I originally published this piece just before Christmas last year but wanted to do so again to give those of you who haven’t yet taken the mincemeat plunge another chance. And if you don’t want to make the pie, Kim’s article is, in itself, lovely. So either way, enjoy.
I posted a link to Kim’s Mincemeat Pie recipe last year (see previous post The Very Best Ever Mincemeat Pie Recipe). He originally wrote this article for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper. They have since given him permission to re-publish the entire article, not just the link. And I thought that was so appropriate for this season.
Kim says he considers this pie to be more of a sweet/savory pie for a lunch, or even dinner and not so much a dessert pie but, of course, it would be lovely used either way. Here is Kim’s original article in full:
Old-fashioned Mince Pie
by Kim Moss
Long before I heard the old definition of a “Yankee” as “a Vermonter who eats apple pie for breakfast,” I did just that — usually sitting on a stool at one of the vintage diners I frequented back then.
Still, although apple pies are wonderful, it’s another pie containing apples that I want to linger on — the old-fashioned mincemeat pie.
Mincemeat pies were so closely identified with Christmas in England that Oliver Cromwell banned them — along with a number of other holiday traditions he found excessively gluttonous or frivolous — in the mid-17th century. Although they haven’t been enforced for hundreds of years, those laws have never been formally repealed.
As for me, I think of a good mincemeat pie as a meal in itself. I can imagine few more pleasurable moments than sitting before one of these pies, cooled slightly after being removed from the oven, a hefty slice on my plate and a glass of fizzing apple cider halfway-to-hard nearby.
A flavor etched into the taste buds
One Thanksgiving Day, about 30 years ago, I was invited to dinner by an artist friend named Ilse, now long gone. She employed a German housekeeper and an assistant cook, a native Vermonter. Many parts of that dinner are vague. There must have been a turkey and the usual satellite dishes. The pie, though, is what is forever etched into my senses. I still have a clear image of it carried to the sideboard by the round and rosy-faced housekeeper. I can see her cutting portions, her tongue curling out with concentration — and, in hindsight, what must have been anticipation.
Up to this point in my life, mincemeat pies were really mince pies — there was no meat to be found in them. I usually found these pies a bit too citrusy and cloying, with too much raisin and clove. This pie, though, was a revelation. The crust, flaky and perfect, led to a wonderfully rich and harmonious filling. The inclusion of meat foiled and balanced the citrus and spices and deepened the whole into a dark and fragrant “remembrance of things past” — and, maybe, things to come, as yet inexperienced and exotic.
It was the Vermont cook’s pie, and, after some questioning and little answering, I learned it was venison from her husband’s deer in that good pie. Some Vermonters don’t talk much — except at diner counters at town-meeting time — so I thought I’d bide my time and work on her slowly. But time went and so did she, and I never did get that recipe.
Origins trace back to the Crusaders
The convergence of historical elements in mincemeat are as compelling for me as its unique texture and flavor.
The Crusaders, returning from the Holy Wars in what we now call the Middle East in the 11th century, brought with them the spices that became part of the original mincemeat recipes. The same spices were used to preserve meats through long and lean winter months. Like other confit (or preserved foods), the spiced meat was stored in containers in cool places until it was used, and gained in flavor from the slumber.
Biblical lore is woven into mincemeat’s story, too. The three spices of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg were said to represent the three gifts of the Magi. In England, small pies containing the spices were eaten on each of the 12 days of Christmas to bring luck, giving mincemeat its nickname, Christmas Pie. The superstitious still believe that stirring only in a clockwise direction while preparing mincemeat brings good luck.
Over time, recipes for mincemeat pie began to include more and more fruit and less and less meat. Today, it’s unusual to find a mince pie that contains any meat at all.
A Christmas pie to satisfy
Mincemeat pies aren’t relegated to any particular part of the United States. The recipes traveled by horse and wagon, by train and post. The one in this article is generations old, and comes from Frances Parish, the mother of a friend who is passionate about food.
