The Most Mouthwatering Christmas Treats: British Mince Pies
A Tradition In Name Only
As a migrant who settled in the UK, of course, I got to learn and appreciate local traditions. But I remember staying away from mince pies for several years. The reason? I did not get why a meaty thing would be placed in a pastry sheet and have sugar sprinkled on top! My prejudice wilted when I decided it was time to do some research and get to the bottom of the story!
It turned up they were only called mince pies because, historically, they would contain minced meat (mainly mutton). In time, dry fruits would replace the meat and people would start adding booze to the fruity filling. It would not be the only dessert that uses alcohol, which enhances the taste and preserves the fruits in this case.
Mince pies seem to have made it to Britain in the middle ages, brought by the crusaders from the Middle East. At the time, they were filled with meat, fruits and spices and were not a dessert but the main course. Fibre and protein are not an ideal combination for the human liver, but medieval medicine was not advanced enough to acknowledge this fact.
The most extreme times this traditional pie had seen, was the brief kingless period England had known in the seventeenth century. Oliver Cromwell went to the limit, not only banishing pies in an attempt to make the population thrifty but cancelling Christmas altogether.
He was no fun! And had a warty nose! I saw it in Horrible Histories! (I’m just being a sarcastic bully at the expense of a dead historical character, I know!)
Rightly so, England returned to its monarchic tradition that also meant the reinstatement of Christmas and the continuation of pie baking.
In time, mince pies have seen changes, but have never disappeared from the traditional festive table.
Today, the entire English-speaking world would have them at Christmas, filled with a delicious and extremely fragrant combination of booze-soaked dried fruits and spices still called mincemeat!
There is even a superstition saying that if you eat one each of the twelve days of Christmas, you’ll be lucky the entire following year! I have to make an effort to get mine to last this long; otherwise, I’m busted! Given that 2020 was the weirdest year in an entire century, I don’t know who would be willing to take a chance!
For the crust
- 500 g plain flour (4 cups)
- 150 ml melted coconut oil (⅔ cup)
- 150 ml melted unsalted butter (⅔ cup)
- 3 tbsp coconut sugar
- 1 lemon zest
- 1 pinch of salt
For the filling
- 100 g Medjool dates (about ½ cup)
- 100 g dried figs
- 100 g dried blackcurrants
- 100 g raisins
- 100 g dried cranberries
- 100 g dried goji berries (optional; I used them for colour)
- 2 tbsp toasted flaked almonds Skip if you have a nut allergy!
- 2 tbsp cocoa nibs (optional)
- 1 orange (juice+chopped peel)
- 2 orange zest
- 1 tsp nutmeg
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp cloves
- 1 tsp organic dried ginger
- 3 pcs peppercorn
- 4 pcs star anise
- 8 tbsp coconut sugar
- 10 tbsp water
- 2 tbsp Martini (or any liquor)
- 1 vial rum oil essence
For the crust
- Sieve the entire quantity of flour in a large bowl, add the sugar, lemon zest, salt and the melted fats. Mix using your hands or a kitchen mixer if you have one.
- The dough will be very crumbly at first, but when you add the eggs, the proteins found in them will help bind it better and work it easier.
- Cover the dough in clingfilm and refrigerate it for at least half an hour (an hour is better). Cooling helps the oily ingredients solidify, and this will make rolling easier. I tried to save time, but working the dough before cooling it was useless; all I got was crumbles spread on the worktop.
For the filling
- Preferably, the mincemeat should be prepared a week before use and kept in the fridge to allow all the savours to mix nicely and create an absolutely intoxicating flavour!
- Grind all spices together.
- Finely chop the large fruits and the orange peel. Mix with the rest of the dried fruits, sugar and orange zest.
- Add the wet ingredients (orange juice, liquor, water). Some recipes recommend lard instead of water, which I find revolting! Besides, it is not healthy to mix pork with fruits!
- Place the mix in a jar, cover with a double clingfilm, then put the lid on and store it in the fridge for about a week.
- If some fancy popstar would “create” a perfume smelling like this insane combination, I would pay money to have it and wear it daily! Thinking of it, if anyone goes ahead and commercializes such a perfume now, I am claiming intellectual property rights!
Make the mince pies
- Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4.
- Remove the pastry dough from the fridge and use a part to roll a 2-3 mm thick sheet.
- With a large glass or a round form, cut the base. Use either a smaller glass or any Christmassy shape to cut the lids/tops. I used a star shape because it covered better than the others.
- Place and adjust the large pieces in the tray, add a spoon of fruit filling, put a pastry lid on and coat with a beaten egg using a brush.
- Repeat until you have used the entire dough.
- Optionally, sprinkle a little bit of coconut sugar, then put the tray on the middle rack in the oven.
- Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the mince pies turn golden brown. Allow cooling when finished and before serving.