A Taste of Home –
Mincemeat Pies with all the Trimmings
To me, Christmas means Home, it always has. I’m talking about the holiday buzz going around the home, which becomes this heavy duty delicious-food-cooking, tree-decorating, gift-wrapping apparatus that works hours on end to ultimately serve as the greatest memories maker ever.
And speaking of memories, I distinctly remember my house growing up and the way my grandma’s kitchen smelled when she cooked for Christmas Eve dinner and it was a mouth slobbering concoction of the wonderful things on the stove, in the oven, on the chopping board or in the simmering pot. Mornings smelled of bay leaf, fenugreek and cooked turkey liver and afternoons of pound cake dough and orange zest. Presumably, all Romanian home cooks use these ingredients when they prepare their Christmas dishes, but even so, never do two kitchens smell alike. I truly believe that each kitchen has its precise equation of molecules that added together make up for a unique aroma.
As for the holiday food and the memories around it, I could easily make do without certain staple courses, such as braised pork or chowder, but I think I’d be pretty miserable without my mom’s stuffed cabbage rolls, her walnut pound cake or the Bouche de Noel. I’d survive, for sure, but it would be a grim and lacking existence.
And this brings me to my British friend who’s been living and celebrating Christmas in Bucharest for ten years. All this while he’s been deprived of the smell and the taste of Christmas memories. This year his wife and him have invited me and my family over for Christmas lunch and I asked them if there’s a specific traditional Christmas dessert he’d like me to make and bring over, to which he immediately responded with “Mincemeat pies”!
I have to admit I had never heard about mincemeat pies and in my mind, the association of dessert with the word “meat” sounded dubious. After a thorough investigation, I discovered that mincemeat in fact stands for chopped dried fruit cooked with a dash of brandy, port and spices. Originally it did also contain meat (veal or venison), but nowadays it’s usually made with beef suet or vegetable shortening. I’ve made a vegetarian version, because I wanted to go all the way and balance the pies with some nice brandied butter, which I figured is rich enough on its own.
A really nice thing about this dessert is that most of it can be made ahead, the mincemeat, as well as the brandied butter, keep very well in the fridge. The only thing you need to do the same day you’ll be serving them is the dough (which is pretty easy to make), the assembling, the baking and of course, the devouring of said pies. And you shall devour them, as they are melt-in-your-mouth delicious with a wonderful Christmassy flavour, brought on by all the lovely spices.
The recipe below makes about 24 pies, enough to serve around 8-12 people
For the pastry:
750g/26oz plain flour
500g/18oz butter, softened at room temperature
250g/8oz caster sugar
2 free-range eggs
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the flour, butter, sugar and eggs together with a splash of cold water until it just comes together as a dough. This can also be done by hand, rubbing everything together until it forms a dough. Divide the pastry in two, wrap them in cling film and chill in the fridge for at least an hour.
For the mincemeat:
75g/2½oz soft dark brown sugar
60ml/2fl oz port
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cloves
75g/2½oz gold raisins
30g/1oz dried cranberries
1 orange, zest and juice
25ml/1fl oz brandy
a couple of drops almond extract
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp honey
In a large pan, dissolve the sugar in the port over low heat. Add the cranberries and stir. Then, add the cinnamon, ginger and cloves, currants, golden raisins, dried cranberries and the zest and juice of the orange. Bring everything to a gentle simmer and cook for about 20 minutes, until the cranberries begin to pop and the fruits have broken down and taken in most of the liquid. With the aid of a wooden spoon, squish the cranberries until incorporated. Remove from the heat and allow to cool a little, then add the brandy, almond extract, vanilla extract and honey and stir well until the mixture becomes a paste. Use immediately or store in a jar in the fridge for up to two weeks.
For the brandied butter:
125g/4oz unsalted butter, softened
250g/8oz icing sugar
4 tbsp boiling water
6 tbsp brandy
Cream together the butter and the icing sugar. Beat in the boiling water and brandy until smooth. Chill in the fridge until needed.
Assembling the mincemeat pies:
Roll out the first ball of pastry to a 3mm/1/8in thickness. With a round pastry cutter or the rim of a large glass, cut out 12 discs of pastry of about cm diameter. Press the pastry into the muffin cups and fill each one with a spoonful of mincemeat mixture, so that it reaches three-quarters of the way up the side of the pastry-lined cup. With a fluted pastry cutter, cut out 6 x 8cm/3¼ in pastry circles for the lids (slightly bigger than the top of the muffin cups). Place a lid on top of each pie and gently push down. Sprinkle with brown or coconut sugar. Place in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes. While the first batch is baking, repeat the assembling process with the second tray. After the first tray is ready, remove from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool slightly. Pop the second batch in the oven and when they’re ready and, take out all the pies and serve warm with the brandied butter.