make sweet shortcrust pastry with SR flour - the pastry keeps really well when cooked and stays soft - exactly what you need for mincepies which you probably want to keep for at least a week.

    I buy mincemeat, but often add more grated apple to reduce the sweetness.

    I also like to sprinkle the lids with granulated sugar before cooking, rather than icing sugar after cooking - a frosty rather than snowy look.

  • Comment number 3.

    We make 'em. I usually overfill and there are leaks everywhere, Wiki are you listening? but they all get eaten anyway. We use plain all butter shortcrust pastry and one or two of Pam Corbin's recipes from Preserves for mincemeat. I like the one with the plum sauce and no suet, but the one with the cherries and suet also has a strong following here.


  • Comment number 4.

    Hi Zeb,
    I found that is you bake them at a rather high temperature - I know, somewhat counter intuitive - the leak less as the pastry browns before the filling hits boiling point.

    Sue-L,
    I'm with you on the caster (or even granulated) sugar sprinkled over after cooking, or even a few minutes before they're ready so the sugar bakes on.

    Dan

  • Comment number 5.

    Hi Dan, love your baking recipes although I substitute vegan (sometimes wholemeal)ingredients but they still taste great to me. I also love rye which might work with the carraway seeds.
    So my pies will be a mix of shop mince, homemade pastry and any tips I pick up here - I never stick to a recipe word for word as I enjoy experimenting. Happy Xmas - Ax

  • Comment number 6.

    I just want to know how they get those pretty patterns on the top of the ones in the picture! Any ideas?

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 8.

    MrsMoo2 we used a stencil but using a paper doily and a dusting of icing sugar will give the same effect.

  • Comment number 9.

    I sometimes use crumble instead of a pastry topping, Mincemeat is less likely to boil out as it isn't constrained. Would white rum be suitable to add to shop mincemeat??

  • Comment number 10.

    Hi Kingcups,
    Yes white rum would give the flavour an intense spirited kick but you could try mixing a little dark brown or muscovado sugar with it to add a rich molasses flavour to it. Other spirits to try: apple brandy or calvados, an orange liqueur like Cointreau... or even a little lemoncello.

    Dan

  • Comment number 11.

    Getting them out of the tin usually isn't a problem unless I can't wait until they cool!

  • Comment number 12.

    I've been robbed of a correct answer in the BBC Baking Quiz. Mince pies did in the past have meat in them. There are many references available on the internet and from cookery programmes to suggest this was the case, in mixing meat and sweet in the same dish. As with this recipe for Mince Pies from 1844 http://tinyurl.com/6bs8dfm . Can I have my point now?

  • Comment number 13.

    I totally agree with caz! I knew the correct answer to this question as I love old American as well as Amish Cookbooks, not too mention standing in the kitchen with my grandmother as she taught me the old ways.
    From Mince Pie's Wiki Page- "Gervase Markham's 1615 recipe recommends taking "a leg of mutton", and cutting "the best of the flesh from the bone", before adding mutton suet, pepper, salt, cloves, mace, currants, raisins, prunes, dates and orange peel. He also suggested that beef or veal might be used in place of mutton. In the north of England, goose was used in the pie's filling, but more generally neat's tongue was also used; a North American filling recipe published in 1854 includes chopped neat's tongue, beef suet, blood raisins, currants, mace, cloves, nutmeg, brown sugar, apples, lemons, brandy and orange peel."

  • Comment number 14.

    I have to agree with Caz and Tamera! Even the BBC's own website says they contained meat http://www.bbc.co.uk/victorianchristmas/activity/mince-pies.shtml
    *le sigh* Still - I got a different one wrong too - but my sister was crowing about her 7/7 so we've decided you were wrong and we were equal ;)

  • Comment number 15.

    You’re going to take your wrong answer on the chin, Caz, Tamera and icklepeach… and we’re all (me included) going to have to read questions and answers in more detail. If you re-read the quiz question you’ll see how the answer is correct.

    The quiz question was: Traditionally, these were ****always**** made with meat as well as dried fruit and spices.

    So, were they “always” made with meat? No, not always. Typical recipes for mincemeat did often contain meat but there are records of recipes where it is left out or optional.

    Here’s the history bit: you have to separate the name “mincemeat” from the fact that many recipes contained meat. Much like some early “cheesecakes” that only contained ground almonds, eggs and butter, early mixtures of dried fruits in alcohol were called “meat” for their appearance firstly: it looked like chopped meat. So early “cheese” mixtures for baking would resemble curd cheese, but often were made without.

    Now, you get on to the more interesting question of why meat was added. If suet and meat was available it would be added, but if it wasn’t it would be left out, and it would be added just to add extra richness. Though we think of vegetarian living as a modern concept, we have records of people choosing to live without meat and dishes would be made accordingly. As I write above:

    “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.”

    I know, commonly held beliefs are not always as exciting as historical facts, but yes we do have old recipes for mincemeat without meat.

    Dan

 

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