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Mince Pies

A Christmas Recipe from the Victorian Kitchen – Mincepies!

A Christmas Recipe for Mincemeat and Mincepies from The Victorian Kitchen

Our Victorian Christmas weekend highlighted the Christmas Pudding, so naturally this Steaming Sunday’s ‘Taste of History’ has to showcase another Festive Favourite – Mincemeat and Mince Pies.

The origin of mincemeat lies in the Middle East; returning Crusaders brought back the idea that meat, fruit and spices were an excellent and tasty mix.

However, even though this concoction is “foreign”; pies and mince pies are indisputably British!

The earliest recorded recipe containing this combination of ingredients all enclosed in a pastry case, or Coffin as it was called, is from around 1390. The “pastry” used was just flour and water and was simply a container to hold the tasty filling, which was the only part eaten . . . . by the rich! At the end of the meal the hard pastry case was distributed to the poor at the kitchen door.

Pies in the Middle Ages were not like the ones of today. They were large; seriously large and each one designed to serve many people. As with the Christmas Pudding, religious symbolism began to be an important feature of these traditional items.

The shape was either oblong or oval and said to represent the manger into which the infant Jesus was laid. The pastry lid was folded and pleated to mimic the swaddling clothes and, just in case anyone was in any doubt, a pastry Baby Jesus adorned the top!

The name for these pies has changed over the centuries. Originally, they were simply known as Mutton Pies named after the meat used. In Tudor times when eaten in the winter period they were called Shrid Pies but at Christmas, they were called Christmas Pies. Sometime after this the name was changed to Minched Pies. It is now easy to see how our modern name has evolved.

By the beginning of the 17th century a more palatable pastry encased the filling and so now the whole pie was eaten. By the end of the century the size had shrunk to that much more akin to that of today. The rich had the pies made into elaborate shapes; lesser mortals ate pies that were just small and round.

However, there was one key difference between those served in the 17th century and the ones eaten today – they contained meat. In fact meat was still included in some recipes until the mid 19th century. The type used depended on income. The working class used tripe, the middle-class, like Eliza Acton, used cooked ox tongue and for the wealthy, it just had to be sirloin steak.

But. . . .  fashions change and soon after the 1860s meat as an ingredient disappeared completely. The totally sweet mince pie had arrived.

This Steaming Sunday visitors had the opportunity to taste two different recipes, both from Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Before these are given however, there needs to be a few further notes about Mincemeat and Mince Pies in the Victorian period.

Firstly, 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 break down. 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 as a part of each recipe.

Secondly, the pastry used was predominantly ordinary shortcrust. This was made with just flour, lard and water – no sugar and no butter.

And finally, mince pies at this time were not deep. They were cooked in Patty Pans which were small shallow tins either individual ones or as a 12 hole Patty Pan, just like the 12 hole bun tin of today.

So for those of us who bought our bakeware in the 1960s (or before), or who inherited ones from our mothers, grandmothers or even great grandmothers – then these are perfect for making the Traditional Victorian Mince Pies!

And so now to the recipes themselves, these are just for the Mincemeat. It’s a bit late to be making this for this year so these are really in preparation for Christmas 2020. You simply can never be too organized for the Festive Season!

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 you want to be braver than me! 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.
  7. Use the mincemeat to make your favourite mince pies

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
  9. Use the mincemeat to make your favourite mince pies

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.

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