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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 in saying mince pie instead of minceMEAT pie. Meat was not something I wanted 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.

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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 strap on your Santa face and carry forth honorably to channel Darina Allen in your kitchen. 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.

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I am giving away one copy of Darina Allen’s A Simply Delicious Christmas. This epic compilation was first published in 1989, and is a much-loved cookbook, with tattered, well-worn copies surely to be found in most households in Ireland. Twenty-five years on, Darina is back with a stunning new edition, revised and updated to reflect today’s tastes. A Simply Delicious Christmas caters to every need over the festive season, from planning ahead for the Christmas Day feast to suggestions for drinks and nibbles for entertaining, including those magnificent mince pies; it really is what Irish Christmas memories are made of!

Be sure and leave a comment at the end of the blogpost to be in the drawing to win a copy of Darina’s beautiful new book before Christmas!

The traditional, tried and true, Ballymaloe House Mince Pie recipe
Ingredients
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)
egg wash
Method
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.)

Myrtle Allen’s Ballymaloe Homemade Mincemeat
Makes 3.2kg (7lb) approx 8-9 pots
Ingredients
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
Method
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!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos and styling by Imen McDonnell 2014

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One of the best bits about the holidays for me is all the baking and confections of the season. It’s the one time of year where you are likely to throw caution to the wind, indulge in all the festive sweets that your heart desires and chalk it up to holiday spirit. I personally think that is A-OK. That is, until the first day of the New Year when I can’t seem to fit into my stretchy yoga pants.

Over the weekend, my little baking assistant and I made magnificent mince pies. I discovered that these savory/sweet tiny tarts are perfect for little hands to help out with, and Geoffrey had loads of fun rolling then cutting out circles of pastry and spooning the mincemeat into each little case to be topped off with a star. Later we packaged the pies up all pretty and brought them across the road to share with family. They went down a treat and Geoffrey was delighted with himself.

I must say, mince pies in Ireland are so perfectly dainty and elegant looking. Even if you don’t like mincemeat, it’s impossibe to not pick up a parcel of these eye-catching pies delicately sprinkled with powdery icing sugar. They just seem to jump out at you when you’re browsing the market, oozing the essence of Christmas.

The beauty of mince pies came as a surprise to me, however, as, unless I am mistaken, you would be hard pressed to find mince pies trimming the aisles of every supermarket  in America at this time of year. (or any time of year, really) Remarkably, my grandmother made mincemeat pie for Thanksgiving every year as a part of her trinity of classic tarts: apple, pumpkin and mincemeat. Still, I do not recall witnessing a mince pie at a friend’s home nor a bakery or grocery store in the States. I remember as a child, we considered mincemeat pie extremely old-fashioned because only the adults took a slice for dessert. In our naïveté, we also thought it very strange that people would eat a ‘meat’ pie after a massive meaty meal.

At the weekend, my wee assistant and I will be hitting the kitchen again and attempting to make meringues for the first time. The recipe looks uncomplicated, but I’ve been told that either you can make them or not. I’m hoping for the former. Wish us luck!

Now, for more exciting holiday pressie news!  We put all the butchery course entries into a big milk pail and the farmer drew a name last evening. And, the winner of last week’s holiday giveaway is…drum roll please….Kristin Jensen! Congratulations Kristin, leave it to my farmer to pull another expat out of the mix! You will be joining me on 21st Feb at 6:30 and we will butcher the night away! Will be sending more details via email soon. Thanks so much to everyone for leaving a comment, even if you didn’t win a place on the course, I would encourage you to still sign up…it will be an excellent opportunity to learn about butchering techniques and where our meat comes from!

For my second lovely Christmas giveaway, I am very excited to announce that I have a stunning book from The History Press Ireland up for grabs. A Taste of Cork, A Gourmand’s Tour of its Food and Landscape by Seán Monaghan and Andrew Gleasure captures Cork’s rich and diverse landscape and presents it in a whole new light, combining the spectacular scenery with the artisan gourmet food producers who are so much a part of the culture. The book features Ummera Smoked Products, Cork’s English Market, Ardrahan Farmhouse Cheese and Lullaby Milk, McCarthys of Kanturk and many, many more sensational artisan food producers and beautiful Cork scenery. Leave a comment to be included in the draw. I will ship internationally!

Irish Mince Pies

For the homemade mincemeat

1lb sultanas

1lb beef suet (or a shredded veg suet)

8 oz mixed peel

2 oranges, juice and rind

6 tbsp brandy or cognac

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp mixed spice

1/2 tsp ground ginger

1lb raisins

2lb brown sugar

1lb cooking apples

2 lemons, juice and rind

1 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp ground cloves

In a large bowl, mix together all the dried fruit, suet, sugar and spices. Grate the apples and add in along with juice and zest from oranges and lemons.  Add brandy. Leave for 24 hours, then put into pots and seal.  (makes 8-10 jam jars)

For the pastry

200g/7oz plain flour, sifted

40g/1½oz caster sugar

75g/2¾oz ground almonds

125g/4½oz unsalted butter, diced

1 large free-range egg, beaten

milk, to glaze

Lightly butter a 12-hole pie/shallow muffin tin. Tip the mincemeat into a bowl and stir so that the liquid is evenly distributed.

