The humble British mince pie
I have fallen in love with the common British mince pie.
“Pie” in the UK is not like pie in the States. Pie here is generally savory, filled with gravy, meat, vegetables, similar to an American pot-pie filling. The crust, or “pastry” as it’s called, is a thick, tough container for said gravy and filling. The fillings are diverse and quite delicious; the crust is generally not eaten in its entirety. Such British pies are ubiquitous at your average pub in London.
Back in the day, mincemeat pies were a type of these modern British pies, but they were originally filled with ground meat that had spoiled and was subsequently mixed with dried fruit and tons of spices to make the rancidity palatable. Fast-forward to the discovery of sugar and better food safety, the mincemeat pie became all spices, fruit, nuts, but often kept a small nod to its origin by including a bit of suet (beef or sheep fat). To make this all more appealing to us today while shopping at Tesco, the “meat” part is often dropped from the description, resulting in simply “mince pies” and the suet is commonly swapped out in favor of vegetable shortening.
So what we have today is the modern mince pie: filled with sugar, dried fruit, chopped nuts, tons of delicious spices, and a generous amount of brandy. When described like this, it sounds delicious and I’m sure would be huge hit in the States, maybe even one day supplanting the boring bland pumpkin pie as the traditional holiday dessert. We’d probably have to rename it to something like “Holiday spiced fruit pie” though…
Without fail, when I bring up the subject of mince pies either in the professional kitchen or while out with friends, the first response is always, “Don’t you have these at home?” And no, of course we don’t have these in the States. Mincemeat isn’t something that is appealing to the average American, mostly because the name is weird, but also because culturally, the genesis of the mincemeat pie happened well before the coalescence of our culture. Kinda like the fruit cake. Crazy popular here, but a total white elephant gift back home.
The second response is a confusing “Ugh, mince pies”. But I don’t get it. How could you not love these little things? Everyone I talk to who grew up in the UK has really fond memories of mince pies, but almost without exception they don’t like them now as adults. Too much exposure, maybe? Or kinda like the American pumpkin pie, just too common and inescapable? (Side note: The pumpkin pies I’ve made here for cooking classes and friends have been off-the-charts popoular. Maybe the US and the UK should shake things up for a while and trade traditional desserts. We all should get excited about the winter season’s sweets!)
While working at L* this Christmas season, I’ve been making hundreds of these little pies (practically always done as mini pies, about 2″ across). We’re talking 350 pies a day, about 2-3 times a week. That’s a lot of pie. The recipe that L* uses is a bit of an anomoly, though, as I learned recently when I was hired by M* to also make MORE PIES. At M*, they bought commercially made mince filling. Kind of a sin, to my professional mind, but I’m learning that’s actually pretty common here in the UK to buy commercially made products.
At L*, they make the mince filling from scratch. And they made huge amount. I recently estimated that at the beginning of November, we had at least 300 pounds of it in the fridge. The recipe that L* uses, I was told, is a version of the National Trust‘s version (the same organization that manages Stonehenge, kinda like the US Parks Dept mixed with the Smithsonian). I believe the recipe can be found in “National Trust Complete Jams, Preserves and Chutneys” by Sara Paston-Williams.
But as many pies as I’ve made so far this season (I estimate at least 2000) I’m still not over them. I plan on trying the National Trust recipe at home and making more mince pies for myself. I might be turning a little British, because I really think these pies are absolutely killer with a spot of tea.