Adventures in Making Mincemeat

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“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:

  1. Make the pie dough. Put in the freezer to chill.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Place the first piece of pie pastry in the bottom of a well-greased pie tin. Fill this with the filling.
  5. 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!
  6. Place in the oven on the bottom rack at 450 degrees F for 10 minutes.
  7. 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:

https://whatscookingamerica.net/History/PieHistory/MincemeatPie.htm

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17610820

https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/pennsylvania-dutch-cuisine-the-real-deal/2014/05/12/7f961844-c975-11e3-93eb-6c0037dde2ad_story.html?utm_term=.cb6fd10ea4fb

http://quotes.yourdictionary.com/mince

 

 

 

 

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Between the Orange and the Green

Hi, guys! Hope you all are enjoying your Fourth of July plans, whatever they may be. I’m working tomorrow (waaaaaahhhh!!!), but some of us must keep the store open, am I right?

I am off today, however, and I took the opportunity to make a big pot of Colcannon! What is colcannon, you ask? Colcannon is a happy, magical combination of two foods that have become stereotypically Irish–potatoes and cabbage. I love potatoes in general. Is there nothing more comforting than mashed potatoes? That is my go-to comfort food.

It’s healthy, too! It does have butter and milk (and bacon, if so desired) in it, but let’s not get carried away here. Potatoes are excellent sources of vitamin C, potassium (more so than bananas), and iron. Cabbage is jam-packed with antioxidants and fiber. What’s not to love?

Colcannon is so terrifically simple! I became inspired after reading Mimi Sheraton’s 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die, and even more so after taking a trip to Ireland last October. It’s such a beautiful country, and the people are lovely! I’m dying to go back!

There must be a wee drop of green in me genes! I am 30% Irish, and 48% British (no one is perfect). My Irish Catholic grandmother married my White Anglo-Saxon Protestant grandfather. My grandmother’s father was not too happy about it at first, but he warmed up to the prospect–or just realized he couldn’t do much about it. So you see, I’m caught between the orange and the green (but the green wins out more often).

I know I probably should be celebrating with burgers and fries and beer–I am drinking Yeungling–but what is more American than celebrating your roots? And today, Ireland be the theme.

A fun fact: potatoes are NOT native to Ireland! They originated in Peru and were introduced to Ireland and England by none other than Sir Walter Raleigh, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, founder of the Lost Colony of North Carolina. Literally, it’s lost. No one knows what happened to the colonists after Sir Walter Raleigh returned to England for supplies. There is a multitude of theories out there–disease, hurricane, ransacked by the indigenous neighbors–but no real proof has been found as to what really happened to them.

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Here is what it is:

6 Russet potatoes, peeled and cubed

2 Quarts Chicken stock, or bouillon

1 Head green cabbage, sliced thinly

1/2 Package bacon

2 Tablespoons butter, unsalted

2-3 Tablespoons milk

Garlic powder, to taste

Onion powder, to taste

Black pepper, to taste

  1. Boil the potatoes in chicken stock or water with bouillon for 8 to 10 minutes, or until soft. Pour out the boiling liquid.
  2.  Add butter, milk, garlic and onion powders, and pepper to the potatoes. Mash the mixture with a masher or whip with an electric mixer. Set aside.
  3. Place a heavy-bottomed pot on medium-high heat. Cook the bacon until crispy. Set the bacon aside, and reserve most of the fat from cooking, keeping it in the same pot you cooked in. If you prefer not having bacon, use olive or vegetable oil.
  4.  Place cabbage in the same pot as the bacon fat. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until the cabbage is limp but still crunchy.
  5. Take the cabbage off of the heat. Add the mashed potatoes to the cabbage. Mix thoroughly. Serve hot.

Note: The bacon fat adds salt to the dish. If you use oil instead, add salt to taste.

What I made today looks nowhere near what it would have looked like if this were the mid-1800s in a tiny stone cottage in County Cork. Hardly any of the poorer people of Ireland could afford to grow cabbage during that time, let alone having butter or milk, or for heaven’s sake, bacon. It was potatoes and potatoes alone that these people lived on. You’d be lucky if you had salt, which was also a sought-after commodity in those days.

When the potato blight hit in 1845, these people lost their only source of food–at least the only source of food that they were allowed to have. Any other vegetables or animals were used as payment to the landlords. They were too poor to afford such luxuries as pork or chicken.

What makes the Potato Famine so devastating was that there was plenty of food for rations–all packed up on ships bound for Liverpool, England. And nary a one in England blinked an eye at the widespread starvation occurring across the narrow channel from them (a good reason to kick them out–eventually–mostly). Which is also why people decided to abandon their homes and head across the Atlantic–to a land of opportunity, a land of hope. By the time it was over, Ireland’s population had fallen to nearly half of what it had been in 1845.

 

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Mass Grave for all those that starved to death during the Potato Famine of 1845-1849

Food is another medium through which one can honor the past, and celebrate the present. Like many immigrants past and present, the Irish immigrants sought refuge and freedom from the hardships and devastation of what used to be home. It’s easy to take our way of life for granted if we don’t take the time to reflect on what got us here in the first place.

So on that sentimental note, I am going to go watch a movie–Independence Day is calling my name! Enjoy, everyone, and stay safe! Until next time!

Inspiration is the Word

Books. I love books. I love the smell of old books. I need to get a candle with that scent. My favorite books are mostly of the historical genre, or somewhere thereabouts. I particularly love food history and sociology. It’s fascinating to me how food has influenced our very evolution. We became the humans we are through food. We first hunted and gathered, and then we started to settle down and build our own settlements.

But even before that happened, the fact that we started to cook our food changed the entire game for us. It’s part of the reason why our brains are configured the way they are, and why we became erect in the first place, instead of walking around on four legs. If I had a time machine, I would go back in time to that precise moment when the first human to cook food, took the first bite, and changed everything. If you have Netflix (any self-respecting Millenial is nodding their head yes), I HIGHLY recommend the documentary

It’s fascinating to me how food has influenced our very evolution. We became the humans we are through food. We first hunted and gathered, and then we started to settle down and build our own settlements. But even before that happened, the fact that we started to cook our food changed the entire game for us. It’s part of the reason why our brains are configured the way they are, and why we became erect in the first place, instead of walking around on four legs. If I had a time machine, I would go back in time to that precise moment when the first human cooked their food, took the first bite, and changed everything.

If you have Netflix (any self-respecting Millenial is nodding their head yes), I HIGHLY recommend the documentary Cooked. A-freaking-mazing! If you’re into food and food history, it’s a must-see. It’s a four-episode miniseries by Michael Pollan. The episodes are titled Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. Each episode explores the fundamentals and evolution of each element, and how they each played a role in the evolution of food. It is absolutely fascinating! Watch it!

If you’re a reader like me (I love books!), then here’s a list of a few of the titles that influenced my attraction to food and food history:

  •  A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage
  • An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage
  • Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham (who is featured in Cooked)
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
  • Gaining Ground by Forrest Pritchard
  • Folks, This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin
  • Salt by Mark Kurlansky
  • The Complete Homeopathy Handbook by Miranda Castro

 

If you are a movie fan, here are a few of those:

  • Julie and Julia
  • Ratatouille 
  • The One Hundred-Foot Journey
  • Chocolat
  • Burnt
  • Bottleshock

So what is your greatest influence when it comes to food? What inspires you to cook or bake, or simply eat good food? Any good reads? Any good flics to enjoy? Post your recommendations in the comments!

Until Next time!