She grew up in farm country, some 50 miles south of Chicago, along the Kankakee River. Surrounding the river were 365 acres of family-owned, working farmland. There were rolling meadows of wildflowers, interspersed with hickory, linden, oak and black walnut trees, where she rode her horse bareback in summer. A railroad ran through the farm, crossing the river, hauling freight from Chicago. She remembers the good sound of it. The whistle and slow rumble of the heavy cars moving somewhere into the night may have contributed to the wanderlust she later developed. All these things she remembers well — yet some things stood out even more.
Every few years, a month or so before Christmas, she says, a large volume of mincemeat was made up. Some was used for the approaching holiday, the rest refrigerated for future use. There was much baking to be done — cookies, fruitcakes, and an assortment of pies along with the mincemeat.
She recalls the mincemeat filling as the most involved. Tender beef neck meat was used, along with pork suet from the local butcher, and apples and cider from an old variety on the farm for some of the fruit. Black walnut pieces from the nearby trees were added, along with brandy, at the end of the simmering.
I’ve included Frances Parish’s recipe for mincemeat exactly as it was given to me, then followed it with my own cooking notes. Mincemeat isn’t for everyone. But those who love sweet-savory dishes and appreciate slow cooking and the alchemy of it all, will find this wonderful Christmas pie satisfying.
MINCEMEAT RECIPE FROM FRANCES PARISH
OF LINDEN ISLAND IN THE KANKAKEE RIVER
Makes about 12 (9-inch) pies
For the mincemeat:
3 pounds beef neck meat cut into 1-inch cubes
2 cups ground pork suet
4 cups mixed dried candied fruit (3/4 cup each apricots, pineapple, citron, figs; 1/2 cup each cherries; 1/2 cup candied orange and lemon combined)
2 cups dried currants
2 cups seedless raisins
Grated rind of 2 lemons
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
4 cups apple cider
4 cups tart berry juices (buy tinned berries and drain them; use blackberry, boysenberry, raspberry and/or loganberry in equal parts)
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground clove
2 teaspoons nutmeg
2 teaspoons mace
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons pepper
6 cups brown sugar
10 cups Jonathan apples (peeled, cored and diced)
1-2 cups apricot brandy
2 cups black walnut pieces (other walnuts can be substituted)
For the pie:
Double pie-crust recipe of your choice
2-3 tablespoons brandy
2-3 pats butter
Cook beef in water until very tender. Cool and break into smaller pieces and chop fine in a food processor. Chop the suet well and mix roughly with the meat. Add remaining ingredients and cook until apples are tender — about 2 hours.
After cooking, add 1 to 2 cups of brandy, depending on the thickness of mixture. Then add 2 cups black walnut pieces just after cooking is finished.
When ready to make the pie, add a few more tablespoons of brandy to the filling, and a few pats of butter after you pile it into the bottom crust. Lattice the top crust. Bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees and bake another 25-30 minutes.
My cooking notes:
*If you can’t find beef neck meat, use chuck. It’s toward the neck and has good flavor.
*I used tinned gooseberries for one of the berries. They’re tart and have a large amount of pectin for thickening.
*I simmered all the ingredients for the mincemeat in an earthenware pot on a heat distributor. If you don’t have one, use a very heavy-bottomed pot on low heat to prevent scorching. The mixture gets very thick and needs stirring (clockwise, of course!) often.
*You can reduce the mincemeat to a very thick consistency during the original cooking, but there is more chance of scorching when you are working with such a large batch. I prefer to reduce the filling only till it’s quite thick, but still slightly liquidy. Then you can do a second reduction for just the amount of mincemeat you want to use for the pie(s) you’re making on a particular day. There’s less chance of scorching the mincemeat this way, and it takes less time overall to achieve the right thickness.
*I put the apples into the mixture during the last hour of cooking to keep them somewhat firm.
*I used a half-cup of apricot brandy while cooking the full recipe, then added another quarter-cup cup to the smaller batch when I was reducing it to the proper thickness.
*I found most of the ingredients for the mincemeat at Kaune Foodtown, 511 Old Santa Fe Trail (982-2629).