A tray of mince pies dusted with icing sugar looks gorgeous, and they are saleable, too, as cafés all over the country have found in the past few years. Although mince pies have become ever more popular, it is rare to see slices of Christmas cake for sale, and hot Christmas pudding is offered almost as a curiosity on festive summer menus. It is easy to see why mince pies have left the others behind. They could have been designed specially with busy cafés in mind. The pastry and mincemeat can both be made ahead of time, either purchased or made by the café’s cooks. Then each day a new batch of pies can be quickly assembled, baked and served fresh.
The mincemeat itself is very easy to make, but is best made a few weeks, or at least days, before it is used, to allow the flavours to combine and mellow. Although traditional mincemeat includes suet, many cooks now use a smaller quantity of butter, instead. Last year, I decided to throw a crumb to tradition and make mincemeat using suet, which is the distinctive firm, sweet fat around beef kidneys, but found that the flavour no longer appealed to me. This year, I’ve gone back to butter.
Another ingredient in traditional mincemeat that often doesn’t suit New Zealand cooks is the inclusion of tart apples in the recipe. It is usually November before we get around to making mincemeat and by then there are no tart new-season apples available, and Granny Smiths or Braeburns, which have been stored for months, are past their best.
Back in 1995, Carole Conde-Acheson of Taupo solved this problem for many of us when she allowed me to include in this column her acclaimed mincemeat recipe, which contains caramelised bananas. These contribute a similar smooth fruitiness as well as their own rich flavour. Carole’s recipe included apples as well, but I now leave these out. This is the version I made this year. It tasted good as soon as it was made and has gone on improving ever since. I store it in a covered plastic container in the refrigerator. I do hope you’ll try it. It is not nearly as tricky as making a Christmas cake and will be a wonderful commodity to have on hand over the festive season.
NZ CHRISTMAS MINCEMEAT
- 175g seeded raisins
- 150g sultanas
- 100g mixed peel
- 150g currants
- 30g almonds, blanched, peeled and finely
- grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
- grated zest and juice of 1 navel orange
- 1⁄4 cup brandy
- 1⁄4 cup medium sherry
- 1⁄2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1⁄2 tsp ground allspice
- 1⁄2 tsp ground ginger
- 75g butter
- 150g dark brown sugar
- 2 large ripe bananas
Put the seeded raisins, sultanas and peel in a processor and pulse until roughly chopped. Tip out into a large bowl and add the currants, almonds, zests and juices, brandy, sherry and spices. Melt the butter in a large frying pan over a moderately low heat and use a wooden spoon to stir in the brown sugar. Peel the bananas and slice finely. Add to the butter and sugar and stir with the wooden spoon. As the bananas soften, crush them into the butter and sugar mixture. Continue cooking for several minutes until the mixture is thick and smooth. Add this mixture to the remaining ingredients. Stir well and cover. Leave at room temperature and stir again the next day, before putting in a covered plastic container in the fridge. If possible, store for days, or weeks, before using. Makes enough for 3 dozen mince pies.
When you make mince pies, you’re playing your part in continuing a very long Christmas tradition that goes back to the 16th century. Our British colonial forebears brought the tradition with them when they immigrated here. Among my early local fundraising books there are many recipes for mincemeat, but surprisingly few recipes for baking the pies themselves. Perhaps these were such a standard item that it wasn’t thought necessary to provide instructions about how to make them.
However, there has never been an entirely standard recipe for the pastry to enclose the pies. Plain short pastry, sweetened short pastry, flaky and puff pastry are all suggested in British and New Zealand recipes, but it’s only in local books such as Helen Cox’s The Hostess Cook Book, first published in 1952, that I’ve found recipes calling for shortcake pastry which includes baking powder. This type of pastry, which is still popular today,
makes substantial mince pies that are sturdy and nourishing enough for picnics and camping trips.
I prefer using puff pastry, enjoying the combination of flaky unsweetened pastry and rich fruity mincemeat. However, a warm, summery kitchen just won’t do for making puff pastry. Frozen commercial pastry is a better choice. Roll it out more thinly than usual and use a sharp fork to thoroughly prick the rounds that will line the tins. This will stop the pastry puffing up and lifting the mincemeat filling. The pastry tops will look prettier if they are not pricked.
The first small and dainty mince pies I came across were the ones made in the 1960s by my parents’ neighbour, Norma Taylor, who brought over a plateful every Christmas. Her crisp, delicate pastry was thinly rolled and the little lids allowed you to see a rim of mincemeat peeping through. Since then, this small, elegant type of mince pie has become just as popular as the more sturdy style. When I make this style of mince pie, I use either puff pastry or a rich sweet short pastry that includes a few ground almonds, and bake the pies in shallow rounded tartlet tins, which I also use to make cinnamon oysters.
- 250g standard flour
- 50g ground almonds
- 100g icing sugar
- 190g hard butter
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 tbsp very cold water
Put the flour, ground almonds and icing sugar in a processor bowl. Cut the butter into dice and add. Pulse the processor until the mixture has an even, crumb-like texture. Combine the yolk and water in a cup and add to the processor. Pulse until the mixture starts to clump into larger crumbs. Stop the machine, lift the lid and press a few of the crumbs together between thumb and forefinger. If they do not readily hold together, add a few more drops of cold water and pulse again. Tip the mixture into a bowl and press together with your hands. Wrap in plastic wrap and put in a cool place for 20 minutes before rolling out. Enough for at least 24 small mince pies.
Whichever style of mince pie you decide to make, one tradition will still hold true. You can count on a happy month for every mince pie you eat in a different house – or café.
This recipe first appeared in the Listener on November 20 2004.