Christmas is fast approaching and I was mentally grazing in the aisles of the supermarket recently, marvelling at the variety and sizes of the mince pies on offer. As a child, I used to be fascinated by pies using a mincemeat mixture but which had no actual meat in them, filled instead with a mixture of dried fruits and spices called “mincemeat”. Apparently, the ingredients are traceable to the 12 hundreds, when returning European crusaders brought back exotic recipes containing meats, fruits and spices.
The Puritan authorities frowned on the savoury Christmas pie as it was associated with supposed Catholic “idolatry” with the spices such as cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg calling to mind the offerings of the Eastern Magi while the list of 13 ingredients was supposedly representative of Christ and his 12 Apostles. The Quakers were also opposed to those “who distinguish their Feasts by an heretical Sort of Pudding, known by their Names, and inveigh against Christmas Pye, as an Invention of the Scarlet Whore of Babylon, an Hodge-Podge of Superstition, Popery, the Devil and all his Works.” Nevertheless, the tradition of eating Christmas pie in December continued through to the Victorian era with people preparing the fruit and spice filling long before it was required, storing it in jars.
I recently came across something that has been in the back of the kitchen cupboard for ages – an old and tatty and coverless cookery book owned by my mother. Actually, it is more of a promotional booklet for a margarine that was introduced into Ireland in the 1920’s by Unilever. Apparently, Irish women were reluctant to abandon butter and looked askance at margarine – I remember my father not allowing it on the breakfast table, instead preferring to slather an inch of butter on his toast in the mornings. Anyway, it was not until the advent of the Second World War and the subsequent rationing of butter that the brand began to gain some acceptance. After rationing ended on 2 September 1946 the brand, supported by promotional cookery books like the one my mother had, now missing its first six pages, and later TV ads, began to gain wider acceptance.
I remember my mother used to make four dozen mince pies every Christmas, in addition to the rich, dark fruit cake and the even richer and darker plum pudding, all presumably using this particular brand of margarine. Here and there in the margins, scribbled in my mother’s hand, are additional annotations and, in one place, she wrote or butter beside a margarine based recipe. All I can say is … my mother’s baking – her meringues, stuffed with fresh cream and smeared with dark chocolate, her date and walnut slice but especially her mince pies … I could go on but they were all mouth watering. Anyway, here is the original recipe:
Ingredients – Extra-Short Pastry:
8 oz. plain or self-raising flour (8 heaped tablespoons); A pinch of salt.
5 oz. Stork Table Margarine; 1 rounded dessertspoon of caster sugar, dissolved in 1 tablespoon of water
1/2 – 3/4 lb. mincemeat (for homemade recipe, see below); Milk and caster sugar to glaze
Oven – Pre-heated to moderately hot (Gas no 5, 380F), shelf on second runner from top
1 Have ready 8 – 12 ungreased patty tins.
2 Make the extra-short pastry: Sieve the flour and salt into a mixing bowl. Rub in the Stork until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs. Mix in the water (with sugar dissolved in it) to form a firm dough.
3 Roll out two-thirds of the dough on a lightly floured board.
4 Cut into rounds with a fluted or plain cutter a little larger than the tins.
5 Roll out the remaining dough with the pastry trimmings
6 Cut into rounds with a cutter large enough for the tops.
7 Line the tins with the larger rounds and place 1-heaped teaspoon of mincemeat in each.
8 Brush round the edges of the smaller rounds with water. Place on top of the filled pastry rounds and press the edges down gently to seal
9 Make 2 – 3 slits across each pie. Brush the tops with milk and sprinkle with caster sugar.
10 Bake in the pre-heated oven for 20 – 25 minutes. Serve hot or cold.
And there’s my photographich attempt at it. Laugh away, if you want. I didn’t have any pastry cutters so I used two small drinking glasses and I converted all the oz. to grams, that sort of thing and of course I used butter. I hadn’t prepared my mincemeat mixture either so I bought a jar of ready-mixed fruit mince from the local supermarket for reason explained at the end of this post, but absolutely delicious – no prizes for looks however.
Original mincemeat recipe.
1/2 lb. currents; 4 oz. soft brown sugar (4 rounded tablespoons)
1/4 lb. raisins; 1/4 level teaspoon of mixed spice
1/4 lb. sultanas; 1/2 level teaspoon of ground ginger
1/2 lb. apples; 1/2 level teaspoon of nutmeg
1 lemon; 1/2 level teaspoon of ground cinnamon
4 oz. Stork Table margarine; 4 tablespoon od brandy (optional)
1/4 lb. mixed cut peel
1 Have ready a large mixing bowl and two 1-lb. and one 1/2 lb. jam jars.
2 Wash and thoroughly dry the currents, raisins and sultanas. Stone and chop the raisins.
3 Peel, core and chop the apples finely.
4 Wash, dry and finely grate the rind from the lemon. Cut in half and squeeze out the juice.
5 Melt the Stork in a saucepan.
6 Place all the ingredients in the mixing bowl. Mix thoroughly; Cover and leave for 24 hours, for the fruit to swell.
7 Fill the jam jars. Seal and cover as for jam. Leave to mature for at least before using.