WereRabbits got a Christmas present in the shape of a guest post! The lovely Cheryl sent it to me. It contains a delicious Christmas sweet from the British islands. Thanks, dear!
What could possibly heighten the Christmas spirit more than carols on the radio and the warm scent of Christmas cooking wafting through the house? Here in the UK, that particular scent could be turkey with crisp bacon or chestnuts roasting on an open fire (or, at least, in the oven). Most probably, though, the real scent of Christmas is that of brandy, of spices, of citrus and of dark, succulent vine fruits being baked. Several of our most traditional Christmas desserts are based around that festive combination. Our Christmas cake is a dark, brandy-soaked fruit cake, covered in a layer of marzipan and hard, white icing. Up the fruit and booze content, add such goodies as stout, carrots and suet, and you have the Christmas pudding – the dense, almost-black ball of rich fruitiness which is carried to the Christmas table after the turkey dinner, and which, to the cheers of assembled friends and family is doused in hot brandy and set ablaze, flickering with a blue, almost transparent flame.
Probably the most prolific of our Christmas desserts, though, is the humble mince pie. It pops up everywhere during December – at carol concerts and workplace lunches, or served in place of the Christmas pudding for the many who find it too rich, too heavy. It’s a dessert, a snack, even a breakfast; it’s what the casual house guest will be offered over the festive season when popping round to drop off a card or present.
Ready-made pies are on sale everywhere over December, but they’re easy enough to make yourself. This year I cheated, buying ready-made mincemeat; when I’m making more effort I follow this recipe from Delia Smith, the grande dame of traditional British cooking.
Despite the name, mincemeat actually contains no meat at all; it’s evolved over the years from a spiced meat mix to a mash of fruit, nuts, brandy and suet. The fat and brandy preserve the fruit, meaning that it’ll keep happily for months; my mum has kept homemade mincemeat for years. Delia’s recipe is a traditional one, with apple, nuts, vine fruits and candied peel, but there are countless variations that can be made or even bought – nut-free versions for the allergic, fruit-rich ones with cherries or cranberries. As long as you keep to the basic proportions, the actual fruits and nuts can be selected as you see fit; my mum once made a very nice version with just apples and ginger. If you’re making it, prepare a big batch – anything left over from the pies can be used for various cakes, tray bakes and desserts, and is delicious stuffed into a cored apple and baked. The only non-vegetarian ingredient – and the only one that can be a problem to get outside of the UK – is suet, the fat used to melt and coat the fruits. This is, as I discovered when I lived in France and had to order it specially from the local butcher, the fat from around a cow’s kidneys; here in the UK it is neatly sanitised into a little pellets that can be bought in packets in the supermarket (the lading brand is “Saxo”, who also make a vegetarian version based on palm oil). It is possible to make a mincemeat using butter instead of suet.
Once the mincemeat is made, it’s traditionally cooked in shallow pies around 5 cm across. Typically a “mince pie tray” will allow you to make 12 pies, and you can buy special fluted pastry cutters – otherwise, the rim of a cup works well. This year, I made some of my pies with puff pastry (shop-bought) and the rest with a homemade shortcrust. This is very easy to make yourself, using the simple rule of “half fat to flour, and half butter, half lard” (replace lard with a hard, white margarine, for veggies). This year I used 200g of plain, white flour, with 50g each of butter and lard, which was enough for about 15 pies. Mix the fat and flour together until the mixture is of a breadcrumb consistency, then knead in a little water (you’ll need to use your hands) until you get a dough that comes away from the sides of the bowl, and which you can roll easily. Roll it out and cut out large circles for the bases of your pies (just big enough to fill the indentations, coming up to the top at the sides), and small circles to make lids. Then grease your tin and pop in the bases. Add a teaspoon of mincemeat per pie, then top with the lids, sticking them down with a little milk. Once the pies are made, brush milk over the top and make a little hole in each with a skewer, to let hot air escape. Cook them at 200C for about 25 minutes, by which time they should be a lovely golden colour. Move them to a wire rack to cool, and sprinkle a little sifted icing sugar on top.
You can serve the pies cold or (better) hot, or top them with cream, custard or brandy butter (mix butter, brandy and sugar until it tastes delicious, eat and await heart attack) as a luxusious dessert. Best of all, serve them with a glass of mulled wine – delicious. Cheers, everyone – and merry Christmas!