“As many mince pies as you have at Christmas, so many happy months will you have.”–Old English Saying
Were you ever threatened by your parents as a child to be turned into mincemeat? I was. Not very often, but the threat has stuck with me. That was a threat reserved for when either my sisters or I were being particularly obnoxious. It was either get ground into mincemeat or be sold to the gypsies. Given the option, I would rather be sold to the gypsies.
Mincemeat pie is, in fact, as old as the Crusades, and it dates to when soldiers were returning from the Middle East to Europe with new foods and cooking methods. It became a way of preserving meat without smoke or salt. Salt was a commodity that only the wealthy could afford, and smoking meat used fuel—firewood—that could otherwise be used to heat your home.
The three spices added to the pie—cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg—were considered symbolic of the three gifts of the Magi—the three kings—think of the song We Three Kings (not the one about the cigars exploding). The pie was oblong shaped originally instead of round, to symbolize a manger. It was considered lucky to eat mincemeat pie for all 12 days of Christmas.
Then came Oliver Cromwell a few hundred years later. Man, what a party-pooper that guy was! No singing, no dancing, no laughing, no drinking, and he outlawed Christmas! What a jerk! If anyone needed to lighten up, it was that guy. I think he was the original Grinch.
Because of outlawing Christmas, mincemeat pies were outlawed as well. Even in what was then the American Colonies, where the Puritans had settled, Christmas was not celebrated; mincemeat pies were prohibited from being eaten as part of the Christmas tradition. In Boston during the late 1600s, you could be fined if you were caught celebrating Christmas. And you think your neighbor complaining about your twinkle lights is bad!
I never considered eating mincemeat pie growing up. It was never part of our Christmas tradition, nor was it ever offered to me by anyone else. It was the foodstuff of old nursery rhymes and Shakespearean tales. To be perfectly honest, it sounded gross. Who wants to eat a pie with meat in it when it’s sweet? Ick!
Well, I finally plucked up the courage to try it, and I was pleasantly surprised by the result. I am extremely glad that I never stooped to buying the canned mince mixture they sell at supermarkets. Promise me that if you do decide to have mincemeat pie on your Christmas dessert table, go the distance and make it yourself.
I had gotten a recipe book from a gift store at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts many years back, but I was intimidated by the types of ingredients (beef heart, anyone?) and lack of measurable temperatures for the oven. For example, the mincemeat pie recipe says to bake the pie in a brisk hot oven. What does that mean?? That is when my baking and culinary skills came in to play. To be a decent baker or cook, you need to be able to improvise and roll with what you’re given. Also, Internet searches help. I used ground beef instead of heart or tongue (doesn’t that sound delicious!), and honey crisp apples instead of pippins. I took a recommendation for the baking temperature from another recipe.
The recipe I took from the book I used calls for suet, which is beef or lamb fat. Most grocery stores don’t carry suet, and the only suet I could find was for feeding birds. So, I got lard instead. And I will tell you now, no regrets on that decision! I believe it may have been a life-changing choice. It worked almost like butter, but with a slightly lower melting point, and made the pie crust the flakiest, butteriest (yes, I am inventing a word there), most melt-in-your-mouth pie crust I have ever made. I can’t come back from that. I am changed. I now know what I have been missing all my baking life!
Another substitute I made in this recipe was Madeira wine. The recipe itself claimed white wine was used. Madeira is technically neither white nor red, but it can be made with either red or white grapes. But upon doing some research into other more modern twists on old mincemeat recipes, I noticed that rum, brandy, and white wine were used, depending on what was available. Cider is an acceptable alternative to alcohol, but who wants to bother with that?
So here is what I did in very basic steps:
- Make the pie dough. Put in the freezer to chill.
- Make the mincemeat filling; combine the ground meat, salt, and fat (lard) first and mix it well together. Cut up the apples, add those. Add the currants and raisins, add the booze, add the orange zest and juice from one orange. Add the one cup of powdered sugar (next time, I won’t use even that much—maybe ½ a cup). Add the candied citron. Give everything a good stir.
- Roll out the cold pie dough. Work quickly so it doesn’t stick to either the rolling pin or the counter. The butter warms up quickly out of the freezer and then being whacked and rolled and pushed by a rolling pin.
- Place the first piece of pie pastry in the bottom of a well-greased pie tin. Fill this with the filling.
- Roll out the second piece of pie dough to fit over the top of the pie. Seal the pie together by pinching the top and bottom together with your fingers or a fork. Cut a slit in the top of the pie to allow it to vent while baking. You can also decide on either a lattice design if you’re feeling ambitious, or go crazy and don’t even bother with the top part. If you really want to be fancy, take a cookie cutter and cut out a hole in the top in the shape of a heart, a star, a leaf, anything at all!
- Place in the oven on the bottom rack at 450 degrees F for 10 minutes.
- Take the pie out of the oven. Egg wash the top of the pie, and then replace it on a middle rack for 20-30 minutes, or until golden brown.
You can also cook the filling separate from the pie, store it in jars, and then bring it back out for making pies when you’re ready. I still have plenty of filling left over from this batch.
I recommend waiting for the pie to cool for about 10-15 minutes before eating it. All the flavors need a minute to blend after they’ve bubbled together in the oven. The first thing to hit my palate was sweet. I ate a piece a little too soon after baking, and none of the flavors had settled down. But once they did and I could taste all of them together, wow! If you are a fan of anything with a lot of spices in it, namely cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, etc. and fruit of the fresh and dried kind, this is a really good pie. And those of you who stick your noses in the air at the mere mention of raisins have no idea what you’re missing!
Sites I used: