Mincemeat, the mixture nowadays mainly associated with Christmas and Mince Pies, goes back a long way.
During the Middle Ages, before sugar was common, dried fruit and honey were used to add sweetness to dishes and spices such as ginger, cinnamon, cloves and anise were highly priced and much used in meat dishes as well as desserts.
Medieval cooks would have used minced or ground beef or lamb to make mincemeat, adding chopped onions and dried fruit, and seasoning the mix with ginger, cinnamon and cloves. Baked in a pastry crust, the spiced meat would be served as the centrepiece of a meal, with its delicious aroma wafting through the room as soon as the crust was cut.
These days we prefer our pies less heavy and our meat dishes more savoury. So the meat has largely disappeared from the traditional mix, and only the fruit and spices remain. As with all traditional foods, recipes vary widely. Some are enriched with suet, some have honey added, some are heavier on the spices, and most contain some alcohol.
Below, I've selected two recipes that illustrate this point.
Mrs Beeton's recipe is rich but - surprisingly - needs no cooking, and Rose Elliot's fat-free (and Vegetarian) recipe is moist and spicy. Try them both and see which one you like better!
A Jar of Mincemeat
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This makes enough for many, many mince pies!
To prepare, pare the lemons thinly and simmer the rinds in a little water until tender. Then shred or chop very finely.
Mix all the ingredients together, pack into jars, cover and keep in a cool, dry place for at least a month until using.
This recipe is from Rose Elliot's book Vegetarian Christmas, which I've used / read / cooked from until it's almost turned to ragged shreds.
It really doesn't matter whether you're a Vegetarian or not. Anyone can use Rose Elliot's book. What I like most about it is that Rose Elliot has managed to "lighten" a lot of traditional Christmas recipes without losing any of the traditional flavours. During a season when parties and get-togethers are high on everyone's agenda, and we all tend to eat more than is probably advisable... this is an excellent achievement.
The number of ingredients looks dauntingly long, but don't let that worry you. Once you've chopped and added all the bits together, it's blissfully easy.
Chop all the ingredients finely, then mix together in a large bowl and set aside for 1-2 hours for the flavours to blend.
Transfer to a casserole, cover and bake at 180°C / 350°F / Gas 4 for 1 hour. Cool, then store in an airtight jar until ready to use.
Mincemeat, once made, is not just useful as a filling for traditional mince pies. The fragrant, delicious mixture can easily do double and triple duty as impromptu pudding, crowd-wowing cake or even Christmas gift.
Serve a few dollops with vanilla ice cream and ginger snap biscuits as a light end to a heavy meal.
Dress up your jars of homemade mixture with ribbons and bows and give them away as presents to 'foody' friends.
Make a simply amazing-looking (and tasting!) cake, by lining a shallow pie dish with buttered sheets of filo pastry. Overlap the sheets and leave a good portion of each sheet hanging over the edge of the pie dish. Spoon the mincemeat into the middle of the pie dish and smooth out. Fold the overhanging pastry sheets towards the centre, crushing them a little as you go. Paint the top with more melted butter and bake in a moderate oven until golden and crispy - approx 20 minutes.
Dust with icing sugar and serve warm with cream or (even better) vanilla ice cream. Heaven!
Now you've made your mincemeat, find out how to make the pies!