Place the flour, sugar, almonds and butter in a food processor and process briefly until resembling breadcrumbs, then slowly add the egg. (Or rub the butter into the dry ingredients by hand and stir in egg)

Bring the mixture together with your hands, wrap in clingfilm and chill for an hour or so.

Thinly roll out the pastry on a floured surface. Cut out 12 circles with a fluted pastry cutter, large enough to fill the base of the prepared tin. Press gently into each hole, then fill with spoonfuls (as you like) of the mincemeat.

Cut out another 12 slightly smaller discs and 12 smaller stars and use to cover the mincemeat. Press the edges together to seal. Brush lightly with milk. Chill for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6.

Bake the pies for 20-25 minutes until golden brown. Remove to a wire rack and serve warm with lashings of brandy butter.

Happy Holidays!

Slan Abhaile,

Imen

Photos & Styling by Imen McDonnell 2011

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Mince Pies & Marzipan

15 Dec 2009

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Traditional Irish Christmas Cake

Well tis’ the season to be jolly… and sure enough, things can get quite jolly ‘round here. But, I must admit, being married to an Irish farmer also means that he can’t really be home with us for the entire holiday as the animals need to be tended to every day of the year. I guess I’ve taken for granted that the holidays are about loads of time off to spend with family and friends relaxing with a little cheer and reflecting on the year that was behind us (hint: never take this for granted). Still, we make a big effort to enjoy the time we do have together and are grateful for that.

In Ireland, Christmas Eve is not the big draw, possibly because Christmas Day and Christmas Day Eve are when the real festivities happen and then there’s a whole other lively day of celebration on the 26th, called St. Stephen’s Day. (Or Boxing Day in the UK) St. Stephen’s Day or the Feast of St. Stephen is a Christian Saint’s day and is  a national holiday in Ireland. It is also known as the “Day of the Wren” in many areas, ours included. We have another big feast on this day and then are visited by the “Wren Boys” who traditionally come into country homes and perform traditional Irish music through song and dance.  They come to the door playing their beautiful instruments such as the tin whistle, the concertina, Bodhráns and fiddles.  One person always has a (artificial)wren bird in a nest to symbolize the hunt of the wren who historically brought good luck to the villagers. Here is a link to a snippet of last year’s performance at the farmhouse. Geoffrey loves the Wren Boys and I can’t say I blame him as they are quite entertaining, and for me, something totally festive and different.

We’ll open the gifts at our holly-strewn home on Christmas morning and then Richard will go to work until later in the day when we have the big dinner at the home farmhouse. Peggy is preparing the meal this year and I am bringing the desserts—this year I’ll be trying my hand at an Irish Christmas Cake. No Irish Christmas would be complete without the this cake and for all of it’s elaborateness, it’s basically a fruit cake made to look pretty so I should be able to handle it. (wait a minute, is there a little personification going on there?). The frosting and little trimmings are made from marzipan, a staple here for cake decorating. We also have a new arrival in the family this year, D & R’s new beautiful baby girl, Gwynn, whom will be our guest of honour. Michael will prepare his plum pudding which is another gooey fruit-cakey concoction made with plums and raisins and something yucky called minced suet. The only good thing about plum pudding is that it’s served with a creamy brandy sauce or home-made rum raisin ice cream which are both delicious. Mince pies are always a given–they make mini ones which you see everywhere here and they are dusted with powdered sugar making them look really tasty which, of course, is totally deceiving. So, by now you must be wondering if there are any desserts that I would actually eat for the holidays! Why yes, the best one of all, trifle! I love trifle. It is much like a parfait in a big pretty glass bowl: boozy sponge cake layered with golden custard and luscious fruit covered in cream.  I also love the crunchy meringues with mixed berries and dollups of fresh cream.

When we sit down to dinner on Christmas we begin by opening the Christmas crackers.  A cracker consists of a cardboard tube wrapped in a brightly decorated twist of paper, making it resemble an oversized candy-wrapper. Two people pull and it breaks unevenly (making a popping sound) and leaves one person with the bigger half which holds a paper crown (which you then happily wear for the rest of the day) and a little surprise, perhaps a small trinket, a riddle or some other fun tchotke. I personally think everyone in the world should celebrate with Christmas crackers. They are loads of fun!

When all of the Christmas and St. Stephen’s Day cheer is complete there is still yet another Christmas to celebrate, and that is called “Little Christmas” or Nollaig na mBan which falls on Jan 6th.  It is also referred to as “Women’s Christmas” because it is a day where the men traditionally donned aprons and did all the cooking and cleaning whilst the women relaxed and were taken care of for the day. Despite the fact that this seems terribly un-pc, I’ve read that it is being picked up as a tradition in the USA more and more. My father-in-law makes dinner for us all on this day..usually a goose, and it’s quite humorous to see him doing all the work inside as Peggy usually rules the roost. It’s certainly nice to see her get a break from being the domestic goddess of Dunmoylan for a change.

This will be my last post until the New Year. So Nollaig Mhaith Chugat and a Happy, Happy New Year to you all!

Slán Abhaile,

Imen

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