One of the great treats of Christmas is a fresh mince pie served warm from the oven. These delightful pastry confections are a versatile accompaniment, going as well with wine as they do with a cup of tea or coffee.
The name, “mince” pies may be misleading to some as the “mincemeat” in question contains no meat at all. Instead, the filling for these small pies is made from a mixture of dried fruits, nuts, spices, suet and brandy and gives a taste somewhat related to that of Christmas pudding. Less confusingly, the filling is sometimes referred to as fruitmince.
Mince pies have been a popular Christmas food since the 16th century. Back then, though, the pies did contain meat – to which dried fruit and alcohol were added, as much to preserve the meat as to add flavour. Over time, the fruit content increased and that of the meat diminished, until the pie became the meatless pastry we know today.
It is unclear exactly how mince pies became so strongly associated with Christmas. It has been suggested that as soldiers began to return from the Crusades they brought with them spices from the Holy Land, and that the eating of these spices became considered a way of celebrating Christ’s birthday. The threes spices traditionally used in mince pies – cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon – are said to symbolise the three gifts given to the Christ child by the Magi.
This evolution of the mince pie into a staple Christian celebratory food is also reflected in the star which often forms the lid of the pie today – a pastry representation of the star which led the Magi to Bethlehem.
Unless you plan to make your own fruitmince (rather than buying a jar of it from the supermarket) making mince pies is really only as difficult as making shortcrust pastry – and that isn’t difficult at all.
- 225g plain flour
- 50g sugar
- 175g butter
- 1 egg yolk
- Cold water
- Icing sugar for dusting
- 225g fruitmince
Place the flour in a mixing bowl.
Chop the butter into the flour. The butter should be cold and not the easy-spread type so convenient on the morning toast. When making pastry the aim is, as much as possible, to keep the fat from melting.
Rub the butter into the flour until you achieve a texture resembling small corn flakes.
Add the sugar and egg yolk and mix with a wooden spoon, drizzling in cold water a little at a time until a dough forms.
Roll the dough out to a thickness of about half a centimetre.
Cut circles from the dough large enough to fit the indentations of whatever tart-tin you’re using.
Place a teaspoonful of fruitmince in each pastry cup.
Cut pastry stars the same diameter as the cups and simply lay them on top of the fruitmince. Or cut circular lids – dampen their edges with water and press them into place to fully seal the cup. If you prefer full lids, don’t forget to pierce them with a sharp knife before baking.
Pre-heat your oven to 200˚C and bake for 10-15 minutes.
Serve with a dusting of icing sugar on top.
By making Christmas mince pies you’ll not only delight your friends and family, you’ll be continuing a tradition more than 400 years old. Not only do they make fantastic Christmas presents but part of this tradition is that mince pies are a favourite food of Father Christmas, so don’t forget to leave one or two out near the chimney on Christmas Eve!