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Mince Pies

Mincemeat and Mince Pies – History, Recipes and More – from Mrs Bird

Mincemeat and Mince Pies – History, Recipes and More . . .

It would appear that mincemeat has its origins in the Middle East. Returning Crusaders brought back the idea that meat, dried fruit and spices were an excellent and tasty mix!

However, even though the concept of this concoction is “foreign”, pies and mince pies are definitely British.

The earliest receipt (recipe) for a meat-based spiced pie appeared around 1390 in a “Form of Cury“, an English cookbook. So old is this recipe that it was originally written on a scroll. The dish was named ‘tarte of flesh’. Cooks were told to pound together pork, hard-boiled eggs and cheese. Then they were to add spices, saffron and sugar.

Even though this early recipe names pork as the meat to use, it was usually mutton which these aptly named Mutton Pies contained. Cooking meat along with spices was believed to preserve it and so confident of this were our ancestors that there was a generally held belief that these pies could be eaten up to a year after they were made. After cooking, liquid fat was poured into the steam holes in the pastry and then allowed to solidify. The pastry case was thought to keep out both air and spoilage organisms.

These were nothing like our mince pies of today. They were large, seriously large, and oblong as they were designed to serve a number of people. The pastry case, called a coffin, was just a container for the delicious filling and was never meant to be eaten – well not by the rich! At the end of the meal the pastry, along with the bread trenchers, used as platters, were distributed to the poor at the kitchen door.

Historically, these spiced-based meat pies had been eaten throughout the winter period. During the Middle Ages new significance was given to them during the festive season. The oblong or oval shape of the pie was said to represent the manger into which the baby Jesus was laid. The pastry lid also started to have religious symbolism. At Christmas the pastry was folded and arranged in such a way as to try to mimic the swaddling clothes. And, just in case anyone was in any doubt as to the exact meaning of the dish, a pastry baby Jesus adorned the top!

The spices were reputedly in tribute to the Magi who came to see the infant child and of course, like the Christmas pudding, there should be 13 ingredients in honour of Jesus and his 12 disciples.

Another Middle Ages belief was that if someone ate this kind of pie every day between Christmas and 12th Night eve – 5th January – then happiness would be bestowed on that person for the next twelve months.

Gradually change was coming to this dish. The old name of Mutton Pie died out and by Tudor times they were called Shrid Pies or when served at Christmas, Christmas Pies. Sometime after this the name was changed again to Minched Pie, from this we can clearly see how our modern name has evolved.

By the early 17th century the hard pastry coffins had been made more palatable by adding fat to the flour and water mixture. Now the pastry, as well as the filling, was eaten and enjoyed.

In Gervase Markham’s “The English Housewife” published in 1615, he expects cooks to – grind up a leg of mutton, 3lbs suet, salt, cloves, mace, currants, raisins, prunes, dates and orange peel. A list of ingredients, apart from the meat, very similar to recipes of today.

With the arrival of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans most Christmas traditions disappeared, or so the authorities would like to think. Many were simply carried on, very quietly, behind closed doors. Once the monarchy was restored in 1660 Christmas and all the attendant festivities were soon openly resumed.

By the end of the 17th century the mince pie had changed and so too had society. The pie was now much smaller, but it had become a status symbol for the rich. Spices had always been expensive and so they were usually only used on important holy days or at other events when trying to impress or flaunt a family’s wealth. However, serving spiced pies was not enough; wealth had to be seen as well as tasted!

So now mince pies started to be made, for the wealthy at any rate, in elaborate shapes, for example – stars, crescents and hearts. All these took time and skill to make, and a specially trained Pastry Cook had to be employed, not everyone could afford one of these.

In the show-off Stuart and early Georgian periods just fancy shaped mince pies weren’t enough. As these confections were carried to the table, it could be seen that they all interlocked with each other to create an intricate pattern, not dissimilar to a knot garden, a very fashionable trend at the time.

Lesser mortals had a different shaped pie. They were round, just like the ones we have today!

The transition from the spiced meat pie to the sweet one started around the beginning of the 18th century. Sugar, certainly for the aspiring middle classes, got cheaper and so it could be used a little less sparingly. Therefore, mince pies became sweeter and in 1747 Hannah Glasse, a cookery writer of the time, published in her book ‘The Art of Cookery’ a meat free mincemeat recipe.

