I call it Christmas Mincemeat because we only seem to enjoy this delicious mixture just one time of year, during the Holidays. I remember having mincemeat so often during the Holiday season that I expect it every year now. Many of you will consider mincemeat an acquired taste, much like our beloved Moxie beverage here in Maine, while many of you will simply overlook this pie. Is it because of the word meat in the title?
Maybe because there is no strong, and universal, agreement on exactly how to make mincemeat. It very well could be that suet is known to be a key ingredient in this pie filler since time immemorial. I lean toward that notion, which is a shame. Great mincemeat, that closely rivals the classic presentation, can be made without suet and meat.....and without butter that so many upscale celebrity chefs abide by.
Let me give you a quick rundown of mincemeat and then offer two recipes that will have you trying it either for the first time or all over again.
I could write and write about the origins of mincemeat and bore you to death as I explain this, because the true preparation of mincemeat goes back even further than any food historian would care to research, and it all began with a way of either preserving meat or using the lowly parts of the animal in some fashion.
I will skip to New England, where minced pies, or "coffyns", have been baked in a fire since we first set foot on this soil. I dare say that not many of us would care to relive the original recipe for mincemeat because it was more far savory than sweet. When you take suet, which is the fat of beef or mutton from around the kidneys, and stew it for hours on end until it completely melts, and throw in whatever ground, leftover meat you may have and add just enough fruit to taste, I don't believe many would enjoy this fat-laden dish.
I will say, however, that the rich taste was broken up extremely well with ground cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. These three spices, having been an integral part of mincemeat since the Crusaders, have kept their place in this dish because of their moral relationship with the three magi, hence the origin of Christmas. Mace was frequently added along with these three spices as well, it being a very popular spice for many generations, but sadly ill used today.
Here is a recipe from The Frugal Housewife, 1772:
"To Make Minced Meat Pie: Shred a pound of neats tongue parboiled, with two pounds of beef suet, five pippins, and a green lemon peel. Season it with an ounce of spice, a little salt, a pound of sugar, two pounds of currents, half a pint of sack, a little orange-flower water, the juice of three or four lemons, a quarter of a pound of citron, lemon and orange peel. Mix these together and fill the pies."
Christmastime, Harpers Weekly, 1876
An age-old beloved custom is to always stir mincemeat, while cooking, in a clockwise direction. While is was slowly cooking in a large kettle over the fire, many households only allowed you to stir it just one time, allowing others to follow suit. Then when it was your turn again, you would give it another clockwise whirl."
It wasn't until well into the 19th century that homes were starting to exclude meat in mincemeat, but the suet stayed.
From a personal standpoint, I adore mincemeat in any form, but as time and knowledge of health issues increase, so does my attitude about this Holiday staple. As with fruitcake, I would love to get more people to enjoy something so honored and traditional as mincemeat. And I truly believe I accomplished this quest.
I would like to say just a quick word though. I am going to get email after email, I am afraid, because so many well known chefs are going to tell me that if I don't add suet to mincemeat, I MUST use butter. My answer is quite simple. WRONG!
Butter adds absolutely nothing, and I mean NOTHING, to mincemeat. They will tell me that it adds smoothness and richness. REALLY!?!? Let me laugh just for a second then I will continue.
First, we are talking about mincemeat here people. Mincemeat, no matter what you do, will never be smooth in texture or flavor. It is inherently salty/sweet and the last thing I want is a coating of fat on my tongue, traveling down my throat, only to end up in clumps in my arteries.
Secondly, meat in mincemeat. Although I love venison, mutton or whatever type of ground or chopped meat you may desire to add to this dish, I do prefer the overall sweetness of mincemeat as prepared below because it is, after all, a dessert.
You will notice the absence of sugar, be it granulated or brown. I don't believe I have ever found a recipe that didn't have added sugar in a mincemeat. You simply don't need it. The sweetness of all the fruit is plentiful, almost too much actually. That is why I often use Asian Pears instead of, even, tart apples, because they are less sweet.
As for the molasses. That is a true Yankee addition and has been since the 17th century in most households in rural parts of New England, where sugar was too expense to use.
For substitutions and notes, please refer to the end of the recipe.
I can hear it now. "This is NOT mincemeat!" But you will be in for one heck of a surprise. Especially when the smell of this recipe starts drifting in every room of the house. If you closed your eyes, you could swear you were transported in our ancestors kitchen. If you have any children that have never had mincemeat, give this a shot.
When it has cooled sufficiently, simply place the recipe below in a pie shell, and top with another pie crust on top. Vent and bake for 40 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. Remove to cool completely before serving. This mincemeat recipe can be used in any cookie, tart or Holiday recipe that requires mincemeat.
1 1/2 cups orange juice
1 cup orange marmalade
1 cup raisins or golden raisins
1 cup dried cranberries
1 cup diced, dried apricots
2 tart apples, such as Granny Smith, Suncrisp, Delicious or Braeburn
3 tablespoons molasses
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon each salt, nutmeg and ginger
2 teaspoons rum extract
In a large saucepan, whisk orange juice and marmalade. Peel, core and chop apples and add to juice mixture along with remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring well. Reduce temperature to low and simmer 30 minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated. Stir, while helping to break up ingredients, often while simmering.
Remove from heat, transfer to bowl, stir in rum extract and cover to refrigerate for at least 24 hours before using.
Makes about 3-3 1/2 cups
Many purists will be having a field day when they see I am using orange juice instead of apple cider or apple juice in this recipe. There is no more of a purist when it comes to New England recipes, and keeping them alive, more so than I am. However, I simply had to add orange juice. Why? Because you must have something to offset the entire sweetness of this mincemeat. Using apple cider on top of apples was just too much of a good thing. But helping to break up the dominant flavor of apple, and add something that you will taste on the sides of your tongue, orange juice and marmalade gave that perfect tang, as did the cranberries.
Now speaking of the apples, when I began Yanking this recipe, the best mincemeat I ever tasted, I substituted the apples for........Asian Pears. Almost blasphemy, I know, but I have never tasted a better mincemeat. So why did I not say that in the original recipe? Well, tart apples were a great alternative, plus I abhor angry emails.
I will also relate that a superb substitute for the apricots would be prunes, citron, dates or figs. I chose apricots because they were much less sweet than the other ingredients listed above and helped to add more depth in flavor.
About the rum extract. It just wouldn't be true New England mincemeat without the addition of rum flavor. If desired, replace a quarter cup of the orange juice with a good, dark rum. For those of you who do not want to purchase rum extract, only to have the rest of the bottle sit in your cupboard till next year, use vanilla or almond extract.
Now about that second Mincemeat recipe that I alluded to earlier. For those of you who want meat in their mincemeat, here is a perfect substitution for meat. Bacon!!!
Simply cook and crumble 3-5 slices bacon and add it to saucepan when you begin to simmer. It helps to break up the sweetness, adds great flavor but also gives you the fat you may desire. If not, add a half pound of ground venison that has been cooked and drained well to all the other ingredients before simmering.