During the Stuart and Georgian times, in the UK, mince pies were a status symbol at Christmas. Very rich people liked to show off at their Christmas parties by having pies made in different shapes (stars, crescents, hearts, tears and flowers). The fancy shaped pies could often fit together a bit like a jigsaw! They also looked like the ‘knot gardens’ that were popular during those periods. Having pies like this meant you were rich and could afford to employ the best, and most expensive, pastry cooks.
Mince Pies, like Christmas Puddings, were originally filled with meat, such as lamb, rather than the dried fruits and spices mix as they are today. They were also first made in an oval shape to represent the manger that Jesus slept in as a baby, with the top representing his swaddling clothes. Sometimes they even had a ‘pastry baby Jesus’ on the top! Now they are normally made in a round shape and are eaten hot or cold.
A custom from the Middle Ages says that if you eat a mince pie on every day from Christmas to Twelfth Night (evening of the 5th January) you will have happiness for the next 12 months!
On Christmas Eve, children in the UK often leave out mince pies with brandy or some similar drink for Father Christmas, and a carrot for the reindeer.
Here’s a recipe for Mince Pies
175g Sweet Shortcrust Pastry (see below)
225g (about 12 tablespoons) mincemeat
icing sugar for dusting
Sweet Shortcrust Pastry
225g plain flour
pinch of salt
50g lard or vegetable shortening
25g caster sugar
1 egg yolk
a little water
Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl. Cut the fat into the flour and rub into a breadcrumb consistency. Mix in the sugar. Beat the egg yolk with 2 tablespoons water and stir in to bind to a fairly firm dough, adding a little more water as necessary. Knead lightly until smooth but do not overwork it. Leave to rest in the refrigerator or cool place for at least 30 minutes before rolling out.
(Makes 225g of pastry)
Roll out the pastry very thinly, 2.5 mm / 1/8 inch thick. Cut out 12 rounds with a plain or fluted cutter and grease the pastry trays / tins. Place a round in each section of the pastry tray / tin. Prick the bottom of each pie and put a teaspoon of mincemeat in each one. Damp the edges. Cut out 12 more rounds with a smaller cutter, cover the filling in each tart. Press down with the blunt end of the smaller cutter so the lids are secure. Cut a small cross in the centre of each lid to allow steam to escape.
Place the tarts on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated hot oven at 220°C / 425°F / Gas Mark 7 for 12 to 15 minutes or until well risen and golden. Dust generously with icing sugar and serve hot. When cold the tarts can be stored in an airtight container, or frozen.