27 November 2012

Gypsy Kitchens: Mincemeat Pie From Scratch

At the village market in Elgin, we asked a man if his mincemeat pies had meat in them.  "Yeah," he said.  "But it gets confusing this time of year.  Christmas mincemeat doesn't have meat.  Those would be mince pies."  We pointed out that his pies were labeled "mince pies," and yet he said they had meat in them. "Yeah," he said, and shrugged.  "It gets confusing around Christmas."
A woman at the Speyside Cooperage cafe gave us this piece of advice about mincemeat pies - "If it's got all sweet things around it, it's probably sweet.  If it has meat things around it, it's probably meat."
The intrigue doesn't stop there.  Most people make mincemeat pie with jarred filling - it's almost universally regarded as too difficult to make from scratch.  When we began looking into creating a recipe, it actually looked pretty simple.  Except... not really.  As it turns out, we're not fluent in English.  What are sultanas? What's suet?  Can we buy "mixed peel," or do we have to make it?  And, why are there vegetarian versions of meat-less mincemeat?
Here are the answers, and the surprisingly easy recipe for from-scratch mincemeat filling.
"Make the mincemeat a year before and keep it in a jar," is a common refrain.  Some sources even suggest that the key to a good mince pie is to let the apples ferment and bubble.  We made our mix the day before, and it was fine. In England, the pastries are Christmas treats and are usually topped by a star.  Since ours was for Thanksgiving, we thought about topping it with a turkey, but decided to keep it simple.
Our little Keswick rental cottage, in the beautiful lake district, was outfitted with an oven and range - we cooked all day, kept in by driving rain and a sense of tradition.  We dubbed our holiday "Thanksgiving in the Land of Oppressor" and made a feast that was half American and half motherland.  An appropriately sized pheasant, brussel sprouts, mashed potatoes, stuffing and gravy, kale and corn, candied carrots, traditional American stomachaches and traditional English mincemeat pie.
The filling is made up of apple (as a base), citrus peel (in three forms- dried, boiled and zested) and lots of raisins, currants, cranberries, candied ginger - candied pineapple would work too, basically anything dried and diceable.  To this, we add liquor and a bit of onion, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and brown sugar.  The ingredients are great to munch on, add to stuffing, salads (and sip).  Except for one, which we'll get to.
For the citrus peel, boil a lemon (unwaxed if you can find it) in water for an hour, until it's soft and pungent.  A great kitchen pleasure is smelling the astringency and sourness of lemon vapor as it boils.  After an hour, cut it in half, remove all the seeds and finely mince it (peel and all) or put it into a blender.  Add to this pulpy slop a few tablespoons of fresh citrus zest.  We used clementines.  Also, about a quarter cup of mixed peel (which you can buy in a good supermarket in America), a half cup of raisins and a half cup of sultanas.  So, what exactly is a sultana?  A golden raisin.
From here, get creative - we used candied ginger, because we love it, and cranberries, because it was Thanksgiving.  Chop everything with a knife or blend it loosely with a blender and add in two medium, diced apples.  Saute lightly a few tablespoons of minced onion, then add the fruit and peel mixture to the pan along with a quarter cup of brown sugar, the three spices (1 tsp. each of cinnamon and nutmeg, half that of clove).  Cook until it's beginning to make some noise, then splash in a quarter cup of cheap cognac, brandy or whisky.  Reduce a bit and then add the suet.  And what is suet?
Suet, in America, is generally relegated to the bird feeder.  It's made up of the hard, high-smoke-point fat from around beef loins and organs.  Good quality butchers should be able to source or cut the stuff, but they may need a reminder of what, exactly, it is.  At the Booths supermarket - where the butchers seemed pretty competent - they referred me to this dried, shelf-ready version.  It comes in a cardboard box and looks a bit like white mouse pellets.
Essentially, suet is dried shortening, and it can be used in a variety of roles - a lot of people advocate it as a pastry aid, or as a butter-substitute for frying.  It's not particularly healthy, though - it used to be used most extensively for "tallow."  You know, to make candles and to waterproof boots.  It definitely sticks to one's arterial walls.
Nonetheless, we used a healthy dose of it, mixed right into the fruits and liquor.  It dissolves easily and smoothly, and gives an incredible richness to the mix.  That vegetarian version of mincemeat we mentioned earlier calls for frozen unsalted butter or harder-to-find "vegetarian suet," whatever that is.
Our pastry was a simple butter and flour mix, but use whatever recipe you're comfortable with.  Since the filling doesn't really have to be cooked, bake just until the crust is golden.  We set the oven at 375º fahrenheit and let the pie bake for about 45 minutes.
This filling is extremely citrusy, dark and nicely sweet.  It tastes nothing like most American pies - it's complex, savory and tasty, much in the tradition of chutney.  It goes as well with a sweet ice cream as it does a pungent blue cheese.  The best part is it smells intensely like the holidays.  Our kitchen aroma was of lemon, apple and spices.
It's nice to eat the pie a little warm, before the suet begins to harden up again.  It's fine cold, though, and is even better the next day.  Ours went really well with a slice of local Stichelton blue cheese. Of course stilton would do the trick, as would a nice sharp cheddar.  As the English say, "A pie without the cheese is like a hug without the squeeze."  If you have the time, try making the filling a few days or a week ahead of time, so that the flavors have a chance to mingle.  Go ahead and make more than you think you'll need.  If we weren't vacating our rental two days later, we'd have put the extra in a jar and enjoyed it on cheese sandwiches, leftover pheasant and whatever else we had around.

