Mince pies. Those lovely little devils. If only they had been called mince pies when I was a child. There seems to be a bit more mystery to a mince pie than a minceMEAT pie. Meat was not something I desired in a pie when I was 10 and sitting at my grandmother’s Thanksgiving Day table waiting patiently for dessert. No matter if such a pie had been lovingly prepared, nestled up in a tea towel, and kept cosy on top of a warm tumble dryer alongside his sweet, fragrant friends, pumpkin and apple.
“No mincemeat pie for me,” I would say year after year, which was always followed by the obligatory “one day you’ll know what you’re missing.” (which, by the by, has now been inducted (inherited?) into my ridiculous lexicon of parental vernacular, alongside “were you born in a barn?” (close!) and “hold your horses!” (goes without saying)
Ironically, and most happily surprising, I really didn’t know what I was missing when I declined Grandma Johnson’s mincemeat pie. Turns out this mincing of meat is really pretty terrific. When it doesn’t have meat in it, that is. (Although, having learned that mincemeat pie actually originated in the Middle East, I wouldn’t turn my nose up at a savoury/sweet Ottolenghi-fied twist on the classic…but I digress…)
In my humble mincemeat research, I found a North American filling recipe that was published in 1854 which included chopped neat’s (beef) tongue, beef suet, blood raisins (yikes!), currants, mace, cloves, nutmeg, brown sugar, apples, lemons, brandy and orange peel. It was said that this mincemeat could be preserved for up to ten years. Then, on one special Monday at the turn of the 20th century, meatless mincemeat was introduced and the world was a better place. Now that I have sampled a host of variations, I am proud to point out that I am particularly partial to a cranberry-walnut blended mincemeat filling.
I mention all of this because mince pies are the cornerstone of Irish holiday baking. They are what hot cross buns are to Easter. Quotidian. They are always the first smattering of Christmas spirit to hit the bakeries and markets across this fair country and the last to leave. When you see the mince pies, you know that elaborate Christmas cakes are not far behind. Their debut tips you off to the perfect storm of puddings that lies ahead. From that day forward, you are granted the perfect excuse to whip up a boozy brandy butter, and sip copious amounts of mulled wine with friends and family… or, not with friends and family.
This weekend, we had our 2nd annual DIY holiday wreath-making party. The first thing I did was bake up a batch of Ballymaloe mince pies along with a few fun variations. Afterward, Geoffrey and I headed down to the wood to collect holly and ivy, evergreens and laurel leaves. We snipped branches from the olive tree and rosemary in our garden. Then, we made our traditional rosemary-mint cake, this time with chocolate instead of a snowy white sponge. My sister-in-law and her three children came over on Sunday afternoon and we gathered round the table to craft three wreaths. One for each of our homes, and another to place on Peggy’s grave with a prayer. We sipped mulled wine and nibbled on warm pies slathered up in zesty orange brandy butter and planned the big Christmas Day meal. Then, when everyone went home and Geoffrey was off to the farm to feed the calves, I cleaned up our workstations, sat down, and savoured every last morsel of the lone mince pie left on the platter.
Grandma would be proud.
Miniature Mince Pies
225g (8oz) plain flour
175g (6oz) butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1 dessertspoon icing sugar, sieved
a pinch of salt
a little beaten egg or egg yolk and water to bind
1lb mincemeat (see recipe below)
Sieve the flour into a bowl. Toss the butter into the flour and rub it in with your fingertips. Add the icing sugar and a pinch of salt. Mix with a fork as you gradually add in the beaten egg (do this bit by bit because you may not need all of the egg), then use your hand to bring the pastry together into a ball. It should not be wet or sticky. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 180c/350f/gas mark 4
Roll out the pastry until it’s quite thin – about 3mm (1/8 inch) Stamp into rounds 7.5 (3 inch) in diameter and line shallow bun tins with the discs. Put a good teaspoonful of mincemeat into each tin, dampen the edges with water and put another round on top. Brush with egg wash and decorate with pastry leaves or stars.
Bake the pies in the preheated oven for 20 minutes approx. Allow them to cool slightly, then dredge with icing or caster sugar. Serve with Irish whiskey cream (or brandy butter.)
Makes 3.2kg (7lb) approx 8-9 pots
2 cooking apples
2 organic lemons
900g (2lbs) Barbados sugar (soft, dark brown sugar)
450g (1lb) beef suet
450 (1lb) sultanas
224 (8oz) currants
110g (4oz) candied citrus peel
70ml (2.5fl oz) Irish whiskey
2 tbsp Seville orange marmalade
pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 180c/350f/gas mark 4
Core and bake whole apples in the preheated oven for 30 minutes approx. Allow to cool. When they are soft, remove the skin and pips and mash the flesh into a pulp.
Grate the rind from the lemons on the finest part of the stainless steel grater, squeeze out the juice and stir into the pulp
Grate the rind from the lemons on the finest part of a stainless steel grater, squeeze out the juice and stir into the pulp. Add the other ingredients one by one, and as they are added, mix everything thoroughly. Put into sterilized jars, cover and leave to mature for two weeks before using. This mincemeat will keep for two to three years in a cool, airy place.
The winner of Rochelle Bilow’s signed book, The Call of the Farm is YVONNE CORNELL. Many, many thanks to everyone for their heartfelt turkey comments, you have helped me in ways you’ll never know!
Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2014
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