Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Taking the Challenge -- Mincemeat!

One day I was thinking about Christmas desserts and recalled a conversation in a restaurant years ago:

ME: Do you have any mincemeat pie?

WAITER: Mince. We serve mince pie, which is made from fruit. Mincemeat pie actually has meat in it. We don't serve mincemeat. And we don't have any mince pie left today.

This got me to thinking how much I enjoyed the mince pie my grandmother made when I was a child and also wondering how mincemeat pie would taste. Well, since I have a nice collection of historical cookbooks, I thought it would be a perfect addition to this blog. I accepted the challenge I posed to myself!

A leisurely cruise through the books turned up a variety of recipes. Some I rejected out of practicality -- I don't like beef heart and I didn't want to mess with beef tongue. (Though I like it pickled and thinly sliced on sandwiches!)

I was looking for one that appeared authentic as well as old enough to really feel historical. I decided on one from an ebook (free!) by Mrs. Eliza Leslie entitled Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches.

Mrs. Leslie was a popular author of cookbooks and manners guides in the 19th century. Here is a little about her:

This recipe is found under the section of "Pastry, Puddings, Etc.". She has a short discussion on mince pies (she means mincemeat) in general: "These pies are always made with covers, and should be eaten warm. If baked the day before, heat them on the stove or before the fire."

Mrs. Leslie includes several recipes which she ranks as Good Mince-Meat, The Best Mince-Meat, Very Plain Mince-Meat, and Mince-Meat for Lent. I chose Good because it seemed rich and exciting while not having to obtain the tongue, rose water, bitter almonds, and sweet almonds required by the Best. Very Plain had no alcohol and not as much meat or fat, and the Lenten version used hard-boiled eggs instead of meat.


Take a bullock's heart and boil it, or two pounds of the lean of fresh beef. When it is quite cold, chop it very fine. Chop three pounds of beef suet (first removing the skin and strings) and six pounds of large juicy apples that have been pared and cored. Then, stone six pounds of the best raisins, (or take sultana raisins that are without stones,) and chop them also. Wash and dry three pounds of currants. Mix all together; adding to them the grated peel and the juice of two or three large oranges, two table-spoonfuls of powdered cinnamon, two powdered nutmegs, and three dozen powdered cloves, a tea-spoonful of beaten mace, one pound of fine  brown sugar, one quart of Madeira wine, one pint of French brandy, and half a pound of citron cut into large slips. Having thoroughly mixed the whole, put it into a stone jar, and tie it up with brandy paper.

This struck me as an awful lot of food that I wasn't sure I could store properly or even use up in a reasonable time, so I decided to make a half recipe. I still bought the full quantity of brandy and Madeira wine (heh!) since Mrs. Leslie says, "Whenever you take out any for use, pour some additional brandy into the jar before you cover it again, and add some more sugar." Hey, I can always drink the extra wine!

Ingredients for a half recipe
It is important to recognize that everyone recommends taking two days to make this. The first is to cook the beef and the second is to pare, core, and chop everything up then mix it. So here goes....

DAY 1 Boiling the Beef 

Mrs. Leslie assumes you know how to do this as she does not include directions for it anywhere in the book. Various sources say to put the meat in a heavy pan, cover it with water, bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, then put on the lid and simmer it over reduced heat until it is tender. You can add herbs and spices as you see fit but I didn't so I didn't change the flavor of the mincemeat recipe.

Boiling the beef
To simmer it required a very low heat; the idea is to cook it slowly so it gets tender. I allotted one hour and that was plenty of time for my thin, one pound slab of beef.  It could have come out in less than an hour.

Cooked and cooling

I think the broth will make a good start for a soup base or useful for boiling pasta. After the meat cooled on the plate, I put it in the refrigerator to chill overnight.

