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American Way To Brighten Mince Pies For The Holidays

Photo: Cranberry Mincemeat Pies. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Photo: Cranberry Mincemeat Pies. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

An American friend living in England told me she has trouble explaining to the Brits that we don’t have mince pies in the U.S.

My response: “Say, what?”

Maybe it’s a regional thing, but in my experience we’ve always had mince pies, for Thanksgiving and Christmas alike. Mincemeat pies they’re sometimes called, and that’s a misnomer because they’re seldom made these days with the shredded venison and beef suet (kidney fat) that once, a long time ago, were de rigueur. Meat apart, it’s really the rich mixture of dried fruits and fragrant spices — cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, mace, ginger, allspice — along with potent rum and brandy, that makes mince pies the very emblem of end-of-the-year feasting, even if, as happens sometimes, the pie filling comes from Amazon.com in a jar with vaguely Olde Worlde lettering on its label. But it’s amazingly easy to make good mince-pie filling, and it’s such a comfort to have a couple of jars aging in a bath of booze on a pantry shelf waiting for unexpected guests to arrive. Then you just whip out your frozen pastry crust, fill it with mince, toss it in the oven and stun everyone around the table with a delectably warm seasonal treat. And if you happen to have some vanilla ice cream in the freezer, a little dollop on top just adds to the festivities.

Cranberries give mincemeat pies a New England twist

Spurred by my overseas friend and an abundance of cranberries here on the coast of Maine this season, I decided to add locally harvested organic cranberries to this year’s mince mixture. As bright red and cheerful as holly berries, cranberries are another icon of Christmas for me, tinting the mince a color as jolly as Santa’s own cap, while their bittersweet flavor reflects the nature of this beloved holiday, sweet with festivities, gifts and delicious things to eat, but with an edge of bitterness and yearning as we remember those who are no longer here to join us.

Fresh cranberries. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Fresh cranberries. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

This year especially, I remember my dear friend Leslie Land, food writer, gardener and outspoken activist, who slipped away last summer at much too early an age. Leslie and I had known each other for almost 40 years and spent a lot of that time cooking, talking, laughing and even arguing, especially over Christmas, which Leslie adored, despite being Jewish (“Why should only Christians get to celebrate?” she demanded, sensibly enough), while I deplore the rampant consumerism of the feast and often wish I could be transported for Christmas to another place, another time entirely. Leslie, however, loved the very sentimentality of Christmas, and she always used the season as an excuse to make an extravagant number of cookies: gingerbread, sugar cookies, rum balls, vanilla crescents, jumbles, chocolate chip, rugelach, spritz, pfeffernusse, springerle, oatmeal cookies and cannoli were just a few in her repertoire, and always in her Christmas larder. (You can see many of her recipes on her still extant website, leslieland.com.) So this cranberry mincemeat is in memory of Leslie, whom I miss more at Christmas than at other time of the year.

Cranberry Mincemeat Pie(s)

A good source for high-quality candied citrus peel is The Baker’s Catalog at KingArthurFlour.com. For best results, the whole spices should be ground just before adding to the mince mixture; use a spice mill, a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder (after thoroughly cleaning out the coffee by grinding a small piece of stale bread); add spices in any proportion that pleases you, but go easy on the cloves, which can overwhelm everything else.

Makes 6 small tart pans or one 8- to 10-inch pie

Ingredients     

2 ounces (half a stick) unsalted butter

1 cup raw (demerara) sugar, or more if desired

1 cup apple cider, or more if necessary

Cranberry mincemeat filling. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Cranberry mincemeat filling. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins

10 ounces (about 2 cups) raw cranberries, preferably organic

2½ cups mixed dried fruit, including currants, raisins, sultanas, and, if you wish, dried cranberries

2 teaspoons freshly ground mixed spices (cinnamon, clove, allspice, nutmeg, mace)

2 medium Granny Smith apples, peeled and grated

1 cup diced candied peel (orange, lemon and/or ginger)

½ cup dark rum or brandy, plus a little more to top the mixture

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

¼ cup maple syrup, or more to taste

Directions

1. Have ready two pint canning jars with lids.

2. Combine the butter, sugar and cider in a saucepan and cook just until the sugar has dissolved and the butter has melted.

3. Rinse the cranberries and add to the saucepan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until all the cranberries have popped open.

4. Stir in the mixed dried fruit and spices and cook until very thick. Then stir in the grated apple, candied peel and rum and cook for 5 minutes, adding a little more cider if the mixture becomes too thick.

5. Stir in the vanilla and maple syrup and cook another 2 to 3 minutes, just to meld the flavors. Taste and if the mixture is very tart, add a little more sugar and/or maple syrup.

6. When the flavor is right, spoon the mince into the scrupulously clean jars, top with another spoonful of rum or brandy, and seal with their caps. The jars may be kept in a cool pantry or refrigerated for three or four weeks, the mince protected by the booze on top. In fact, the jars should sit for at least a week to develop more complex and interesting flavors.

7. When you are ready to make mince pie or mince tarts, set the oven to 375 F. Roll out the pastry (see the recipe below) either to fit six small, 3- to 4-inch tart pans or one larger 8- to 10-inch pie plate.

8. Spoon the mince into the prepared dough and top with cut-outs of stars or snowflakes or whatever you fancy — holly leaves and berries, if you feel up to it. With a larger pie, make a lattice crust for the top.

9. Bake the tarts or the pie for 50 to 60 minutes, until the pastry is golden and the mince filling is bubbling hot. Mince pies are best served hot from the oven or at least warmer than room temperature. If you can’t serve immediately, plan to warm up before serving. And a dollop of vanilla ice cream is always welcome on top.

Pastry

This recipe makes enough for a single pie or six to eight smaller tarts, including the cutouts to go on top.

Ingredients

12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter

2¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar

Pinch of salt

6 to 8 tablespoons ice-cold water (see directions)

Directions

1. Cut the butter into six cubes and add to a small bowl. Transfer to the refrigerator to thoroughly chill the butter at least 15 minutes before using.

2. Combine the flour, sugar and salt in a mixing bowl, tossing with a fork to mix.

3. Using your fingers, thoroughly crumble the well-chilled cubes of butter into the flour mixture; it will not be a smooth mixture — more like tiny beads of butter distributed evenly throughout the flour.

4. Add a couple of ice cubes to a cup of cold water. Now spoon 6 tablespoons of the super-cold water over the flour mixture, sprinkling it to distribute. Stir with a fork, then with your fingers, until all the liquid has been incorporated and the dough is smooth and easy to roll. If necessary, add a tablespoon or two more of the chilled water. (You may also do this in a food processor, but be careful not to over-process and toughen the dough.)

5. When the dough comes together nicely, divide it in two. Wrap each half in plastic and set in a cool place to rest for an hour or so.

6. When you’re ready to roll out the dough, dust the rolling surface and your rolling pin very lightly with flour and roll each dough section out to an appropriate thickness — 1/16 inch should be fine. Fit the dough in a pie plate or individual tart pans, then fill with the mince mixture and bake as directed.

Top photo: Cranberry Mincemeat Pies. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins



Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of many books about Italy and the Mediterranean. Her most recent books are "Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil," published by Houghton Mifflin in February 2015, and "The Four Seasons of Pasta," published by Avery in October 2015.

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