I’m a sucker for all the Christmas food traditions.
I love all the rich foods and seasonal drinks that come into their own over the festive season like Christmas pudding and cake, gingerbread, trifles, creamed sprouts, sauces, sugared almonds, Turkish delight and mulled wines.
But my all-time favourite is mince pies.
I don’t know why I like them so much, perhaps because they really are a taste of Christmas in a convenient bite sized form.
And by that I mean they contain all the spicy seasonal ingredients we have come to associate with this time of year: nutmeg, dark brown sugar, candied peel, chewy currants, raisins and sultanas, lemon and lots of alcohol all encased in a thick, buttery pastry case.
Most people buy their mince pies readymade these days. Why is beyond me. Most are awful; dry, hard and filled with cheap tasting mincemeat.
But we still take pleasure in making our own here at Food Social – including the mincemeat.
It’s dead easy to make. I don’t know why more people don’t do it. All you have to do is mix all the ingredients together in a bowl and either use immediately or spoon into sterilised jars, cover and leave for a couple of weeks in a cool place to mature before using. You don’t even have to cook the mixture.
Homemade mincemeat will keep for at least six months in an un-opened jar (alcohol is a great preservative).
Mince pies are special anyway (perhaps because unlike some other seasonal foods such as hot cross buns which seem to be available to buy all year round now, they are only eaten at Christmas), but I think they taste extra nice when someone has made the effort to make everything themselves.
You can identify every individual flavour from the spices to the candied peel and even the apples - which in the commercially made varieties usually turn to mush - still have some texture and bite.
There’s no comparison with the shop bought stuff which is cloyingly syrupy – even for me with my sweet tooth.
Of course, mincemeat used to actually contain meat (usually beef or mutton), hence the name, alongside the currants and raisins, mixed spices, lemons, sugar and beef suet we are familiar with today.
It was in the 18th Century that the meat began to be phased out. Hexham born recipe writer Hannah Glasse in her home management book, The Art of Cookery, published in 1747, says it’s optional.
Mind, I’m not sure you’d want to make her mince pie recipe either. It uses 1lb of sugar, 50 apples, 4lb of dried fruit and 3lb of suet! Her recommendation for those still wanting to use meat is to parboil an ox tongue, chop finely and mix with the rest of the ingredients.
We put old fashioned festive meat mince pies on the menu here at the restaurant a few years ago using an historic 18th Century recipe unearthed at Wallington, the National Trust property in Northumberland.
They contained boiled beef and I have to say weren’t to my taste, perhaps because I have become used to the modern way of making them based on 19th Century recipes when the meat part was dropped once and for all from mince pies.
I know the opening of that first Advent calendar door marks the countdown to Christmas for most people, but for me it’s that first mouthful of the first mince pie.
They are an essential part of the festive foodie story and seem to punctuate every occasion from parties to family gatherings and even lazy evenings at home. But I try to avoid cooking my first proper batch until December 1. You can have too much of a good thing – especially as the run-up to Christmas seems to be getting longer every year.
That’s my bah, humbug! moment out of the way. Just remember not to be a Scrooge with those mince pies once December rolls in.
- Andrew Wilkinson is head chef at Food Social @ The Biscuit Factory, Shieldfield, Newcastle, NE2 1AN, 0191 260 5411, www.foodsocial.co.uk . Open 12pm-2pm and 5.30pm-10pm Monday-Saturday and 12pm-3pm Sunday.
Mince Pies (makes 24 small pies or 12 medium)
- 225g apples, peeled
- 1 lemon, juice and zest
- 1 orange, juice and zest
- ¼tsp cinnamon
- 100g mixed peel
- Pinch nutmeg
- 2tsp mixed spice
- 100g suet, beef or vegetarian
- 175g raisins
- 75g ground almonds
- 175g dark brown sugar
- 110g sultanas
- 110g currants
- 3tbs brandy
Sweet Shortcrust Pastry:
- 250g plain flour
- 100g chilled butter
- Pinch salt
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 100g icing sugar
- Fairy cake tin
- 1 egg, beaten
To make the mincemeat, combine all the ingredients except the brandy together. Cover with cling film and refrigerate for a couple of days if possible but at least overnight to allow all the flavours to infuse. Finish off by stirring in the brandy.
Make the pastry by rubbing together the flour, butter and salt with your fingertips until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the icing sugar and eggs and form into a soft dough.
Wrap in cling film or a plastic bag and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Once the pastry is chilled, preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Brush a fairy cake tin or small individual pie tins with a little melted butter.
Roll the pastry out to a thickness of 3mm on a floured work surface, and using a 6mm cutter make 24 circles for the bases (or if using the pie tins 12 bases made with a saucer).
Cut out the same number of circles for the tops. Or you can make a lattice pattern instead by cutting out pastry strips or even festive stars.
Line the holes of the tin with the pastry rounds and fill with the mincemeat. Place another round on top, press in and cut off any excess pastry.
Brush the tops with a little beaten egg and bake for between 10-15 minutes until golden brown.
Cool for five minutes before removing from the tins, dust with a little icing sugar and serve with vanilla ice cream or custard.