Mincemeat pies. If there’s anything that says Christmas in our Irish home it is these buttery-rich, sweet, MEAT-less wonders. Yes…it is somewhat confusing…meat is right there in the name…but these lovely treats are absolutely, positively, meat free. I know this because I’ve eaten my fair share! How could I not? Bite-sized deliciousness served on a plate with a dollop of boozy cream…who could resist?
A quick Google search on the history of mincemeat pies shows that they were once, a long time ago, an entirely different dish. Around since the 11th century, mince pies first became popular in British kitchens in the 1700s. Back then there was chopped beef or mutton in them, along with dried fruit and warm spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Rich and savoury, they were a main course dish and not an after dinner pudding or tea time treat.
It wasn’t until the 18th century, when “cheap sugar arrived from slave plantations in the West Indies”, that the mince pie we know and love today was created. Sweet trumped meat and now the only animal protein you’ll find in a modern mince pie is beef suet, a raw fat found around the kidneys and joints of a cow or mutton ~ though increasingly even it is being left out by bakers who are sensitive to animal products in their diet.
In Ireland, mince pies make their appearance in shops, bakeries, and holiday markets in early November. Truth be told, my favourite store-bought pies come from Avoca Handweavers, Butler’s Pantry and Cavistons in Glasthule, though Lidl, Aldi and Dunnes make nice ones too. Very few of my Irish friends go to the trouble of making them. Even my lovely sister-in-law, Rosie, spends her pre-Christmas time in the kitchen making her family-famous Christmas pudding, rather than making mincemeat pies.
But for those die-hard Christmas types like myself, it’s really a straight-forward, and dare I say “fun”, process. The only two things you really must do to ensure the end result is worth the effort is: 1) make your own candied peel (easy-peasy); and 2) make the mincemeat far enough in advance (two to six weeks is about right) to allow the alcohol, fruit, and sugar mixture to fully mature.
Mincemeat pies are best served out-of-the-oven-warm, with a generous spoon of freshly whipped, and dare I say “whiskey-laced”, cream, but they are also very good at room temperature a day or two later too. On its own, mincemeat is wonderful mixed into vanilla ice cream, may be added to home-baked apple or pear tarts, served over yoghurt, or tossed into a fresh fruit salad. And, finally…if you’re looking to give homemade Irish Christmas gifts this year…a beribboned jar of handmade mincemeat (or candied peel for that matter) would be positively lovely.
(makes 10 cups)
8oz/300gm/2 cups sultanas
8oz/300gm/2 cups currants
4oz/150gm/1 cups raisins
6oz/200gm/1 1/2 cup candied peel
600gm/3 cups muscavado or dark brown sugar
2 cooking apples (or green apples), peeled, cored and coarsely grated
zest and juice of 2 organic lemons
6oz/3/4 cup of Irish whiskey
1lb/450gm beef (or vegetable) suet*
1 teaspoon of pre-mixed cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves (also known as mixed spice)
a pinch of salt
1. Combine all the ingredients into a large bowl and mix well.
2. Put the ingredients into sterilised jars, cover and leave two to six weeks to mature, stirring once a week.
3. Use what you need and keep the rest in a cool, dark place for up to a year.
* If you’re making mincemeat to give as gifts to be used on muesli or ice cream, leave out the beef suet.
Ballymaloe Mince Pies
(Makes 20-24 Mince Pies)
225g (8oz) plain flour
175g (6oz) butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1 dessertspoon icing sugar, sieved
a pinch of salt
a little beaten egg or egg yolk and water to bind
1lb mincemeat (to see Darina’s mincemeat recipe, please see link below)
1. Sieve the flour into a bowl.
2. Toss the butter into the flour and rub it in with your fingertips.
3. Add the icing sugar and a pinch of salt.
4. Mix with a fork as you gradually add in the beaten egg (do this bit by bit because you may not need all of the egg), then use your hand to bring the pastry together into a ball. It should not be wet or sticky.
5. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for 1 hour.
6. Preheat the oven to 180c/350f/gas mark 4
7. Roll out the pastry until it’s quite thin – about 3mm (1/8 inch) Stamp into rounds 7.5 (3 inch) in diameter and line shallow bun tins with the discs.
8. Put a good teaspoonful of mincemeat into each tin, dampen the edges with water and put another round on top.
9. Brush with egg wash and decorate with pastry leaves or stars.
10. Bake the pies in the preheated oven for 20 minutes approx.
11. Allow them to cool slightly, then dredge with icing or caster sugar. Serve with Irish whiskey cream (or brandy butter.)
Notes, Related Articles & Credits:
A fun article about six Northern Irish brothers who make 20,000 mincemeat pies a day at this time of year.
Here’s a brief history of mincemeat pies.
Looking for some other Irish Christmas fun facts? Check out this blog post.
Irish Central always views Ireland from a slightly more cynical/humorous lens, but I like it. Check out their Christmas post for 2014 here.
In 2004, Darina Allen posted recipes for a nostalgic Irish Christmas meal. You can find it here but, be warned, it’s not for the faint of heart. The list of dishes is incredibly long.
The beautiful photo at the start of this posting is from Getty Images. It was taken by David Cordner. I would have used my own photo, except I haven’t made my mince pies yet because the mince is still marinating and Mr. Cordner’s photograph is incredibly beautiful!