A woman at the Speyside Cooperage cafe gave us this piece of advice about mincemeat pies - "If it's got all sweet things around it, it's probably sweet. If it has meat things around it, it's probably meat."
The intrigue doesn't stop there. Most people make mincemeat pie with jarred filling - it's almost universally regarded as too difficult to make from scratch. When we began looking into creating a recipe, it actually looked pretty simple. Except... not really. As it turns out, we're not fluent in English. What are sultanas? What's suet? Can we buy "mixed peel," or do we have to make it? And, why are there vegetarian versions of meat-less mincemeat?
Here are the answers, and the surprisingly easy recipe for from-scratch mincemeat filling.
Our little Keswick rental cottage, in the beautiful lake district, was outfitted with an oven and range - we cooked all day, kept in by driving rain and a sense of tradition. We dubbed our holiday "Thanksgiving in the Land of Oppressor" and made a feast that was half American and half motherland. An appropriately sized pheasant, brussel sprouts, mashed potatoes, stuffing and gravy, kale and corn, candied carrots, traditional American stomachaches and traditional English mincemeat pie.
For the citrus peel, boil a lemon (unwaxed if you can find it) in water for an hour, until it's soft and pungent. A great kitchen pleasure is smelling the astringency and sourness of lemon vapor as it boils. After an hour, cut it in half, remove all the seeds and finely mince it (peel and all) or put it into a blender. Add to this pulpy slop a few tablespoons of fresh citrus zest. We used clementines. Also, about a quarter cup of mixed peel (which you can buy in a good supermarket in America), a half cup of raisins and a half cup of sultanas. So, what exactly is a sultana? A golden raisin.
From here, get creative - we used candied ginger, because we love it, and cranberries, because it was Thanksgiving. Chop everything with a knife or blend it loosely with a blender and add in two medium, diced apples. Saute lightly a few tablespoons of minced onion, then add the fruit and peel mixture to the pan along with a quarter cup of brown sugar, the three spices (1 tsp. each of cinnamon and nutmeg, half that of clove). Cook until it's beginning to make some noise, then splash in a quarter cup of cheap cognac, brandy or whisky. Reduce a bit and then add the suet. And what is suet?
Essentially, suet is dried shortening, and it can be used in a variety of roles - a lot of people advocate it as a pastry aid, or as a butter-substitute for frying. It's not particularly healthy, though - it used to be used most extensively for "tallow." You know, to make candles and to waterproof boots. It definitely sticks to one's arterial walls.
Nonetheless, we used a healthy dose of it, mixed right into the fruits and liquor. It dissolves easily and smoothly, and gives an incredible richness to the mix. That vegetarian version of mincemeat we mentioned earlier calls for frozen unsalted butter or harder-to-find "vegetarian suet," whatever that is.
This filling is extremely citrusy, dark and nicely sweet. It tastes nothing like most American pies - it's complex, savory and tasty, much in the tradition of chutney. It goes as well with a sweet ice cream as it does a pungent blue cheese. The best part is it smells intensely like the holidays. Our kitchen aroma was of lemon, apple and spices.
Here's our recipe:
Thanksgiving Mincemeat Pie Filling
- 2 medium baking apples, diced
- 1 lemon
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1/2 cup golden raisins ("sultanas," to the British)
- 1/2 cup combined other dried fruits, such as cranberries, currants or candied ginger
- 1/3 cup beef suet
- 1/4 cup mixed peel
- 1/4 cup cheap, brown, hard liquor (cognac, brandy, whisky, dark rum...)
- 2 tablespoons citrus zest (clementine, orange, lemon...)
- a small amount of onion
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon clove
- Boil the lemon in water for one hour, until peel is soft. Cut in half, remove the seeds and mince the peel and flesh. Casually mince the raisins, sultanas and other dried fruit and chop the apples.
- Sautee the onion in a pan, then add all the fruit, spices, peel and a good splash of liquor. Cook for some minutes, then add the brown sugar and cook over low heat, adding more and more liquor (to both the pan and your glass) until the apples have just begun to soften. Mix in the suet and wait until it's melted.