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Mince Pies

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Some mince pies.

Mince pies today are small covered tarts filled with mincemeat made from dried fruit, candied peel, spices and a little brandy or alcohol. This wasn't always the case, though.

The earliest mention of how to make a mince pie, from circa 1615 mentions, amongst its ingredients, two rabbits, two pigeons, two partridges, a hare, a pheasant, a capon, the livers of all these animals, as well as eggs, pickled mushrooms, dried fruit and spices. The whole thing was made into a huge pie, sometimes weighing as much as 220lb (100kg) and held together with iron clamps. The pastry used was either puft past or short past - the forerunners of modern puff pastry and shortcrust pastry. They tended to be oblong or square and were also called Crib Pies, because they sometimes had a pastry figure representing the baby Jesus placed on the top.

As with most Christmas Fayre they were banned during the rule of Oliver Cromwell and, by the time they re-emerged, had altered their shape and content to become the more familiar pie known now. Over the years they shrank in size and it became a tradition to hand them out to visitors, leading to their alternative name of Wayfarers Pies. It was considered lucky to eat 12 pies in 12 different houses during the 12 days of Christmas.

Mincemeat

To make mince pies from scratch it is necessary to make the mincemeat mixture a few weeks beforehand to allow the fruits to absorb the liquid and mature. Alternatively you can skip this part and buy one of the ready-made mincemeat mixtures available in shops and supermarkets. If you are pushed for time you can also buy ready-to-use puff or shortcrust pastry or shop-made mince pies. If taking the latter route make the mince pies taste more homemade by pricking with a needle, pouring a little brandy or fruit liqueur into each one, brushing with egg yolk and dusting with caster sugar before reheating.

Ingredients

  • 1½lbs - 680 grams) raisins, stoned
  • 1lb (454 grams) candied peel
  • 2lb (908 grams) apples
  • 1lb (454 grams) sultanas
  • 1lb (grams) currants
  • 1lb (454 grams) suet1
  • 1¾lb (795 grams) brown sugar
  • Rind of 1 lemon and 1 orange
  • Juice of ½lemon and ½orange
  • 1oz - 30 grams) mixed spice
  • ½tspn grated nutmeg
  • ½ pint -10 fl - brandy, rum, flavoured liqueur or beer

Method

  1. Mince or process the raisins, peel, apples, half the sultanas and half the currants until very finely chopped. Add the remainder of the fruit, the suet, sugar, rind, juice, spice, nutmeg and liquid, mix well and leave in a covered bowl for a week, stirring every day.

  2. Pack into cleaned jars, leaving a space at the top and cover with a circle of greaseproof paper or tight-fitting lid with no puncture holes.

  3. Leave at least another week before using.

Pastry

The most widely used forms of pastry for mince pies are Puff, Rough Puff and Shortcrust. Shortcrust is the easiest to make and Rough Puff is a richer variation of Puff. Flaky Pastry is not suitable as the moisture of the mincemeat makes it collapse and break.

The basic tricks for making good pastry are:

  1. Keep everything cool.
  2. Use cold water.
  3. Work quickly.
  4. Add lemon juice to the richer versions to encourage crispness.
  5. Use a knife to 'cut in' the ingredients.
  6. Use as little flour as possible when rolling or the pastry will turn hard.

Rough Puff Pastry

Allow plenty of extra flour for use on the pastry board as this pastry is very rich and sticky. In a warm environment place the pastry in the fridge for 10 minutes between each rolling. Work as quickly as possible using hands cooled under the cold water tap.

Ingredients

  • 1lb (454 grams) plain flour
  • 6oz (175 grams) butter or margerine
  • 6oz (175 grams) lard2
  • 1 tspn lemon juice
  • Pinch of salt
  • Cold water to mix
  • Extra flour for the pastry board

Method

  1. Sift the flour and salt together in a bowl and add the fat cut into pieces about 2" (5cm) square. Stir these into the flour, using a palate knife, and add the lemon juice and enough water to make a stiff dough.

  2. Turn out onto a lightly-floured pastry board and roll into an oblong about ½" (1.25cm) thick. Fold the bottom one third of the pastry up and the top one third down. Press the edges hard with the rolling pin to trap in the air and make three creases across the parcel to distribute this air evenly. Give the pastry half a turn to the right, roll it into an oblong again and repeat the folding and creasing process. Do this at least four times in total, adding more flour to the board if the pastry becomes sticky. It is then ready to make the pies.