But, old habits die hard. Meat was still included in recipes well into the 19th century. Eliza Acton and Isabella Beeton both include a meat version of mincemeat in their recipe books. The actual meat varied according to income – for the wealthy it was sirloin steak, for the middle class, like Eliza, offal eg ox tongue, and for the working class, tripe was the suggested ingredient.

So, by the time the Victorians got going on reshaping Christmas, the mince pie was well established. The only change or tinkering that came about was that meat finally vanished and the totally sweet version had emerged.

So, is that the end of the mincemeat and mince pie story? Well not quite. There is still a debate today about . . .
The kind of pastry which should be used –
Should it be ordinary shortcrust, or sweet shortcrust or is puff pastry the correct one?
What about the top –
Should it be a full pastry top totally encasing the filling, or should it be a small pastry star or pastry top with a star cut out?
Temperature –
Served warm or cold?
What about the size, sprinkled with icing sugar, deep or shallow . . . . . the arguments go on!

And if you come from Yorkshire then the savoury element hasn’t completely deserted this sweet treat. Cheese is often served with the pie. For the purists it has to be Wensleydale, Cheddar will just about suffice, but Lancashire – Never!

As a further footnote, the mince pie has not been immune from politics. In Prohibition America in the 20th century the alcohol content of these pies in Chicago soared to over 14%! Now that would definitely help to make it a Merry Christmas. Hic!

So, having researched the history of mincemeat and mince pies, some Victorian recipes just had to be tried.

Several were looked at and considered but in the end only two were actually made. Both these recipes appear in the later pages of this pamphlet. However, there needs to be a few notes about them first.

Most of the recipes considered were all fairly similar, so the two chosen are the most diverse. Meat, although included in one of the ingredients lists, has not been used. Some readers may be braver than me! For anyone interested, if steak is used it is usually added raw but chopped very finely. If the meat is ox tongue, a popular Victorian choice, it is cooked first and then skinned before chopping. The recipe which included meat has the overall quantity of ingredients made up to the correct weight by increasing the amount of dried fruit.

The quantities given in the recipes in this pamphlet have been considerably scaled down. However, they yield a sufficient amount for a trial and then if found acceptable the recipe can be increased.

Victorian houses were much colder than our modern ones. They also had cold larders or cellars in which they could safely store food for quite some time. Most people today don’t have this facility; they have a refrigerator, and space is always at a premium. Making mincemeat has sometimes revealed a problem for our modern day cook. Fermentation can occur in the jars. When these are opened there can be an unpleasant yeasty smell or even the lid can be “blown“. This is because the warmth of our modern houses has allowed the uncooked ingredients – usually apple and lemon which have natural yeasts and enzymes – to begin to decompose. Even Victorian cooks must have experienced these problems as Isabella Beeton suggests in some of her recipes these ingredients are cooked first.

There is a modern solution to this fermentation problem and can easily be used with a Victorian recipe. Most modern cookery writers for example Delia and Good Housekeeping state that the mincemeat should be cooked before it is put into sterilised jars for safe storage. Details about this method will be given at the end of each recipe.

Isabella Beeton’s Mincemeat

6oz (170g) raisins
8oz (225g) currants
6oz (170g) suet – beef or vegetarian
4oz (110g) soft brown sugar
3oz (85g) candid peel
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
9fl.oz (250ml) minced or grated cooking apples
Rind and juice 1 lemon
1-2fl.oz (25 – 50ml) Brandy

This recipe originally included 4oz (110g) finely chopped beef steak. If this is to be used reduce the raisins to 4oz (110g) and the currants to 6oz (170g).

1. Combine all the ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Stir well to ensure all is thoroughly mixed. At this point Isabella states that the Mincemeat should be packed into sterile jars, covered tightly and stored in a cool place for a fortnight to mature before using. However, if using the modern method do not add the Brandy yet. The modern method continues –
2. Once all the ingredients have been well mixed EXCEPT THE BRANDY, cover the bowl and leave in a cool place overnight
3. If the bowl used is not ovenproof, transfer the mixture, cover lightly with foil and cook for 3 hours at 110C, 100C fan, Gas Mark ¼
4. Remove from the oven and do not be alarmed at how it looks. All the suet, either the beef or the vegetarian one has melted
5. As the Mincemeat cools, stir the mixture regularly. In this way the fat will gradually coat all the other ingredients and when completely cold no fat will be visible at all
6. Gently stir in the Brandy, pack into sterile jars and label when cold. Allow the Mincemeat time to mature before using.

