“Q: Who hides in the bakery at Christmas?
A: A Mince Spy!”
Christmas cracker joke
Mince pies are another Christmas commodity that is, like brandy butter (see How to Make Truly Boozyful Brandy Butter), much better made than bought in a supermarket. However, the good news is that they freeze: they can be made miles ahead of time, in the calm, halcyon days of autumn even, and so making them doesn’t need to add to the general seasonal pandemonium. Quite the contrary, they are a source of almost instant food to satisfy even the most insistent of midnight hunger pangs, or to step into the breach of a missing pudding.
Mince pies can be frozen uncooked, and then baked on the bottom of a roasting oven (210°C) for 8-10 minutes (keep checking them).
Alternatively, you can freeze them fully cooked, and simply reheat individually as and when required.
And finally, since your fridge and freezer may well be already packed to the gunnels, it’s useful to know that they keep very well (up to a month I find) in an airtight container in a cool, dark larder.
I’ve developed this way of cooking mince pies over decades, but I have to give credit for three key techniques to two of my culinary heroines.
For the idea of adding orange juice and zest to the pastry; and for the idea of adding further moisture and richness to the filling with a layer of cream cheese, I acknowledge the cookery writer Jocelyn Dimbleby.
For the idea of adding yet more moisture plus a bit of flair by soaking the mincemeat in brandy, I credit model, muse, photographer and war reporter Lee Miller (see On Lee Miller).
Do they really need additional brandy butter? And what of the puritan approach – substituting the cream cheese for cranberries?
These mince pies are very rich – unless youthful and taking vigorous exercise you will probably find one leaves you feeling comfortably replete. The cream cheese, as I have mentioned, is what makes them so opulent, and personally – I am a fundamentalist on this issue – I find them sufficient of themselves.
But at least four out of six regular devourers insist that a brandy butter accompaniment is essential. The cream cheese dissolves into the bed of mincemeat below it (as you can see from the image below) and the argument is that, post-cooking and reheating, the devourer needs to remove the pastry lid, add in a good dollop of brandy butter, replace lid and enjoy….
Then there is the more disciplined approach. I notice that recently (a couple of years ago) Mrs Dimbleby replaced the moisture-giving cream cheese element with fresh cranberries – it’s an intriguing idea, and probably a much healthier one, but I still reckon the original version, plus the booze-soaking method is better.
What to do with the leftover mincemeat
You’ll find you have to buy an 820g jar of mincemeat for this recipe, so you’ll have some left. Try:
- Making shortbread or anzac biscuits and adding the leftover mincemeat to the dough
- Loosen with brandy or rum and convert it into a hot sauce for ice cream
- Make baked apples and use it to fill the hollowed out core, alternatively add to apple pies and strudels
The history of the mince pie
Mince pies come originally from the Middle East – a technique of mixing sweet, dried fruit with savoury meat. You can see recipes for two excellent versions of this in Luscious and Lovely Filo Pie; and Cretan Carnivale Pork Pie. In the thirteenth century crusaders brought the recipe back to Britain where the religious link remained and it became known as shrid pie (I think from the original past participle of ‘shred’), or Christmas pie and comprised minced mutton (or, in the north of England), suet, dried fruits and spices (cinnamon, nutmeg etc). They were large, rectangular pies originally.
The puritans associated the pies with Catholicism and they tried to ban them…along with Christmas itself.
Over time the meat content, and the size, of the pies reduced.
“In Stratford, as a child, I had looked forward to Christmas. My mother baked shred pies, the traditional dish, mixing shredded mutton, which represented the shepherds, with thirteen fruits and spices, which stood for Christ and his twelve apostles. She usually made four or five, each large enough to feed a dozen people and I would help take the unbaked pies to Hamnet Sadler, the baker in Sheep Street where all our neighbours would take their own pastries to be cooked in his big ovens. Then, over the twelve days, we would visit each other’s houses to eat the pies. There was singing, dancing and laughter, and there were wassail bowls of mulled ale, spices and chopped apples.”
The character, Richard Shakespeare (brother of William), in Bernard Cornwell’s Fools and Mortals
Recipe for making marvellous mince pies – the secret is the orange
For about 24
- 480g/4 cups/about 1 lb plain flour
- 170g/¾ cup golden caster sugar (plus an additional 3 tbsps)
- 375g/12 oz/1½ bricks of butter
- 1 large orange
- 280g/10 oz/1 large tub Philadelphia cream cheese
- 600g/1 lb 5 oz/2⅔ cups good quality mincemeat (find a Womens’ Institute!)
- 3 tbsps brandy (or you can use rum which I think is better – but if you are serving with brandy butter, best to stick to brandy)
- Milk for glazing
- Brandy butter (go here for How to Make Truly Boozyful Brandy Butter)
- Sift the flour into a large mixing bowl.
- Add in the sugar.
- Cut the butter into dice and add almost all of it (save a couple of dice for greasing the tin) slowly into the bowl, mixing them in with your fingers as you go.
- Zest the orange directly into the bowl.
- Then loosely juice the orange into the bowl – squeeze gently to begin with and mix the juice in with a knife. The dough should just begin to stick to itself… if it doesn’t squeeze the orange more vigorously.
- Form the dough into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and put in the fridge for half an hour or so (or, if you are in a tearing hurry put it in the freezer).
- Meanwhile soak the mincemeat in the brandy
- Mix the cream cheese and the additional 3 tbsps of golden caster sugar in another mixing bowl (or you could save washing up and use the same one you used for the pastry).
- Preheat the oven to 210°C (use the bottom of the AGA roasting oven).
- When the pastry is cool, roll it out on a lightly floured surface.
- Cut out the lids first (using a 5 cm/2” pastry cutter) while the pastry is ‘shortest’ (ie still contains a lot of butter – this gives the pastry a crumbly texture). Rerolled pastry will be a bit firmer and is better for the pie bases.
- Reflour the surface, reroll, and cut out the bases using an 8 cm/3” cutter.
- Grease a couple of twelve hole baking tins with the remaining butter.
- Line with the bases and divide the mincemeat between them. Put a teaspoon of the cream cheese mix on the top of each, and, if there is any left, divide that,even-handedly, among the pies.
- Put on the lids, pressing the pastry seams together, make a small slit in each pie to allow the steam to escape and prevent the pies from getting soggy, brush with milk and bake in the centre of the oven for about 15 minutes – until they are golden.
- Allow the pies to cool in their tins (otherwise they tend to disintegrate) before putting into whatever container you plan to store them in.
- Serve hot, with brandy butter
This post is dedicated to Madeleine McLaughlin…. who I gave this recipe to some 25 years ago, and who is still using it every Christmas.