Growing up in a Hungarian household, there was never any mention of fruit mince and fruit mince tartlets or pies in my mother's kitchen. It would be years before I knew such things existed. If memory serves me correctly, a high school home economics teacher may have lectured about them in a class on suet.
Given my inexperience with Anglo-Saxon cooking, my young mind was boggling at the thought of combining dried fruits with spices, "minced meat" and raw animal fat. Lordy! I can remember that I had absolutely no interest in tasting these strange fruit mince pies.
Of course, eventually, I did try one (or two) and found them pleasant enough, however the pastry seemed stodgy and the fruit mince a little too sweet for my palate. With Peter, my Englishman, on the scene, fruit mince tartlets have made an annual appearance at our place over the last decade, and I have grown more accustomed to them.
According to author and food historian, Theodora Fitzgibbon, in A Taste of London, (1973), fruit mincemeat dates back to the sixteenth century (perhaps earlier) and was originally made with a certain quantity of meat, in order to preserve the meat so that it could be used throughout the winter. "Nowadays," she said, "the only ingredient which remains to remind ous of this is the beef suet." In her book, Ms Fitzgibbon shared a 130 year old recipe for mincemeat, which included 450g finely chopped lean roasted beef sirloin. Interesting, but somehow unappealing to me.
In South Wind through the Kitchen - the best of Elizabeth David (compiled by Jill Norman in 1997), the wonderful Mrs David is quoted on mincemeat:
Christmas mincemeat and plum pudding are typical examples of the English fondness for spiced fruit mixtures.
She also mentioned that the first batch of mincemeat that she prepared using ready-made shredded suet actually kept for five years. Mrs David's recipe for mincemeat, which was originally given to her by a friend, is as follows:
The ingredients are: 675g sharp apples; 340g stoneless raisins; 340g currants; 120g mixed peel; 340g suet; 340g sultanas; 60g skinned and coarsely chopped almonds; 1/2 teaspoon each of grated nutmeg, cinnamon and mace; 340g sugar, rind and juice of one lemon and one orange; and 70ml of brandy or rum. Wash and dry all the fruit. Chop the peeled and carefully cored apples. Mix all ingredients together well, adding the brandy last. Fill stoneware jars and tie them down with thick greaseproof paper, or alternatively pack the mincemeat into glass preserving jars with screw or clip-on lids. This amount makes approximately 2.75 kg of mincemeat.
A jar of Christmas mince is a lovely gift...
writes Australian culinary icon, Stephanie Alexander, in her bestselling tome, The Cook's Companion.
Ms Alexander, who always includes suet in her mincemeat "because there is nothing else that gives such a rich gloss and succulent texture", notes that her mother used to insist that Christmas mincemeat be made with new season's apples in late autumn. "In England this practice would mean that the mince matured for just a few months; in Australia it was more like 8-9 months. But the brandy and generous quantity of sugar guarantee that the product will last for at least a year. It just gets better."
Stephanie's christmas mincemeat recipe involves pre-cooking thin slices of the apple in a minimum quantity of water until the fruit is soft, then it should be covered and left overnight. The following day, the skin is stripped from the suet and the fat is then grated. All of the ingredients (which include dark brown sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon each ground cloves and allspice) are combined in a sealed container and allowed to "mature and mellow" for a few weeks.
That said, a good mincemeat can also be prepared a few days ahead of Christmas, so we had best get cracking!
I have scoured my cookbooks and a selection of web sites to bring you an ecclectic selection of receipts for Christmas fruit mince tartlets or mini pies.
One of my favourite "wholefood" authors, Jude Blereau, offers an excellent recipe for gluten-free fruit mince tartlets in her book, Wholefood Baking. Serendipitously, the recipe is also available on her web site, here.
Maggie Beer's recipe sounds divine. It includes flaked almonds, honey, dried figs, apricots and cumquats, as well as verjuice, which some of you might have in your larder. Sherry can be used as a substitute.
The Healthy Chef, Teresa Cutter, offers recipes for shortcrust pastry using oatmeal, as well as almond and wholemeal spelt. She also shares her recipe for a zesty fruit mince filling.
Lorraine Elliot, a.k.a. Not Quite Nigella, says her chocolate fruit mince tarts have "the best buttery short cases because they're made with a browned butter shortbread."
For a healthy, raw vegan recipe for fruit mince tarts, look no further than Rawlicious Delicious, where self-confessed health nut, Heidi Turunen shares her recipe for a dehydrated cashew, oat and maple syrup crust.
For those who are time-poor, ready-made fruit mince is available in Australia (just check the ingredients list). The recipe by English baker and celebrity, Paul Hollywood, uses the store-bought mincemeat. I should also mention that very good quality shortcrust pastry is produced in Australia by Carême.
Happy baking dear readers. Tell me, do you have a fondness for mincemeat and fruit mince pies?
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.