DAY 2 Mixing It Up 

Just so you know, finding citron during the summer is quite a challenge. I ended up using candied lemon peel. If, by the time the mincemeat is ready for use, I can find citron it can still be used via Mrs. Leslie's directions, "You may reserve the citron to put in when you make the pies. Do not cut the slips too small, or the taste will be almost imperceptible." Several other sources suggest filling the pie crust with layers that alternate between mincemeat and citron.

It took a long time to chop everything, as I expected.  I used the food processor to chop the raisins and make them about the same size as the currants.  The meat and suet I chopped finely by hand.

A note on the suet:  I asked the butcher for suet and he sold me a bag of beef fat trimmings.  I had to go through and cut out the extra meat and also the remove the "skin and strings" mentioned by Mrs. Leslie.  I should have asked for parts that were thick chunks of fat because a lot of what I bought was connective tissue.  It was white like the fat but thin and slick and put the mincemeat at risk for being chewy.  It took a while to cut all that out. 

Mixed up chopped stuff without spices
I grated the whole nutmeg by hand and used a dedicated coffee bean grinder to powder the 1 1/2 dozen cloves. 

Mixed up chopped stuff with spices
It really helped to mix the ingredients three times.  Once before the spices went in, once after the spices were added, and once again after the liquids were poured over it.  Mrs. Leslie tells you to "thoroughly mix the whole" and I found the three mixing sessions broke up the sticky gobs of raisins, currants, and suet.  Everything looked uniformly distributed once "the whole" was stirred.

The final product
Now keep in mind that this is my largest bowl -- 16 inches across and 6 inches deep -- and it is half full.  Even at the half recipe, it is a lot of mincemeat!  I'm guessing it is about a gallon and a half in volume.

I have a stone jar (ceramic crock) but it isn't big enough to hold all of this.  Fortunately I found a glass jar with a clamp-on "lightning lid" that could do the trick.  Once all the mincemeat was in the jar, I tamped it down with the bottom of a ladle to push out the air bubbles.  It also helped to get the liquid up to the top.

Instead of covering it with brandy paper (which I assume is parchment paper soaked in brandy), I poured a thin layer of brandy on top of it, enough to cover the surface entirely.

Mrs. Leslie doesn't mention it but other sources say to let this sit in a cool place and "ripen" for about a month before you use it.  I suspect you can use it right away if you want to but I chose to tuck this jar away into a cupboard that I know stays cool.  I'll get back to it in a month and let you know the results.

The Verdict:  Success!  I thought it was reasonably easy to make if you are patient when it comes to paring, coring, and chopping up all those apples.   It makes a lot so it helps to have a container for it picked out ahead of time.  The part I tasted before packing it away was very good.  I just don't think you can go wrong with the brandy, Madeira, and all those spices.  And I look forward to seeing what it is like once it has a chance to soak and blend the flavors. 

Final notes:  You could do it all in one day for a half recipe.  It didn't take that long to boil the meat so if you did that in the morning it would be cool enough to use by the afternoon or evening.  Chopping does take a long time so plan ahead on that.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Cornish Pasties and a Bonus

I spent a week exploring California's Gold Country -- seeing towns like Ione, Sutter Creek, Nevada City, Grass Valley, and Jackson.  What fun!  I learned a lot about mining technology, the history of the towns (most burned down at least once), the personalities of the prominent people, and the various cultures that were imported from around the world.  The primary time period is from 1849 (when gold was discovered) to about 1900.

One group that contributed much to the advancement of gold mining technology was the Cornish miners.  They were particularly good at mining underground!  Here's a little bit about them:  They brought with them their traditions, their songs, and their recipes for pasties (pronounced "past - ees", not "paste - ees").

    Picture from

This traditional lunch was designed to be hearty and easy to eat. One source even claimed the miners held the fancy crust border with their dirty hands, ate the part with the filling, and then threw away the border so as to keep their food clean.

Upon visiting the Empire Mine, I picked up a flyer they published called "The Cornish Miner and His Pasty".  It, of course, contained a recipe which I decided to try.