To sterilise jars –
Wash the jars and their lids in warm soapy water. Rinse. Dry thoroughly using a clean tea towel. Put the jars and their lids into a oven set at 180C, Gas Mark 4 for 5 minutes. Handle carefully, they will be hot. Pack the Mincemeat into these jars immediately.


Isabella Beeton’s Excellent Mincemeat

1 large lemon
1 large cooking apple
4oz (110g) raisins
4oz (110g) currants
4oz (110g) suet – beef or vegetarian
8oz (225g) light soft brown sugar
3oz (85g) candid peel
2 fl.oz (50ml) Brandy
1 tablespoon orange marmalade

1. Grate the rind and squeeze the juice of the lemon. Boil the remainder of the lemon until tender enough to chop very finely when cool
2. Remove the core of the apple, run a sharp knife around the skin – the ‘equator’ – and bake in the oven until soft. Remove the skin and pulp the flesh. Allow to cool
3. Combine all the ingredients, for the modern method omit the Brandy. Isabella would at this point suggest that when the Mincemeat is well mixed it should be packed into sterile jars and stored in a cool place for a fortnight to mature. It is then ready for use. The modern method continues –
4. Once all the ingredients have been well mixed, cover and leave in a cool place over night
5. If the bowl is not an ovenproof one, transfer the mixture, cover lightly with foil and cook for 3 hours at 110C, 100C, Gas Mark ¼
6. Remove from the oven and do not be alarmed at how it looks. The suet has melted
7. As the mixture cools stir it regularly. In this way the fat will gradually coat all the other ingredients and when completely cold no fat will be visible
8. When completely cold, gently stir in the Brandy, pack into sterile jars and label when cold. Allow the Mincemeat some time to mature before using

To sterilise jars –
Wash the jars and the lids in warm soapy water. Rinse. Dry thoroughly with a clean tea towel. Put the jars and the lids onto a baking tray and put in the oven 180C, Gas Mark 4 for 5 minutes. Remove from the oven, take care they will be hot and pack the Mincemeat into them immediately.

As a footnote to this – even though we tend to eat mincemeat and mince pies at Christmas this is only a tradition developed over many years. There is nothing to stop us using this same sweet concoction at other times. After all if it’s good enough to eat at Christmas then it’s good enough to eat at other times!

Whilst looking through my copy of Eliza Action’s cookery book, first publish in 1843 – Modern Cookery for Private Families – I came across a recipe called Good Daughter Pudding. This is now a firm favourite in the Mrs Bird household. So I reproduce it here. If you like bread and butter pudding I am sure you will like this.

Remember if you make this then you are really eating like a Victorian!

Good Daughter Pudding

Lay into a rather deep tart dish thin slices of bread or soft white roll, very lightly spread with butter and covered with a thick layer of mincemeat. Add a second layer of bread and mincemeat. Then pour gently into the dish a custard made with 3 well whisked eggs, three quarters of a pint of new milk or thin cream, the slightest pinch of salt and 2 oz of sugar. Let the pudding stand to soak for an hour then bake it gently until it is quite firm in the centre. This will take around ¾ to a full hour in the oven.

For those unsure of the amount of ingredients, and the temperature in a modern oven I give the following –

Enough thin slices of bread and butter to make two layers in your chosen dish.
2 good tablespoons mincemeat to cover each layer of bread and butter
3 eggs well beaten with –
2oz (50g) granulated sugar and –
¾ pt (400ml) milk, whole milk is what Eliza would have used! If I have a little cream in the fridge I add a little of this when using semi-skimmed milk

After leaving this mixture to stand for about an hour bake at 150 – 160 C fan, Gas Mark 3 approx. for between 40 and 50 minutes. Check to make sure it is fully cooked in the middle, if not, cook for a little longer. Take care that the top layer of mincement does not burn because of the high sugar content.

Serve this pudding hot, fairly soon after it is fully cooked.

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