I will not be having a merry old Dickensian Christmas. In fact, I do not celebrate Christmas at all. (I will be eating and drinking lots that day, but what else is there to do when everything is closed and there is little on TV?) With no dinner to plan, I can claim little interest in the goose vs. turkey debate, in the seemingly endless search for (lighter! newer! better!) side dishes or in the eternal problem of leftovers. I am, however, very interested in dessert.
Let me be a bit more specific. Over the festive season I may dabble with Christmas pudding (aka plum pudding). A plump, vanilla-scented pannetone (a very popular option amongst those who want to bring Mediterranean vivacity to their home-grown celebration) is already beckoning atop the microwave. There will most certainly be chocolate, including the justly renowned Bendicks bittermints. (With 95% cocoa solids, this is a very grown-up After Eight.) What I am most interested in at the moment, however, is mince pies, or--even more precisely--the contents thereof.
A quick perusal of the Oxford Companion to Food confirmed my suspicions about the medieval origins of this dish. In common with other English recipes from this period, mincemeat employed sweet spices such as mace (these were largely sourced from India), fruits and, on occasion, alcohol for bulk and distraction. All of this was bound for individual consumption in a pastry casing. (Here, the mincemeat pie has quite a bit in common with another convenience food of the Middle Ages, the Cornish pasty.) Early settlers to North America, perhaps eager to prove that everything in the New World was indeed bigger and better, made larger pies. By the 19th century, mince pies had shed the meat (though suet remained as a binder, a tradition still followed by some today) and become indelibly associated with a Dickensian image of Christmas.
While poor supermarket versions abound, a quality mince pie boasts a crumbly, buttery double-crust pasty and a filling packed with currants, chopped apple (too much is a sure sign of cheap mincemeat), candied citrus peel, fragrant nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves and lots of brandy. Chopped nuts are sometimes added, and/or frangipane applied underneath the top casing. The best versions are matured for several weeks, blending the flavours and ensuring a subtle, boozy hit.
Though it occurred to me to make my own mincemeat, handing out mince pies to friends and coworkers seemed a rather goyische thing to do. But I had noticed some particularly delectable mincemeat on offer at Neals Yard Dairy, piled high in a rustic stoneware bowl. Their version was made by Elspeth Biltoft at Rosebud Preserves, whose Yorkshire jams and chutneys are some of the best on the market. Some querying revealed that the mincemeat could also be used as a cheese condiment. Kirkham's Lancashire, a pale, crumbly cows-milk cheese was chosen, the slightly lemony and yogurty sourness of the cheese offsetting by the rich fruitiness of the mincemeat.
Consider it a nod to the festive season, to the history and culinary traditions of the majority religion. Or consider it dessert.