21 December 2011

'Tis the season for butter

Christmas food has been going upmarket for years. Pannettone, previously seen only in real Italian households, is stacked high in every food store. Everyone now knows to buy that hand-cured, hickory smoked ham rather than the nasty bright pink, preservative-laden, rubbery blob that was the only option a decade ago. Nigella breathily implores us to roast our potatoes in gallons of goose fat and brine our turkey using a whole box of Maldon, emphasizing the seriousness of the matter with glances even more coquettish than usual. Jamie reminds us to buy free-range, and helpfully suggests that we cook the pancetta stuffing separately. Literally hundreds of recipe books and internet sites describe how to make every Christmas treat from scratch, more tasty than ever before.

But somehow Christmas mince pies got left out in the cold. They're still uniformly and universally vile. Even recipes for homemade versions that lavish paragraphs on the pastry casing end with something like: "Mincemeat Filling: 1 - 11 ounce (312 gram) jar of mincemeat". But it's that filling that's the main problem - cloyingly, ickily sweet, but tasting of nothing Christmassy at all. Come to think of it, tasting of nothing but sugar.

So here's my version, to help rehabilitate mince pies from the one-bite-then-discard-surreptitiously tradition to the most delectable little morsels at the table. This mixture does not require any precision, so vary quantities with gay abandon to suit your taste, but please, please do not add too much sugar. The natural concentrated sweetness of the raisins really is enough. The juice and zest of the lemons and oranges is what really gives the blast of flavour and fragrance, with just a little spice to confirm that this is really Christmas.

Filling for 24 Christmas mince pies:
350g black raisins (not the very small kind)
3-4 lemons (zest and juice)
1-2 oranges (zest and juice)
100 ml of brandy (or port, or nothing)
3-4 tablespoons sugar
5 cloves
4 whole cardamom pods (fresh, not the bleached bitter five year old ones in your cupboard)
5 allspice berries

  • The mixture needs to soak for at least 12 hours, although days longer would not be a problem. So get a suitably sized container with a lid ready.
  • You can leave all or some of the raisins whole (I prefer that version), chop them coarsely on a board, or very briefly pulse in a blender for a more conventional mincemeat texture before putting into the bowl.
  • Using a very sharp knife, peel just the zest, from one lemon and one orange, being careful not to include any of the bitter white pith. Then julienne into the finest shreds you can manage. Or just use a zester if you have one. Finely grate the zest of another lemon and orange into the raisins.
  • Crush the cloves, cardamon and allspice to powder in a pestle and mortar, removing the cardamom pod shell, and add to the mixture, with a good grating of nutmeg.
  • Squeeze in the juice of the already zested oranges and lemons (I don't need to tell you not to add the pips do I?)
  • Add in three tablespoons of sugar and the brandy and give it all a good mix.
  • You should have enough liquid to cover the raisins. If not, juice in another lemon and orange

It tastes pretty good at this stage already, but be aware that the the brashness of the zests and the tartness of the lemon will calm a bit with soaking and mellow to a fragrant wonderfulness with baking. Likewise the sweetness of the raisins only really kicks in after baking. So don't worry if it doesn't taste like you think a mincemeat filling should, or seems too liquid, and pop it in the fridge to soak overnight or longer.

My pâte sucrée recipe consists of peering at the muffin tins I'm going to use, guessing how much soft (cake) flour will be needed (about 400g for 24 pies), adding a scatter of castor sugar (hey, it's not called weighing sugar), and then grating in frozen butter and working with my fingertips until I get that sandy texture. Then in go a couple of egg yolks and if needed, a tablespoon or two of ice water, until it barely holds together into a dough that can be rolled out to around 5mm thickness. It's more important to work fast than be precise, especially when the temperature is 34 degrees Celcius like it was today. However, if you need more explicit direction google pâte sucrée and you will be rewarded with over 6,000 nearly identical recipes.

  • Preheat your oven to 180 degrees C and butter your waiting muffin trays.
  • Roll out your pastry as thin as you can manage without it tearing (3-5mm thick), and cut disks large enough to line each muffin hole and overlap the top edge by 5-10mm.
  • After a night or more of soaking, the raisins will have absorbed a lot of the liquid and plumped up, but there will still be a bit of lemony orange juice. Put two heaped teaspoons of the 'mincemeat' into each hole, plus a teaspoon of the liquid.
  • Now cut another set of disks to neatly cover the lids. Star shaped lids would be very Nigella but too bloody fiddly by far for me.
  • You will note in the picture above that mine have the pastry lid added to the base without any overlap, an experiment I would not recommend unless you are confident of the non-stickness of your pans, or enjoy eating around a fifth of your pies as very tasty pie crumble.
  • Now pop them into your preheated oven. You're looking for that pale-golden shortcrust perfection, so check after 15 minutes, and don't leave any longer than 20.

Let cool, pry out with a suitable instrument, and store in a sealed tin. I have no idea if they will last longer than a few days, since mine have never been left unmolested that long, but I would imagine they would be good for a couple of weeks.

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