Here's our recipe:

Thanksgiving Mincemeat Pie Filling
Ingredients:
- 2 medium baking apples, diced
- 1 lemon
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1/2 cup golden raisins ("sultanas," to the British)
- 1/2 cup combined other dried fruits, such as cranberries, currants or candied ginger
- 1/3 cup beef suet
- 1/4 cup mixed peel
- 1/4 cup cheap, brown, hard liquor (cognac, brandy, whisky, dark rum...)
- 2 tablespoons citrus zest (clementine, orange, lemon...)
- a small amount of onion
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon clove

Method:
- Boil the lemon in water for one hour, until peel is soft.  Cut in half, remove the seeds and mince the peel and flesh. Casually mince the raisins, sultanas and other dried fruit and chop the apples.
- Sautee the onion in a pan, then add all the fruit, spices, peel and a good splash of liquor.  Cook for some minutes, then add the brown sugar and cook over low heat, adding more and more liquor (to both the pan and your glass) until the apples have just begun to soften.  Mix in the suet and wait until it's melted.

3 comments:

  1. "Non Such" Mincemeat is a non-animal based pie filling, (no suet or meat organs) common in the USA made with raisins, currents, citrus peel, apples, spices (and if store bought, filled unnecessary corn syrup, fake flavors and caramel coloring. None of this is needed. Mincemeat pie in the USA is generally served hot with a Hard Sauce on top of a thick crusted pie shell.(top and bottom crust. It is tough to find Mincemeat in markets past Christmas.
    Suet and meat parts and onion are placed in a mince pie (raisins, currents and lemon peel)UK style pies. (Non vegetarian)
    Mincemeat was made to not waste any part of the slaughtered animal, such as organ meat and is still a sweet pie. Eliminating the store bought pre-made is ideal due to all the chemicals and corn syrup.
    Most Americans dislike the true mincemeat pies of the UK.

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    Replies
    1. There is no meat and onion in mince pies (they are never called mincemeat pies even though you make them with mincemeat). There may have been meat in them donkey's years ago but not any more. Mince pies are only eaten at Christmas and are definitely not savoury. Mincemeat is not hard to make, as such, but there are plenty of good cheap ready made fillings and every supermarket and shop has its own mince pies which can be bought so cheaply it's not worth the hassle of home made.

      Minced meat is called "mince" but usually is preceded by the type, so beef mince, pork mince, lamb mince etc.

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  2. Came to your blog via Elizabeth Gowing's mention of you. As a Brit and a Scot I enjoyed your account of UK travels. I grew up near Elgin - nice to see it mentioned! Agree with commenter above that there is no meat or onions in a mincemeat pie. Vegetarian suet is now quite easy to find and makes a great mince pie or savoury dumpling - as in beef stew and dumplings.

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