Before holly, trees, presents and cards, my first whiff of Christmas in the air is always signalled by the reappearance of mince pies in my life. Usually in early November, hopefully sooner. The garish boxes appear in the supermarkets far earlier, but, call me fussy, these can never match up to a home baked mince pie. I’m talking dreamy wafts of Christmas seeping through the house, leading to bites of crumbly, buttery pastry melting away in my mouth to reveal tangy fruits, rich spices and a hint of alcohol, all rounded off with the sweet drizzle of glacé icing over the top. The pie in my hand almost falls apart in surrender: ‘eat me!’, and the filling is jewelled with glacé cherries so red it’s almost offensive. But it’s Christmas: red goes.
Ever since I can remember, Mum has always cooked her own mincemeat. The precious mince pie filling is stored carefully in rows of jars in the preserves cupboard, alongside piccalilli, pickled onions and jam, all standing to attention ready for Christmas to begin. There is a home-baked Christmas pudding or two to one side, with a couple of individual ones for good measure. The cupboard smells enticing, comforting and warm on each opening of the door.
The mincemeat is made with love and care, in two stages. First, the ingredients are weighed, and muddled together in a bowl then left overnight to intensify. The next day, they are baked in the oven for hours to develop the flavour even further, before adding a generous splosh of brandy to finish. The smell is so synonymous with the festive season that if I could create a Christmas Yankee Candle this would absolutely be it. Who knows, it may already be a thing? – I might investigate…
In a nutshell, mince pies at Christmas are a necessity. As is good pastry and of course the filling. Any self-respecting pie needs an all butter pastry (literally just flour, butter and water) and a good filling. The length of the ingredient list on shop pastry alone worries me, before I’ve even started to negotiate the filling. Having sampled many a shop-bought pie (thanks to an annual work mince pie ranking) I have concluded that there really isn’t a substitute – and definitely not an improvement – for a homemade pie to be found in the shops. They are all dry fruit, or thick syrup, or both (I don’t know how either) or just simply not a homemade pie.
This is where Mum’s recipe comes into its own. It is time consuming, but for a lot of that time you can leave it to do its thing. And it can be done in advance – WAY in advance. One year, we enjoyed an early batch of pies from the last year’s mincemeat! (Though saying that, it does need to be sealed and stored well to be able to last this long without it going off.)
While I’m on the subject, getting the right storage jars is key for this recipe if you want it to keep well. Kilner jars are best, with an airtight lid and a rubber seal. If you want to keep the mincemeat for a long time, use a wax disk inside the jar (the same as the ones used for jam making) to make it last longer. You can buy these in packets of 200 from Amazon. If you’re just keeping the mincemeat for weeks while you use it, an airtight lid and storage in the fridge will be fine.
The jars will also need to be sterilised before you start. Sterilising the jars is easy, the time to do it just needs planning in before you start making.
To sterilise your jars:
Preheat the oven to 140°C, 120°C fan or Gas 1.
Wash the jars in warm soapy water, removing any rubber seals and setting aside. (Oven heat will damage rubber seals)
Place the jars on a baking sheet and into the oven to dry.
Leave until completely dry before removing.
Meanwhile, place the rubber seals in a pan and cover with water. Bring to the boil and boil for 10 minutes.
Leave on a clean surface to dry.
Now you have clean jars, let’s get to the important bit – the food! This recipe does require 2 main steps separated by 12 hours or overnight – so make sure you have the time on both days to prepare and cook the mincemeat before starting. A Friday/Saturday or weekend works well. You’ll also need a pretty big pan to cook a full batch of mincemeat as per the recipe below. If you have a casserole pot, that would be best, the larger the better. Be warned – this really does make a lot of mincemeat, so scale down by half if you don’t have the cooking pot space or jar space to accommodate it all! (I would never question your ability to eat it all!)
Note – unlike many other mincemeat recipes, this does not contain any nuts or peel, simply because we’re not keen on either in my family. But don’t let that stop you! To add in candied peel, or cranberries, just substitute out some of the sultanas and currants. Up to about 50g chopped nuts can be added into the recipe without taking any other ingredients out.
Festive Mincemeat Recipe
Makes 2.5L mincemeat (I said it was a lot!)
Cooking time 3 hours, plus preparation the previous day
You will need:
1lb/455g Bramley apples, peeled, cored and chopped into small pieces (about 0.5cm)
8oz/225g shredded suet or vegetarian suet
8oz/225g glacé cherries, halved or quartered
12oz/350g soft dark brown sugar
Grated zest and juice of 2 oranges and 2 lemons
4 tsp ground mixed spice
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
6 tbsp brandy
Sterilised jars (please see above)
Large casserole pan
Add all ingredients other than the brandy to a large casserole pan.
Mix well and cover with a tea towel. Leave overnight or for 12 hours for the flavours to develop and intensify.
After the 12 hours, preheat the oven to 100°C.
Cover the pan loosely with tin foil and bake in the oven for 3 hours.
Remove the pan from the oven. Note – it will look a bit oily, but don’t worry, it should look like this!
Allow the mix to cool, stirring occasionally to ensure it’s really well mixed together.
When it is completely cold, stir in the brandy, and spoon into the sterilised jars.
Add a wax seal if using and keep in the cupboard (with wax seal) or fridge (without seal) until pie time.
As I mentioned, this can be done well in advance of actually making and eating the mince pies, especially if you’ve used a wax seal in the jar, but just in case you can’t wait, (I never can!) here is my favourite way to make them up and munch.
Starry Mince Pies Recipe
Makes 12-15 pies, cooking time 15 mins
You will need:
3oz/85g salted butter, fridge cold
6oz/170g plain flour
3-4tbsp cold water
8cm circle cutter and star cutter
12 hole bun tin
Mixing bowl & scales
Preheat the oven to 180°C, and grease the bun tin.
Put the flour into a large mixing bowl, and add the butter, cutting it into small chunks.
Rub the flour and butter together between your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
Add the water – start with 3 tbsp – and mix with a knife.
If the dough starts to come together in large pieces, try forming it into a ball. It should still be a bit crumbly. If you need to, add more water, 1 tbsp at a time, until it forms a crumbly ball.
Wrap the dough in cling film and chill for 10 mins.
Take out the dough and roll out on a floured surface. It should be about 0.5cm thick. TIP – move the dough after each roll to make sure it doesn’t stick to the surface, and make sure the rolling pin and your hands are also floured.
Cut out 12 circles and 12 stars from the pastry. If you don’t have a circular cutter in the right size, try drawing around the top of a mug with a knife.
Put a circle of pastry into each hole in the bun tin, then add a teaspoon of mincemeat to each one (try not to overfill, as it will just spill out).
Add a star to top each pie, and brush with a little milk to get a shiny top to the pastry when baked.
Bake for 12-15 mins, keeping a close eye on the pies. When they’re crisp, and shiny on the top, they’re done!
Allow to cool, then decorate with a drizzle of glacé icing, or a dusting of icing sugar – and enjoy!
TIP – You probably won’t be able to cut all 12 circles and stars out of the first roll of your pastry – unless you’re some kind of pastry genius! (In which case I am very jealous…) So you will need to re-roll it. If you can, try to only do this a maximum of 2-3 times, as with each roll, it will become tougher, and you want the pies to be soft and crumbly!