Puff Pastry

This version takes even more rolling than the Rough Puff version and relies on making a good basic dough before adding the fat. Keep the butter in the fridge until required and squeeze it in a clean tea towel to remove excess moisture.

Ingredients

  • 1lb (454 grams) plain flour
  • 1lb (454 grams) butter
  • 1 tspn lemon juice
  • ¼tspn salt
  • Cold water to mix
  • Extra flour for the pastry board

Method

  1. Sift the flour and salt together in a bowl and add enough water to make a firm dough. Turn this onto a floured pastry board and knead until the dough is smooth and elastic. Squeeze any excess moisture out of the butter using a clean tea towel and compress it into a square slab. Roll out the dough until it is a long oblong and then place the butter on one half, fold the other half over and seal the edges using the rolling pin.

  2. Continue as for Rough Puff pastry, turning once to the right, folding in three, sealing and creasing. It will take about seven repeats to form a good pastry. If possible, cover with a cloth and leave in a cool place for several hours or overnight before using to make the mince pies.

Shortcrust Pastry

This is the most commonly used pastry and probably the easiest to make. The proportion of fat to flour is much less so it tends to be simpler to handle and more reliable in outcome.

Baking powder can be added or self raising flour used without detrimental effects. If required, a teaspoonful of sugar can be added with the dry ingredients for a slightly sweeter taste.

Ingredients

  • 8oz (240 grams) plain or self raising flour
  • 3 - 4oz (100 - 120 grams) fat
  • ¼tspn baking powder if not using self-raising flour
  • Pinch of salt
  • Cold water to mix
  • Extra flour for the pastry board

Method

  1. Sift all the dry ingredients together in a mixing bowl. Cut the fat into 1" (2.5cm) cubes and add to the bowl.

  2. Using the fingertips rub together the fat and flour until it resembles fine bread crumbs.

  3. Add the water a little at a time and use a palate knife to mix it in until a dough starts to appear. Using the palm of the hand test to see if it will form into a ball.

  4. Turn out onto a floured pastry board, knead for a short time until smooth and even and then use a rolling pin to flatten it ready for use.

Mince Pies

The best cutter to use is one specially designed for making small covered tartlets. It has two edges, one slightly smaller in diameter than the other and the resultant circles fit into a regular bun or patty tin perfectly.

Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 8 (230°C; 450°F) for Puff and Rough Puff versions and Gas Mark 7 (220°C; 425°F) for Shortcrust ones.

Non-stick, fluted, bun or patty tins are best but, if these are not available, prepare the tins by greasing and flouring for easier removal of the pies. The proportions given here are enough for at least two batches, so more than one tin is preferable. If a large pie is preferred use a flan tin inverted to mark out the size of pastry needed for the base. Turn it base down to cut out the lid. Allow 20 to 25 minutes for cooking a large pie.

Method

  1. Roll the pastry out thinly into a large circle and leave for a couple of minutes to relax into shape. Lightly press the cutter to mark out even quantities of bases and tops. Use a sharp, firm stroke to cut each circle trying not to saw or twist the pastry. Place the rounds to one side, re-roll the pastry and repeat until all the pastry has been used. Any remnants can be used to make leaf shapes for decoration is so desired.

  2. Place the larger circles in the bun tin and fill with mincemeat. One teaspoonful is usually enough. Do not be tempted to overfill as the mixture tends to bubble up and either look a mess or stick the tart to the baking tin!

  3. Damp the edges of both the filled circle and the top and press gently together, making sure that they are sealed. If adding pastry decorations stick them on with a little water. Make a small slit in the top of each pie, brush with beaten egg yolk or milk, sprinkle with a little caster sugar and bake at the top of the oven.

  4. After 15 minutes they should be cooked. Wait a couple of minutes then remove the individual pies from the tin and put on a cooling rack or a plate lined with kitchen paper to cool.

Mince Pies may be safely frozen using the 'open freeze' method and defrosted at room temperature or in an oven or microwave.

Serve either hot3 or cold, on their own or with custard, cream or brandy butter.

1Vegetarian version available.2Or vegetarian equivalent.3Mince pies may safely be reheated.

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