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The secret life of mince pies

This article first appeared in City Press.

by: Anna Trapido | 07 Nov 2017

Johannesburg - Nothing says Christmas quite like a mince pie. Each exquisite dollop of liquor-plumped fruit surrounded by crisp buttery pastry brings out the finest of festive feelings. But there is much more to mince pies than meets the eye. And not all of it is sweetness and light. In fact, almost none of it fits in with the peace, love and fa la la la la theme that is generally felt to define the Christmas spirit.

Mince pies have been through the wars. Literally. For something so sweet, there is a lot of bitterness packed into their history.

Mince pies used to be savoury
The original mince pies were savoury and can be traced back to 13th-century England when European crusaders returned from their murderous travels to the Middle East with recipes that mixed meat, fruit and spice. All the early English recipes call for equal parts of minced cooked mutton, beef suet, currants and raisins with ginger, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, orange rind and salt. They sound more like a Moroccan pastilla or even a South African bobotie than the little sugar-dusted tart we know today.

During the English Civil War, puritan extremists argued that the shape of a mince pie resembled Christ’s crib and to make or consume such Catholic idolatry was a sin. Pie persecution was rampant and, at its height, the sale of mince pies was an offence punishable with flogging.

When did they become sweet?
Mince pies only lost their meaty fillings and became a sweet dessert offering in the 18th century, when cheap sugar made its way to England from the slave plantations of the West Indies. Today, some traditionalists still add beef suet to their recipes, but even this is increasingly left out by cooks unnerved by the idea of including the fat found around a cow’s viscera in their favourite festive food.

Purists insist that only a home-made mince pie will do. Energetic souls can try chef Jackie Cameron’s delicious recipe below. The chef-patronne of the Jackie Cameron School of Food & Wine in Hilton, KwaZulu-Natal, adds Van der Hum liqueur and brandy to her sweet treats. And jolly nice it is too.

For those who have had a long, hard year and just want to buy their baked goods, I have eaten my way through a mountain of shop-bought mince pies to identify the best readily available supermarket offerings. I did it so that you don’t have to. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it.

Not one was perfect, but all were pleasant. My top three were:

Checkers – R22.99 for six. The pastry was rather thick and the dusting of icing sugar on top was cloying, but the mincemeat was tasty with a delicious buttery finish. There was a disconcerting space between the end of the lid and the start of the mincemeat, but I imagine this is the ideal spot to put in extra brandy butter.

Pick n Pay – R25.99 for six. I liked the short, crisp pastry and the generous, citrusy mincemeat filling, but they lost points for the pastry’s tendency to fall apart in the time it took to lift the pie from plate to mouth.

Woolworths – R29.99 for six. The pastry was too crumbly and dry. The mincemeat seemed slightly skimpy in quantity, but I did like the highly spiced, clove-laden quality.

Jackie’s Mince Pies

Yields: 850g of pastry


•250g salted Butter
•½ cup White Sugar
•1 whole Egg
•3 cups Cake Flour
•5ml Baking Powder

1.Beat butter, sugar and the eggs.
2.Add the rest of the sifted ingredients.
3.Hand-line thinly, using half of the pastry, small cupcake moulds using ones finger tips. Prick with a fork and oven bake at 160°C for 5-10 minutes or until cooked, cool, add below mince meat, grate left over pastry over mince meat. Place back in the oven at 180°C until pastry is cooked about ten minutes.
Orange Marmalade and Van der Hum Mince Meat
Yields: 1.6kg - store left over mince meat in a sterilised bottle

•300g Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and grated
•150g Suet, shredded
•360g Raisins
•200g Currants
•100g Candied Peel
•216g Treacle Brown Sugar
•120ml freshly squeezed Orange Juice
•1 Orange, zest
•65ml Lemon Juice
•1 Lemon, zest
•30ml Marmalade Jam
•50g Almonds - blanched, whole
•100ml Van Der Hum
•50ml Brandy
•20ml Mixed Spice
•½ Nutmeg, grated
•¼t Cinnamon, ground

1.Mix all the above ingredients together, leave overnight, place into the oven the next morning in a tray - covered with tinfoil at 130°C for 1½ hour - 2 hours or until the suet is melted and coating the fruit mix.
2.This can be kept in an airtight bottle for months

WATCH: How to make fun mince pie phyllo crackers

Read more on: mince pies  |  festive  |  recipes

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