Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Christmas is coming....

... And the goose is getting fat,
Please put a penny in the old man's hat,
If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do,
If you haven't got a ha'penny, then God bless you!

That was our childhood Christmas rhyme, and in these recessionary times it rings true. So, in the spirit of Christmas and saving a bit of money, this year, I decided not just to make my own mince pies, but also the mincemeat with which to fill them - a few jars of luxury mincemeat with added brandy and apple and lemon juice is definitely more expensive that a few packets of raisins and things.

For those of you having paroxysms because I mentioned the dreaded "C" word let me remind you that, as per our rhyme above, Christmas is indeed coming and this day 6 weeks is the very day - so it is time to start at least thinking about it, and if you are into baking, it's time to start the Christmas baking.

For most of us, Christmas is a time of tradition, both old and new (there is a lot of fun to be hand in creating your own traditions for your own family and cherry-picking what works for you and ditching those that don't). For me, I like to have the tree up relatively early as my birthday is in early Dec, and I like to have it up around then (the 8th by the way, and it's a very significant one this year, so if anyone wants to buy me a present, far be it from me to stop you!). I have a fresh tree though, and it's been getting a bit droopy by the end of the season, so I think I might wait a week longer this year.

Our biggest family tradition is that we spend Christmas with my Dad, at my family home in Ahascragh, Co. Galway. It's a big house, there are lots of siblings and grandchildren now too - not all will be there for Christmas Day, but they will be there for a day or two at some stage, and it's great for the little DinnerBabies to spend some time with their cousins.

When it comes to the food, we all do our bit. Dad made the puddings last night, and my job is the mince pies. These are A HUGE DEAL in our house - every year, there was so much discussion about my mother's homemade mince pies and how far superior they were to any shop bought creation and all that jazz. So, after my mother's untimely death ten years ago, it became my job to do the mince pies, as I was the baker in the family and also the one that could make mum's pastry. Turns out that the pastry was really the key, for us anyhow - the sweetened, thick and extremely buttery pastry of the shop bought versions are what the family object to the most, it seems. So, I consulted my sources (Nigella Lawson and company) and felt confident. I know that my own mother hadn't made her own mincemeat in years, and Nigella's Christmas chapter in her book "How to be a Domestic Goddess" had very practical advice - if you are using shop bought mincemeat, turn it into a bowl and grate over a good bit of sharp cooking apple (at least one cooking apple), a good squeeze of tart lemon juice (the juice of at least one lemon) and add a good slug of cooking brandy. This sharpens up even the sweetest and most cloying mincemeat and makes the world of difference.

A word on pastry - I just use regular, shortcrust pastry. Nothing fancy, just plain old hardworkin' shortcrust. It's my favourite and I think it works the best here; not just because it's the way my mother made them; but also because the mincemeat filling, although scant, is so sweet and intense that you don't need anything fighting with them. Heavy, buttery pastry just totally overwhelms the poor little pie and all you taste is the chewy case, not the Christmassy filling.

I do like an "aide-memoire"!
I've covered pastry before here, so just a quick note on quantities. As you can see from the picture, I like to make notes in my cookery books! But it makes sense, I only make mince pies once a year, I always check out this book, so where better to make my notes and ensure they don't get filed somewhere obvious that I'll never find again? So my notes tell me that pastry made with ½lb of flour and 2oz each of butter and lard would make about 24 mince pies if I roll the pastry thinly enough (also key, you don't want too much pastry, just "enough"), so I usually use 1lb of flour and get about 46 mince pies out of it.

I actually thought I might make my own mincemeat last year, as Nigella Lawson always suggested you could make an easy, suet-free mincemeat and then I read a recipe by Eunice Power in a Saturday edition of the Irish Times around this time of year that seemed to tally with that, so I thought - why not?! But I never quite got round to it. However, in the spirit of the true "Recessionista" that I have become though, I decided this year was THE year and I was going to go for it. So, I did my shopping and gathered my ingredients, and got going this weekend.

Eunice Power's Christmas Mincemeat Recipe
"Many mincemeat recipes don't involve cooking, however, when it is cooked it makes it much more digestible, so no seasonal heartburn. You can of course substitute cranberries, diced glacé cherries or diced ready-to-eat apricots for any of the dried fruit. I tend to use smaller raisins and sultanas in my mincemeat, especially if I want to make tiny mince pies. You would be surprised how much room a jumbo raisins takes up.

A motley collection of jars, but makes LOADS
  • 350g raisins (I used 300g raisins & 50g dried cranberries)
  • 350g sultanas
  • 100g currants
  • 450g grated apple (this was about 3 to 4 cooking apples)
  • 150g brown sugar
  • 175ml brandy
  • 100g butter
  • Juice and rind of 2 lemons
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp mixed spice
  • 50g chopped almonds
  • 50g chopped walnuts
  • 100g mixed peel (I added in an extra 50g diced glacĂ© cherries too)
  • 2 tbsps marmalade
  1. Mix all the ingredients together in a large saucepan
  2. Simmer for 30 minutes, then store in sterilised jars for up to one year
And it really is that simple! I found that it got a bit dry, so I added more brandy and a little water as I went, but the recipe made LOADS, which is just as good as I've offered to make the mince pies for the school coffee morning that the Parent's Association is running before Christmas - eek!

The fantastic thing about mince pies is that you can make them all up now, cook them off and freeze them. Yes, sure - they defrost on the car journey down to my Dad's, but they usually get eaten in about 2 or 3 days anyhow, so I just leave them in the back kitchen and reheat as required - I'm sure you have a utility room or somewhere else that is cooler, especially this time of year. 

Just a quick last note about the actual pies themselves. I make small ones. I think that is the perfect size; just a bite or two and they should be gone. Mine are quite "rustic", but that is part of their charm, so to that end I don't glaze them with egg-wash or milk - feel free, if you wish. I make mine in my regular bun trays, no need to grease them out as the pastry is buttery enough to stop them sticking. 
I also usually use a smaller size cutter to cut out the lids. A little brush of water helps to stick the lids on, and then I pierce the top with a fork, to let the steam escape. Cook in a hot oven - about 220C - for about 15 minutes. Use up the leftover pastry scraps by making a freeform pie ... collect all the scraps and roll out together, use a slightly larger cutter and fill one side with mincemeat, then fold over and crimp in the fashion of a Cornish pasty or similar.

Mince pie pictures will be added when I get round to making them - for now, mincemeat is enough Christmas prep for this house!

**EDIT** I found a picture of last years mince pies - as I say, rustic, but all the more charming for that, no?!

Sarah xx

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