I had my first mince pie in December 1996. I was staying at a pub, in the wider Manchester area, and they had this resident chef - or should I say this resident prick, he was sooo the rudest person working at that place, so full of himself! But he could cook one mean meal! - who was always experimenting and playing with food ideas. One afternoon, as I was sitting at one of the pub tables, a pen and a note book in front of me (laptops weren't widely available, back then) trying to jot down the begginings of my first vampire novel, but being distracted from said chore by two members of the band that was supposed to play that evening who had just begun to do their soundchek - not that I minded, one of them was rather cute and funny, and some flirting may or may not have been going around! - this chef came up to me, with this big platter full of tiny cake like thingees and placed it at the table saying "Do try one, I'm testing recipes and need some feedback."
I remember looking suspiciously at the platter. He told me those were mince pies, and that was the first time I was seeing one. It was just past lunch time, and I was really not in the mood to gobble down some savoury nibbles, but I also did not want to seem rude or stuckup. So I picked one, still very suspicious. It was covered in icing sugar, and I could not for the life of me fathom why someone would consider pairing mince meat with sugar - I put it down to being a chef-y thing - and it was with a heavy heart that I bit into it. Turned out it wasn't savoury after all, and there was no mince meat to be seen for miles and miles. What I was biting into was this heavenly concotion of sandy, crumbly, sweet pastry filled with a generous portion of some red compote that was tart but sugary at the same time. I was hooked. I gobbled the first one, then the second, an a third for good measure. I was in my twenties and thin as a whistle, and they were really small, those mince pies. Or so I remember them. They were really good. I asked him what it was and he explained the story of the mince pie a little, then proceed to tell me he had made the compote with red berries only, and that was why it looked so red. I prayed he would leave the platter on the table, so I could keep munching away, and he did, but I was prevented from really going into it by the two band lads with a very healthy appetite who proceeded to stuff their faces with the pies as soon as the chef told them to go ahead and try. Everyone was hooked, and he had a winning recipe there. While I stayed at that pub, he made a second batch of which I partook as well, but after I moved on to another village, I still had some more mince pies all over the festive season, but none that good.
So many years have passed, since that first mince pie, and every Christmas I find myself thinking back with nostalgia on that first bite. But I was always afraid of tackling the mince pie monster, if there is one thing I fear in the kitchen, it has been the mince pie. I wouldn't even talk about it, lest my husband suggested we did have to make a batch. Cue in last Christmas, and an overwhelming desire to have at least one mince pie. First I considered blackmailing my sister, who lives in London, into sending me a packet of mince pies over the post, but they would only get lost or destroyed. Then I started scouring the web for recipes, and reading them, studying them, mulling over them. It didn't seem hard. It didn't sound complicated. It felt quite achievable. So I started working on my husband for us to do a batch of them that Christmas, as we were having family over and it would be a nice idea to introduce something from another culture at the table. Turning to our Nigella Lawson's Domestic Goddess book, we went through her mince pies recipes and came up with our own.
I wanted our pies to have red berries in them, and you have to bare in mind that we came across a very lucky fluke, as we were out shopping for the dried fruits and nuts to go into them. We layed our eyes, quite accidentally on a packet that contained dried plums, dried strawberries dried cranberries, dried blueberries, glazed cherries amidst the regular currants and raisins. It was score, and we brought that pack home, along with flaked almonds. So if you to do consider making this recipe, know that you can use the raisins, sultanas and glacée cherries alone, but if you have the possibilty of adding dried cranberries, blueberries, gooseberries, strawberries and plums, please do. Really. It will be that much better. So for the compote you'll be needing:
- 250 gr sugar (dark will be better)
- 1 kg apples, deseed, peeled and quartered
- 1/2 tsp mixed spice (use nutmeg, cloves, star aniseed or do as I did, crushed a few fennel seeds with some allspice)
- 500 gr of mixed dried fruits such as currants, raisins, plums, cranberries, you get it.
- 75 gr glacé cherries, chopped
- 75 gr finely flaked almonds
- rind and juice of one mandarin (you can use half an orange or half a lemon instead)
- 90 ml of rum
- 250 ml red berries liqueur or cider (if you're using liqueur and it is a very sweet one, take 50 gr off your sugar)
As for the pastry. We did go for Nigella Lawson's pastry recipe, as it sounded quite celestial, tweaking it here and there as we needed or prefered. So this pastry recipe is largely Nigella's and not ours, but it is a safe one, and one that with us works all the time.
- 240 gr flour
- 60 gr vegetable fat
- 60 gr cold unsalted butter
- juice of one orange (we opted for the juice of one large mandarin)
- pinch of salt
- 1 large egg, beaten, for glazing, which is quite optional
- about 200 gr, 250 gr of the mince meat for the filling