Getting ready for Christmas has never been so much fun! And no, I don’t just mean because there are even more excuses for a tipple of brandy or port, but because writing this blog is making me try things I never have before. The result is that I’m getting into the festive spirit much earlier than usual.
This week, I’m keeping with the traditional theme of the past few posts and making my own mince pies. In England, mince pies are a must at Christmas. In fact, we hold them in such high esteem that we even leave one out for Santa on Christmas Eve, along with small glass of brandy (although in our household it was sherry… my mum never did take to brandy… wink, wink), and a carrot for dear old Rudolph. Funny thing is, the carrot never did get eaten in its entirety, but for some reason Santa always managed to finish off the mince pie, leaving only a few evidentiary crumbs!
Mincemeat is a mixture of chopped dried fruit, spirits, and spices that are cooked together and preserved like a chutney. Mincemeat traditionally included beef suet, and according to Wikipedia, sometimes minced beef or venison, although I’ve never heard of such a thing. To me, mince is sweet and boozy (this is the “very merry” part), and embodies all the tastes and smells of Christmas. Choose to make your own and I can guarantee that the very essence of Christmas – that wonderful quartet of cinnamon, ginger, clove, and brandy – will be wafting around your house in a matter of minutes.
You can buy very good mincemeat in jars and I’ve seen a number of options in stores around New York. But I wanted to have a go at making my own. I did cheat a little bit by opting to follow the wonderfully simple recipe by Nigella Lawson that comes together in around twenty minutes. I can assure you that you do not lose out on any flavor this way. I also like this recipe because it’s heavy on fruit and light on other ingredients, such as candied peel, that tend to get stuck in your teeth and do a mince pie, or anything else in my opinion, absolutely no favors. And, on a more practical note, it’s vegetarian making it perfect for every guest at your Christmas party.
Nigella opts for fresh cranberries which I’m sure would be wonderful, particularly with the orange scented shortcrust. As I could only find dried, I reduced the amount of sugar and balanced out the weight of cranberries to match the other types of dried fruit. It still turned out glorious! If you can get hold of fresh cranberries then Nigella’s original recipe is here.
My advice is to make these immediately and in multitude. They freeze very well, requiring only a quick defrost and warm through in the oven when guests arrive. Serve with a splodge of brandy cream for extra opulence!
Quick Christmas Mincemeat
Adapted from a recipe by Nigella Lawson. Makes 1 pint.
In a large pan, dissolve 1.5 oz soft dark brown sugar in 2 fl oz ruby port over a gentle heat. I found it helped to swirl the pan over the heat a little bit to get the sugar to dissolve without the port evaporating too much.
Add 6 oz dried cranberries, 6 oz raisins, 4 oz currants, 1 tsp ground cinnamon, 1 tsp ground ginger, 1/2 tsp ground clove, and the zest and juice of 1 orange. Stir well until glistening.
Bring to a gentle simmer and cook for about 20 minutes or until the dried fruit has become plump and juicy. Then, remove from the heat and allow to cool a little.
Add 1 fl oz brandy, a few drops almond extract, 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, and 2 tbsp honey (I used golden syrup as it was what I had to hand). Mix well and mash together a bit with the back of the spoon.
You can then spoon the mixture into sterilized jars and keep in the fridge for about one month. They would also make a great holiday gift. I would, however, strongly recommend you use some to make mince pies, as described below:
Very Merry Mince Pies
Adapted from a recipe by Nigella Lawson. Makes 12 individual mince pies.
Preheat the oven to 220/425/Gas Mark 7.
Sift 8 oz all purpose flour into a bowl and add 2 oz vegetable shortening and 2 oz butter, cut into small cubes. Shake to cover the fat with flour and place in the freezer for 20 mins to chill (to make the pastry tender and flaky).
Juice 1 orange into a small bowl and add a pinch of salt. Pop in the fridge to chill.
Remove the flour and fat mixture from the freezer and rub together lightly to make porridge-like crumbs. Gradually add the chilled salted orange juice, mixing with a knife until the it starts to come together.
Turn out onto a floured surface and knead with your hands for a few seconds until a dough forms. Cover with plastic wrap and rest in the fridge for 20 mins.
Get a 12-mould tart tin ready. Roll the pastry thinly on a floured work surface and cut out circles to line each of the moulds, pressing the pastry down gently.
Spoon a generous amount of Christmas Mincemeat into each of the moulds (about 2 tsp) and then top with a smaller circle of pastry, pressing down gently on the filling. Using the tip of a knife, pierce the center of the top pastry circle and then brush lightly with milk to help the pastry turn nice and golden.
Bake for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is golden. Turn out immediately onto a wire cooling rack.
When still slightly warm, dust with a light sprinkling of confectioners sugar, and serve.