While I still struggle to understand how my dad can eat almost an entire christmas pudding by himself each year or how anyone actually enjoys eating the fruit cake sitting under the thick layer of marzipan and fondant icing better known as christmas cake (although I do love eating the icing by itself), the first time I tried a mince pie, still warm from the oven and dusted with a thin layer of icing sugar, I was sold. There is something incredibly comforting about biting into a warm mince pie, the heady smell of the warming spices hitting you first and the way the delicate pastry shell gives way to the sweet and spicy filling of cooked apples, dried as well as candied fruit, the flavour of the filling varying slightly every time, depending on the cook’s preferences.
These days, I try to make my own mincemeat and use this to either make small individual mince pies or even a larger individual pie (last year we actually made a large galette, not the most sightly baked good ever to come out of my parents’ oven but delicious nonetheless with a big scoop of roasted milk ice cream melting on top). Last year, I also came across the Mince Pie Project, a great initiative where famous UK chefs sign up to create their signature version of mince pies and auction these off for charity. Browsing last year’s list of chefs and their creations is enough to get me salivating. But what struck me the most when I first stumbled upon their website is that mince pies are actually perfect to experiment with – as much as I like the classical version, I am not the world’s biggest fan of candied fruit or glacé cherries, and suet is not an ingredient that has ever made its way into my kitchen. Altering the ingredients slightly not only allows you to use your favourite dried fruit and spices but it also lets you nudge the mince pies ever so slightly to much warmer climes (culinarily speaking at least).
I did not realise ‘quincemeat’ was a thing until after I made the batch of mincemeat for these mince pies (or should I say quince pies?). But it turns out it is a thing and I am merely late to the party. Not that I mind, using quinces is a wonderful alternative to using apples. A common ingredient in many Middle Eastern dishes, both sweet and savoury, quinces, gently poached in this case, also provide the perfect base for a rich mincemeat full of dates, figs and apricots, dried fruit often used in the slow-cooked stews I so adore about Middle Eastern cooking. Once encased in a rich almond and saffron pastry and baked until the pastry is golden brown on top and the mincemeat is piping hot and surrounded by a sweet, sticky and spiced syrup, you sure won’t miss traditional mince pies.
At home in Germany, we celebrate Christmas on the 24th, Christmas Eve. And while most German families celebrate with either elaborate meals involving roast goose or duck with potato dumplings and red cabbage or strangely simple fare given the holiday involved of potato salad and boiled sausages, ever since I can remember my family’s dinner on the 24th has been a smorgasbord of Middle Eastern delights – three kinds of grilled and marinaded vegetables, roasted chicken, diced beet and parsley salad, bulgur with fresh mint and butter, homemade hummus and baba ghanoush topped with a generous drizzle of olive oil and some pomegranate arils for the baba ghanoush, garlicky cacik, my brother’s outstanding lamb kofte and lots of warm flatbread to mop up our plates. My mum always jokes Joseph and Maria would not recognise the dishes most German families eat for Christmas and that our spread was a much more appropriate way to celebrate Christmas given Jesus’ origins. I quite like her logic. Dessert varies from year to year and usually consists of a choice of 2-3 desserts at least as we can never all decide on a single dessert. I have a feeling these mince pies, together with an orange blossom water flavoured crème fraîche would be a perfect way to end our Christmas dinner, that is if the mincemeat lasts that long!
If you celebrate Christmas, what do you typically eat with your family and friends?
Quince and Saffron Mince Pies
Makes just over 1/2kg mincemeat, enough for ca. 24 generously filled mince pies, with a few spoons for the curious cook and some leftovers to be stirred into porridge, mixed with apples for an apple pie or spooned warm over vanilla ice cream. I think these mince pies taste best served while warm.
For the Mincemeat
250g quince (about half a medium quince once cored)
Zest and juice of 1 orange
80g dried apricots
80g dried figs
80g dried dates
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground mixed spice (or a generous pinch each of ground coriander, ground nutmeg, ground cloves, ground allspice and ground ginger)
For the Pastry
200g white spelt flour
50g ground almonds
Pinch of ground saffron
125g cold butter, cubed
Zest and juice of 1 orange
A small bowl of water (simply add a few ice cubes to a bowl filled halfway with water)
2 tbsp milk
1. For the mincemeat, chop the quince finely and add to a saucepan together with the orange zest and orange juice plus enough water to barely cover the fruit. Place the saucepan on a low flame and gently poach the quince for about 45 minutes or until the quince is tender.
2. While the quince is poaching, finely chop the apricots, figs and dates and add to a large bowl together with the raisins. Add the quince together with the poaching juices to the bowl. Add the spices to the bowl. Lastly, pour the brandy into the bowl and stir to combine. Once cooled to room temperature, put mincemeat in a sealed container. Although you can use the mincemeat right away it will taste better once it has been left to macerate for a few weeks.
3. For the pastry, add the flour, ground almonds and pinch of saffron to a bowl, whisk to combine. Add the cubed butter and using a pastry cutter, a sharp knife or your hands, work the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles sand. Add the orange zest and orange juice and just enough ice water to form a dough that will hold together. Wrap the dough in cling film and place the dough in the fridge for at least one hour.
4. Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius and line a sheet pan with parchment paper (depending on the size of the mince pies you should be able to fit ca. 10-12 pies on a single mince pies so unless you have a fan-assisted oven, you will need to bake the mince pies in batches). On a floured surface roll the dough until it is very thin, no more than ca. 3 mm. Using a round cookie cutter, cut out 48 circles (you will likely have to re-roll the dough). Put a small spoon of mincemeat in the middle of half the circles, and, using a finger or pastry brush dipped in water, wet the border of the pastry. Using a smaller cutter or a knife, cut an opening in the middle of the remaining circles to allow the steam to escape while baking (these will be the lids of your mince pies). Place a ‘lid’ on each mound of mincemeat, gently pressing down on the borders all around each mince pie to make sure they stick together well and that none of the juices from the mincemeat will leak during baking. Brush each mince pie with the milk. Bake the mince pies for ca. 15-20 minutes until the mince pies are golden brown. Leave to cool for a few minutes before serving. Repeat with the remaining mince pies.