Mince pies, a spicy and citrussy dried fruit mixture wrapped in crumbly pasty, are one of the most popular Christmas traditions in Britain and I couldn’t miss the chance to include them on my blog. This is my extremely easy recipe for this delicious festive treat.Mince pies have been eaten for centuries and have their origins in the medieval period. However, the first mince pies were very different to those we know today. Origianlly, they contained real meat, and their crusts were known as coffins. The pastry would have been a thick and simple dough made from flour and water and was designed to be discared once the filling of the pie had been eaten.They were made in a rectangular shape and became associated with the manger that Jesus had lain in, beginning a tradition of placing a dough effigy of Jesus on their top.
Sweet flavours were often combined with the savory, courtesy of honey and dried fruit, which would have been brought from abroad. Spices were imported to the country from the middle east, and as such were the preserve of the wealthy and thus a way to show off how much wealth you had. Due to the expence of their ingredients, mince pies would have only been served at special ocassions such as Easter and Christmas. These ingredients can be traced back as far as the 11th century to European crusaders returning home from the middle east.
There is a popular belief that mince pies were banned by Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century and then reinstated at the Restoration. This is, however, not true, although they were frowned upon by the puritans. By the end of the century, mince pies were made in a circular shape, without the dough effigy on top.
By the 18th century, cheap sugar, imported from slave plantations in French and English colonies, was a increasingly popular ingredient. Hannah Glasse’s recipe in The Art of Cookery (1747) “to make mince pies in the best way” contains half a pound of sugar, as well as dried fruit, suet, apples, many spices and brandy. Meat was now optional, although Glasse recommends the use of ox’s tongue or beef surloin.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when meat was dropped for good. Eliza Acton has two recipes in her Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) for mincemeat, one including ox tongue and the other (entitled “superlative mincemeat”) is meat-free until you reach the last line which states “we think that the weight of one lemon in meat improves this mixture”. Mrs Beeton gave two recipes in her Book of Household Management (1861), one with and one without meat, however later additions only included the meat-free one. By the 20th cetury, meat in mince pies was almost unheard of.
My recipe is extremely simple, and most of this simplicity comes from the fact that I use a jar of shop-bought mincemeat. You could make your own, and I do plan to, at some point, try creating my own recipe for mincemeant. But there is no need to go through the effort of making your own – just make sure the mincemeat you buy is of good quality!
Simple Star-Topped Mince Pies
- 120g flour
- 60g butter
- a jar of good quality mincemeat (I used about 130g)
- Measure the flour and butter into a bowl and rub together with your fingers until it resembles bread crumbs
- Add cold water little by little to the mixture, bringing it together to form a dough
- Place the dough into a freezer bag, sealing out as much air as you can, and chill in the fridge for about an hour. If necessary, you could leave it in the fridge for a few hours
- Pre-heat the oven to 200c and grease a cupcake tin
- Place the dough onto a floured work surface and roll out to about 3mm thick
- Using a fluted cutter about 7cm diameter cut out 12 circles and place them into the cupcake tin
- Place about a teaspoon of mincemeat into each
- With the remaining pastry cut out 12 stars and place these over the top of the mincemeat filling
- Bake in the oven for 12-14 minutes, until the pastry is turning a golden colour
- Remove from the tin and cool on a cooling rack