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.


  1. I love mince pies! This post has made me want to make some mincemeat from scratch.

  2. Thanks! Let me know if you do it and how it goes. In all honesty, I would skip the meat. I don't think it added much to the overall taste.