Cornish Pasties

3 cups flour
1 cup shortening
1 tsp. salt
8 tbs. cold water (approx.)
4 tsp butter
5 potatoes, sliced thin
2 lb round stead, diced
3 onions, cut thin
minced parsley
salt, pepper to taste

Make a rich dough by mixing flour, salt, shortening, water.

I used my Kitchenaid mixer with the wire attachment to first cut the shortening into the flour and salt mixture.  It resembles cornmeal when you get it right.

Then I used the mixer again to blend in just enough water to make the dough stick together.  Use very cold water so the shortening doesn't melt during the mixing process.

It was a hot day and my kitchen matched that, so after I scrunched the dough into a ball, I covered it and popped it into the refrigerator while I made the filling.

The recipe continues with...

Divide into six parts and roll out each part about 1/4 inch thick.

I waited until the filling was made before doing this.

Combine remaining ingredients...

Now this picture doesn't show it, but this is a large bowl (5 inches high and 10 inches wide) and it is pretty full.  How am I going to fit all this into the six parts of the dough???

I had promised myself to do the recipe as it was written, so I bravely continued.

Here is one piece of the dough rolled out:

It is the requested 1/4 inch thick and turned out to be about 8 inches in diameter.

... and place filling on each section of pastry.  Fold over half and pinch edges together so that juices will not run out.

After a bit of practice, I found what seemed to be a good quantity of filling and still leave enough dough to cover it.  I didn't even try for the fancy border!  

I worked with my hands to press out the air and compress the filling so I could make a pinched border around it.  The dough did break in a few places so I expected leakage.

Cut hole in top of pastry and in this hole put a chunk of butter.  

I used a small spoon to twist a hole in the top, making nearly a complete circle and leaving the flap of dough attached.

The white stuff is the butter

The amount of butter listed in the recipe was too much for these six pasties, so I used half of it here and the other half about 30 minutes later.

Place in baking pan and bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes; then reduce temperature to 350 degrees and continue baking for 45 - 50 minutes.  When pasties are baking good, put a little hot water through the hole of each one to keep them from becoming too dry.  May be served hot, or cold on a picnic.

"Baking good" to me meant about 30 minutes into the cycle, so that is when I poured in some hot water from my kettle and dropped in the second batch of butter.  There was leakage of juices from the breaks but not in a bad way.

So how did they turn out?

The Verdict:  Oh my, they were yummy and filling, too.  Moist and rich and flavorful.  They even made my house smell good.  I declare it a success!

I loved this quote from the flyer:

"Remember, pizza delivery and quick hamburgers were not even conceived at this early time and what you brought from home had to serve you throughout your 12 hour work day.  (While you shoveled rocks.)"

I think I would have brought all six pasties with me in order to accomplish that task!


Now let's return to the giant bowl of filling, shall we?

This is what was left over after I made the six pasties:

The level was only dropped down by about an inch or so.  This is a lot of leftover filling!  I figured that I could have made 3 to 4 more batches of dough to use all this up.  So I would recommend that you either reduce the filling quantities to 1/4 of what was listed or make four batches of dough.  This would get you 24 pasties.

I wasn't up to making more pasties -- did I mention it was hot? -- so I took the remaining filling and added some flour, some spices and herbs (pepper, marjoram, savory, and powdered garlic), diced carrots, and 28 ounces of chicken broth.  This turned it into a large bowl of stew.

Before cooking
I baked it, covered, for about an hour at the same 350 degrees as the pasties.  The stew also turned out delicious and so I got a bonus from my pasty recipe.

Final Note:   A quick look around the Internet shows me that there is no limit to pasty fillings except in your imagination.  Ham-and-cheese, chicken-and-vegetables; even dessert pasties with Nutella-and-strawberries or pumpkin pie filling exist.  Basically, if you have a tasty filling, wrap it up in a pastry and you have something fun to eat.  I particularly liked that the crust was thick and rich because it added to the heartiness of the taste.