Old World Christmas Pie
Roasted leg of lamb tastes like Easter, turkey and dressing tastes like Thanksgiving, and as I discovered for the first time this month, mince meat pie tastes like Christmas. This is a pie not just rich in flavor, but in Christian tradition, Americana and history. When six friends joined us for brunch – featuring mince meat pie – it began with a lot of curiosity and ended with seconds and thirds. So why has mince meat pie all but vanished in America? Well, the pie strayed from its roots, and it has a rather strange ingredient called suet.
Modern day mince meat pie contains no meat, sometimes no alcohol, and is a wimpy salute to the manly, beefy pie of mince meat history. The real thing comprises several classic Christmas elements – goose, venison, or beef, seasonal apples, dried fruit, cider, molasses, and candied peel – diced, spiced, and doused in brandy, then baked in a golden crust.
But let’s not forget the suet. Suet is beef or mutton fat taken from around the kidneys and loins, a highly prized fat used by pastry chefs. Shredded suet is stirred into the mince meat, which is then baked or simmered for several hours so the flavors strengthen and the suet melts, sealing the fruit and its juices and coating the mixture. This could be the deal breaker for modern Americans who can barely handle real butter. You can substitute frozen butter chunks, but the Brits, who know their mince meat, won’t recommend it. After cooling, the mince meat is put in jars and stored – sometimes for months.
Mince meat pie was born out of practicality and religiosity. Medieval cooks discovered that sugar was a powerful preserver for meat – already an Eastern technique – and meat and fruit “coffyns” or pies were made. When the Crusaders brought home Eastern spices, cooks found three spices for their mince meat—nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon – to represent the Three Magi. Then the crust of the pie was made oblong to symbolize a manger, with room for a pastry Christ child. Thirteen ingredients were used for Jesus and his apostles.
Mince meat pie was given many names including “shred pie,” “mutton pie,” and “Christmas pye,” and was particularly loved in England. But the Puritans brought a stop to the fun – upon gaining power in the mid-17th century, they abolished Christmas and censured mince meat pie along with other “idolatries” of Catholicism. And what’s worse, colonial America did the same – for 22 years in Massachusetts it was always winter and never Christmas. The pie’s sullied reputation stuck, and even in 1733 a writer still lamented that Puritans “inveigh[ed] against Christmas Pye, as an Invention of the Scarlet Whore of Babylon…the Devil and all his Works.”
Once the Puritans let their hair down in the 1800s, mince meat pie came back in force and became “a sacred and cherished American institution” at the turn of the century. A 92-pound pie was given to President Taft in 1909, delivered in an oak case. It took on a few superstitions during its height, particularly for causing strange nightmares and homicidal yearnings. Factories churned out meatless mince meat in America, strengthening its popularity through wars and rations. In 1908, when a Yankee physician claimed mince meat pie was bad for America’s health, the New Orleans Daily States shot back: “The republican dynasty at Washington may overthrow the federal constitution, the rights of the states and pluck the stars from the blue field of the national ensign, but the mince pie will continue to be the nation’s comfort and pride.”
This old world pie needs a revival in America, to the delight of our taste buds and historic sensibilities. (If you’re of Puritan blood, I’m sure you disagree). There are still 11 days of Christmas left this season to invite neighbors and friends, drink Tom & Jerry’s, and eat mince meat pie, sharing its fascinating heritage of patriotism, religion, and controversy.
Here’s my recommendation for a traditional mince meat pie recipe, by Linda Stradley at What’s Cooking America, www.whatscookingamerica.net. I prefer to use more meat and less fruit, making it more savory though still sweet. As you will find out, the ratios are very much to taste. Some British recipes include slivered almonds and tart cherries, both nice additions. Also, since you’re already visiting your butcher for shredded suet, order some fresh lard and make a dynamite pie crust.
Great Grandma Miller’s Homemade Mincemeat
2 pounds venison, elk, or beef chunks
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
6 whole cloves
6 whole allspice
1 large bay leaf
1/2 pound suet, finely chopped*
3 quarts apple cider
2 cups beef broth
3 pounds apples, chopped
3 pounds raisins (dark and golden)
2 pounds currants
1/2 pound citron
1 tablespoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon ground allspice
1 firmly-packed cup brown sugar
2 cups rum or Applejack brandy
* 1/4 to 1/4 pound butter may be substituted
Trim fat from meat of your choice.
In a large heavy pan over medium heat, place meat; cover with water. Add cider vinegar, whole cloves, allspice, and bay leaf. Simmer approximately 2 hours or until the meat is tender and falls apart. Remove from heat and refrigerate meat in cooking liquid overnight.
Remove from refrigerator and remove meat from liquid. Remove all fat from top of liquid; discarding the liquid. Separate meat from bones, discard bones. Chop cooked meat into small cubes.
In a large pot, combine meat cubes, suet, apple cider, beef broth, apples, raisins, currants, citron, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and brown sugar. Over medium heat, let mixture come just to a low boil; reduce heat to low and let simmer until the apples are cooked. Remove from heat and add rum or Applejack brandy and mix together.
Variation: For a wonderful flavor boost, zest and juice 2 to 3 lemons and 2 orange. Add to mince before bringing to a boil.
Refrigerate or pack in hot sterile jars and seal. May also be stored in the freezer.
Making mincemeat pies:
Pastry for 9-inch two crust pie
2 large tart apples, sliced
1 quart prepared mincemeat (see recipe above)
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Prepare pie pastry.
In a large bowl, lightly toss the sliced apples with a little flour and cinnamon. Spread the apple mixture over the bottom of the pastry-lined plate. Dot with butter. Spoon prepared mincemeat over the top. Add additional rum or brandy to your taste. Cover with remaining pastry and flute. Cut slits in pastry so steam can escape. Cover edge with aluminum foil to prevent excessive browning.
NOTE: I think my great grandma added the apples to stretch the mincemeat supply.
Bake pie approximately 40 to 50 minutes or until crust is lightly browned. Remove aluminum foil during last 15 minutes of baking. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack before cutting and serving.
Serve warm or at room temperature.
Makes 8 servings.
Lard Pastry Recipe
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, chilled (divided)
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup chilled natural lard*
1/3 cup ice water
* Find natural lard (unhydrogenated or leaf lard) at your local meat market or Mexican market.
In a large bowl with a pastry blender or two knives, cut lard into flour and salt until particles are the size of small peas.
In a small bowl, combine remaining 1/4 cup flour and the water; whisk until smooth. Pour into lard/flour mixture; stir with a fork just until the ingredients are combined.
Divide dough in half and shape both halves into thick disk. Wrap in wax paper or plastic wrap, and chill for at least 1 hour or overnight before using rolling out.
Flour your hands generously. Tilt the rolling pin and sprinkle it with flour as you rotate the rolling pin. On a lightly floured surface, roll one of the pastry disks 2 inches larger than an inverted pie plate with a floured rolling pin. Try to control the rolling pin and move from the center out. Don’t use the rolling pin to go back and forth. Use your rolling pin something like this: Roll North, pick up the pin, roll Northeast, pick up dough and move counter-clockwise, repeat. You want the crust as evenly rolled as you can.
Fold pastry into quarter folds and ease into pie plate, pressing firmly against bottom and sides of pie plate.
Makes 8- or 9-inch two-crust pie.
Lauren Fink is a former editor of Ricochet.com, and she has written for Imprimis, The Detroit News, and The Washington Examiner. She is a Hillsdale College graduate, homemaker, and mother of two. Image of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), who banned Christmas, courtesy of Big Stock Photo.