Every country has it’s own special foods for celebrating Christmas. In the States from my childhood I associate cookie making as the special baking session of the season. Germany has stollen. But I have lived more than a quarter of a century now in either England or Ireland and the comestible essentials seem to be Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and mince pies.
Christmas pudding translates easily to what Americans know as plum pudding. The making of the pudding is highly ritualised with a special ‘Stir Up Sunday’ at the beginning of advent when the pudding is mixed up and each member of the household asked to stir in a wish. The prizes â€“ silver boots, pennies, etc. are carefully wrapped in greaseproof paper and put in the pudding after the mix has been put in a muslin lined pudding basin. Then the first steaming session commences.
The second delicacy is Christmas cake. This is basically a fruitcake but not as you know it. I can remember a childhood friend commenting on her Irish grandmother’s cake that was as heavy as a doorstopper. It’s true! This is the densest of fruitcakes, full of alcohol soaked dried fruit, mixed spices, butter, and eggs. It is slowly baked at a very low temperature and in the final stages you need to put a layer of greaseproof on top to stop it from burning. This makes for high drama in the kitchen, which is only superseded by anxiety when it comes to icing the cake.
The cake, having been nicely aged and fed with brandy or whiskey from early November, gets iced shortly before the Great Feast. Apricot jam is warmed and spread over the top and sides. Marzipan is rolled out and placed all round the cake like a beds topper. The real achievement is the royal icing on top, a marvel of icing sugar and glycerine, which somehow evades the correct consistency unless you have passed a course in advanced kitchen witchery. Consequently, supermarket shelves groan with packets of ready made royal icing these days and an entire nation of women sigh and cross off one less Christmas anxiety from their lists. They expend creativity with decorating the top with plastic snow people or reindeer or sprigs of real holly if a bush is handy.
Early on in our quarter century together my beloved confessed that he was not all that fond of either Christmas pudding or Christmas cake. What he really loves about Christmas are the mince pies.
Hurrah and hugs! Honey, this is clearly the least labour intensive and most satisfying bit of Christmas kitchen creativity in these Isles. Given that we have strong vegetarian leanings in our household it is even easier because we don’t use the traditional beef suet and substitute chopped almonds for a lovely vegetarian mince. Meat may have appeared in the recipe in Henry VIII’s time but the beef suet was the only carnivorous revenant to the original since Victorian times.
You can find a nice quiet Sunday afternoon in November to make up a batch that, given the amount of alcohol used, will have a shelf life of three years! I know this because it is tried and tested in our own household and never a tummy ache was complained. Kids love getting involved in the assembly of the mini-pies. You need little tartlet or patty pans that are lightly buttered. Use a 7.5 cm pastry cutter to cut out the top and bottom of the pies and seal with either a milk or milk and egg wash. You only need the sparest teaspoon of the mincemeat in each pie. So now you know why this batch lasts so long!
Ordinary sweet pastry is fine but cream cheese pastry with the mince stuffing is nothing short of a Meg Ryan food moment.
Vegetarian Christmas Mincemeat
Dried fruit is bagged in 250g sacks where I shop. This recipe is flexible so if you are slightly short of one of the fruits you can top it up with any left over dried apricots chopped finely. I am a thrifty cook and the results are equally delicious.
250g each of raisins, sultanas (golden raisins) and currants
50 g each of chopped dried candied peel, glacÃ© cherries, glacÃ© angelica root (optional)
Finely chopped almonds
Grated rind of an orange and lemon
2 chopped cooking apples
Juice of the orange and lemon
250g brown sugar
Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice to taste (I go heavy on the cinnamon myself)
75cl apple cider (hard or soft)
Put everything in a large pot and place over a low and even heat. You will need to let everything simmer down to a nice jammy consistency. This will take anywhere from 60-80 minutes. Take off the heat and put in a good slug of brandy. Then another. Leave the mincemeat to macerate overnight.
Next morning gently reheat and pot into hot, sterilized jars. Add a teaspoon of brandy to each jar and seal.