At the start of Allison Pearson’s novel I Don’t Know How She Does It, there’s a fantastic scene that any busy working mother can relate to. Our heroine is in the kitchen well after midnight on a night near to Christmas, bashing store-bought mince pies with a rolling pin so they no longer look perfect and instead give the impression of something carefully homemade.
In the morning she has to front up at school with some Christmas baking, and her “homemade” plate will help her avoid the judgemental stares of the snooty stay-at-home mothers at her daughter’s posh school. In this simplest of ways she can maintain the façade of her superwoman status.
Christmas Mince Pies
We’ve always made Christmas mince pies at home at this time of year. They are the essence of Christmas in our culture, very much a legacy from our English heritage, and one New Zealanders have hung onto probably for no other reason than the fact they so are dammed delicious.
But today’s spicy, sweet, fruity pies actually started out as savoury pies made with minced meat back in the Middle Ages. When spices and dried fruits were introduced by the Crusaders from the East in around the 13th Century, these new ingredients were all the rage and turned up in all manner of dishes.
Early mincemeat pies were made with minced beef, combined with suet (beef fat), fruit and spices. By the Victorian era, they had become smaller and sweeter, without the meat, and more like the Christmas morsels we enjoy today.
The Mincemeat recipe from Mrs Isabella Beeton’s 1861 tome Beeton's Book of Household Management calls for a pound and a half of raw beef mince as well as three pounds or raw beef suet.
More recognisable (and palatable) to today's cooks is her other mincemeat recipe, which she calls Excellent Mincement. This includes a pound (500g) each of suet, currants and raisins, two pounds of sugar, the grated and cooked rind and pulp of three lemons, the flesh of three cored and baked apples, an ounce (30g) each of candied citron, orange peel and lemon peel, two tablespoons of orange marmalade and a teacup of brandy. "This should be made the first or second week in December," Mrs Beeton instructs.
When a recipe gets embedded into a culture, each household will have their own take on how to make it. I like my Christmas Fruit Mince without the suet, preferring a lighter, lower-fat mix with more apple and brown sugar to give the desired oozy texture in the filling and a wonderful caramel flavour. Often I will add chopped pine nuts or hazelnuts and use rum instead of brandy.
Make Christmas Mince a Few Weeks Before Using
No matter how you make Christmas mince, one thing you do want to do is age it in a covered jar in the fridge for a few days, and ideally for at least a couple of weeks – it just gets better and better. I still have some in my fridge from last year and it’s absolutely fantastic, the flavours rich and complex with the headiness of the brandy infused with all the lovely spices and citrus.
If you’re in a hurry, but not quite at the stage of having to bash store-bought pies with a rolling pin, you can take a great shortcut with a container of commercial fruit mince. Mix it with a cup of currants soaked for 10 minutes in boiling water then drained, a grated apple, quarter of a cup of brown sugar and two tablespoons of brandy. You can add extra spices too if you like.
Christmas Mince Tarts
Once you have your Christmas mince in the jar there are so many good ways to use it. I often make a large Festive Fruit Mince Tart with cut out pastry stars on the top for a party dessert, served warm with a dusting of icing sugar (left).
And of course Christmas isn’t Christmas without a stash of mini bite-sized pies. They will keep fresh for about a week in a sealed container and they also freeze well. If they seem a bit stale just pop them into a 180˚C oven for 5 minutes to refresh them.
Store-bought sweet butter shortcrust pastry is fine to use but if you do have the time make your own. It’s dead simple in a mixer or food processor, and the taste is WOW.
Other Ways to Use Christmas Mince
For a speedy cold Christmassy dessert, stir sweet mincemeat through softened vanilla ice cream and refreeze, like a simple festive cassata.
Sometimes I just heat the fruit mincemeat up, dollop it onto vanilla ice cream and cooked apricots and then flambee it with a little heated brandy.
Or try mixing it with mascarpone or cream cheese as a filling for crepes or a cooked pastry case topped with fresh blueberries or raspberries and a dusting of icing sugar.
Homemade Gifts of Christmas Mince
Because it keeps so well, Christmas mince makes a wonderful gift. Every year I make up several batches, which I spoon into small jars, tie with a ribbon and personalise with gift tags. Put a bit of effort into packaging and you’ll have something that tastes and looks at least as good as anything store-bought, with a totally personal touch. Click here to download my free designer gift tags.