Mince pies mean Christmas. So when that time of the year approaches, you'd better mix some zesty, buttery pastry and whip up fruity mincemeat - homemade mince pies are the best.
Why are mince pies called mince pies?
There are a few interesting things about mince pies. First and foremost the filling – mince? Mincemeat? Surely there isn’t any meat in them?
Their history goes back to the times of crusades and the Middle Eastern approach to sweet and savoury, mixing meat with spices, fruit and nuts.
The crusaders must have brought back the pies around Christmas time and so they became a traditional seasonal treat, albeit at times frowned upon as Catholic whimsy. But then what did the Puritans not frown upon?
Back in the day they were indeed filled with mutton, goose or beef mixed in with suet, cinnamon, cloves, raisins and orange peel. Makes you almost feel it's a shame that meat is left out these days, doesn’t it?
Shop bought mincemeat is a no-no
The second interesting thing is that although they are easy to make AND I MEAN IT, not many people make them at home. Papers and magazines are full of rankings for supermarkets' best mince pies, but none will ever match homemade from scratch.
And it doesn't take much skill - especially the mincemeat is just a case of emptying a few bags out of store cupboard and mixing them a bit in a bowl.
They sell jars of the filling in shops instead and there are actually recipes for mince pies with 'a jar of mincemeat' features in the list of ingredients. What a joke!
I should think, if anything, buying ready pastry and making your own mincemeat would make some sense but the other way round beats me, frankly. A bit like buying cooked beetroot.
Who ate all the mince pies?
And the third thing is they can be lovely or thoroughly disgusting – the latter some of the shop bought ones without naming or shaming. They tend to be overwhelmingly full of sickly peel and reeking of cheap brandy. That, or worse: novelty mince pies with gin glaze, filled with frangipane or salted caramel.
Many people I know truly hated mince pies until they tried homemade ones (mine, needless to say!). This recipe is a conglomerate of several, with the mincemeat owing the most to Good Food Channel.
How to make the shortcrust pastry
Unless you have your own, favourite, go-to recipe for pie crust, this is hands down the best I have tried. If you have a food processor, it will take five minutes; if not - ten.
Rub the butter into the dry ingredients with your fingers (or engage little helpers), then add the egg and water mix and give it a knead, just until it comes together.
Wrap up the pastry in cling film and dump it in the fridge while you make the mincemeat.
How to make the mincemeat filling
Chop, chop, chop, glug, sprinkle and mash up. That's all there is to it. I wouldn't make the mincemeat in a food processor because you want textures instead of a paste. Save the paste for Caribbean Christmas cake.
The composition of good mincemeat is free to a point, as long as you add a banana (for glue) and apple (for moisture). Skip or double up the brandy/port, as you wish.
Cut, fill and bake
Rolling out the pastry is a bit of a chore, admittedly, especially that it never wants to be the right temperature. If too cold, it will crumble; if too warm, it might leach butter whilst baking.
And even though I know that pastry works the best when it's chilled for an hour and then waits at room temperature for 45 minutes before rolling, it's remembering to take it out at the right moment which seems to be a trick impossible to master.
Depending on your tin (or tins; get some throwaway little foil cases which are great if you're gifting your pies), the cutter for the bottom should be a little larger than the opening. Chill the bottoms while you cut out the tops because the best result is when pie crust goes to the oven fridge-cold.
The tops can be any shape you like, or another circle to close up your pie. Don't forget to pierce a hole in the latter for the steam to escape.
And once they are out of the oven, the best moment comes: dusting them with icing sugar. Let it snow!
More Christmas baking recipes
My absolutely all-time Christmas favourite bake is Stollen - and if you're patient, you can make Stollen bites, adorable bits of indulgence!
Easy, fun and lovely: lebkuchen are traditional German gingerbread biscuits, the best.
You could try your hand this year at the Italian version of a giant mince pie: spongata di natale.