Mince pies appear in Britain at Christmas like some prolific passage migrant. For eleven months of the year mince pies might as well not exist. In December, suddenly these little (and not so little) confections of pastry filled with sweetened spiced dried fruit appear on every table at every occasion. Coffee after dinner. Friday cakes at the office. Tea with a friend. Pub Christmas specials. Carol concerts. Cafes and cake shops, bakeries and restaurants. Supermarkets, boxes piled high by the pallet load. Hot, cold, with cream, with brandy butter, on their own, served as a dessert or nibbled with coffee.
There are as many variants as there are cooks. Shortcrust pastry, buttercrust, puff pastry, sweet flan pastry? Cherries in the mincemeat? Almonds? Citrus peel? Suet? About the one (reasonable) certainty is that the mincemeat won’t contain any meat. Mince pies originally contained minced meat and dried fruit, a popular combination in medieval cookery, but the meat had largely disappeared by the end of the nineteenth century, with only the shredded suet remaining as a vestigial reminder of the original content.
For a month no other sweetmeat is so ubiquitous, and then in early January the world goes back to work, the reduced-to-clear stickers go up on the supermarket displays, and the mince pie vanishes as completely as Santa and Rudolf.
I make mince pies from about the middle of December onwards, by which time the mincemeat made with apples from the garden tree in November will have had a chance to mature. But the batch I make on Christmas Eve, listening to the Radio 4 broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge, is always special for me. It’s at that point that I feel all the frenetic preparations are over and the festival itself is beginning.
Here’s my recipe.
6 oz (approx 150 g) self-raising flour
4.5 oz (approx 125 g) butter
2 Tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoons) icing sugar
1 egg yolk (use the white to make meringue)
Mincemeat of your choice, home-made or bought
Grease tartlet or patty tins.
Rub the butter into the flour and icing sugar.
Beat in the egg yolk and press the mixture into a ball of dough.
(In theory, at this point you are supposed to chill the pastry overnight. I find it is less prone to break if I roll it out and make the mince pies straight away).
Roll out the pastry on a floured work surface. I like thin pastry so I roll mine to about 1-2 mm thick; you can leave yours thicker if you like.
Cut circles big enough to make pastry cases lining the base and sides of your tartlet tins.
Spoon mincemeat into the pastry cases. Don’t overfill them or the mincemeat will boil out and make an unpleasant mess on the baking tray. The filling should be no more than level with the rim.
Re-roll the rest of the pastry and cut smaller pastry circles to make lids.
Damp the top edge of each pastry case with water and cover with a pastry lid, pressing the edges well down.
Brush the tops of the mince pies with milk, and sprinkle each with a little granulated sugar.
Snip two small holes in the top of each mince pie.
Bake in a hot oven, around 220 C, for 15-20 minutes until golden brown.
Let the mince pies cool for a minute or two in the tins to set the pastry, then lift them out with a palette knife or pie slice. Cool on a wire rack.
Store in an airtight tin, or can be frozen.
I find this quantity of pastry usually makes 20-24 mince pies. My tartlet tins are about 6 cm diameter. If you like thicker pastry, or if you have larger tartlet tins, it will make fewer. Try it out and see. Any leftover pastry will keep, uncooked and wrapped in cling film or foil, for a few days in the fridge, or can be frozen.
Wherever you are, and whatever you are doing, have a happy Christmas, and best wishes for the New Year!