This is a different kind of Christmas story. It’s the kind where the oddball Jewish girl from New York makes a very-British pie for a renegade American friend to take to Christmas dinner. It’s the kind where the Jewish girl, who bakes pies under the name CurvyMama, has to figure out where the hell to get the most British ingredient of all for this very-British pie. And where CurvyMama finds out how wonderfully a funny little thing like suet can transform a bunch of nuts and fruits into the erstwhile legend known as mince pie.
My adventure began with my friend and office-mate, Shaiy, who needed a Christmas mince pie for a loved one. That sent me on a hunt for the definitive recipe. Lucky for me, I found an authority lurking on Pie Nation, the Facebook page I created with pie sister Kate McDermott. We set it up to be a forum for pie makers and pie lovers to exchange triumphs and disasters, tips and guidance. And that’s exactly what we’re doing!
I found my mince pie authority in the comments section of another post on Pie Nation. USA Today reporter Cathy Grossman, who adores pie even more now than before she wrote about Kate’s four-day pie camp, had asked her fellow citizens of Pie Nation to suggest a quintessentially British pie for a “Downton Abbey” season-premiere party next month. Lots of suggestions poured in, but one commenter had particular authority on the subject: Paola Thomas, a British-born designer, blogger and pie baker who now makes her home in Seattle.
She steered me to the recipe she considers the be-all-end-all for mince pies: Brit celebrity cook Delia Smith’s. (Delia and Paola make mince pies the traditional way: adorable little individual pies. But I adapted the mini-pie approach to this side of the pond for Shaiy, who wanted one big pie.)
Now mince pie has a long and storied history dating back to the 13th century, when European crusaders returned with Middle Eastern recipes that combined meat with fruits and spices. In that curious evolutionary way that foods have of morphing over time, the meat eventually disappeared, for the most part, turning “mincemeat” pie into just plain mince pie. One of the meaty ingredients that persisted, however, was beef suet.
Paola had warned that beef suet isn’t easy to find in the States, especially in the right form (shredded and frozen in packets). Well, fat is fat, I reasoned; maybe I could substitute my cherished leaf lard for the beef suet? Nope, she told me in our back-and-forth on Pie Nation. Leaf lard has a totally different texture–smooth and creamy. What we needed here was the firmer, choppier texture of beef suet; something that would come out sort of crumbly when I buzzed it with a bit of flour in the Cuisinart (according to Paola’s detailed and helpful blog post on making mincemeat).
But where the hell was I going to find beef suet?
Luckily for me, finding it turned out to be a cinch. But that’s only because I happen to live near the marvelous Wagshal’s, a local D.C. market where longtime butcher Pam Ginsberg provides meat products that have long-ago disappeared from other butcher shops. She and her team produce the leaf lard that makes my pie crusts heavenly; so I kept my fingers crossed as I dialed Wagshal’s number and asked if they stock beef suet. “Yup,” came the voice at the other end of the line.
When I arrived, I finally got to meet the famed Butcher Pam. I was glad, because I had been wanting to thank her in person for bothering to render leaf lard. I had looked high and low for it; the closest I could get was having a couple of farmers tell me they would sell me the fat, but I’d have to render it myself. I was spared that chore when I discovered Pam’s leaf lard, rendered and ready to go, all white, rich and creamy, in the case at Wagshal’s. Now I had a second reason to thank Pam: beef suet, shredded and frozen in packets, just like Paola said it should be.
I spent a couple of embarrassing minutes gushing about how appreciative I was. Butcher Pam had only this terse response: “Of course we have it,” she said. “We’re butchers.” But this stuff is really hard to find, I pressed; why don’t other butchers have it? “They’re not butchers,” she said. “They’re meatcutters.” She avoided spitting the word, but I could see it took some effort. I wanted to hug this big gal, bound as she was to her butcher’s code of honor. But I thought I’d embarrassed myself enough already, and just laughed, thanked her again, and paid for my little packet of suet. (You can see her here on You Tube, chatting matter-of-factly about sausages.)
Here’s how the beef suet looked when I got it out of the package, put it into the Cuisinart and buzzed it with a couple tablespoons of flour:
Once I had the suet in hand, the rest of the pie was a cinch. I just needed a good kitchen scale and the time to chop and weigh piles of fruits and nuts (and measure out some booze, of course. I even put some in the pie [she said, with a wink to Julia Child]).
Here’s the bowl of ingredients piled up, before mixing:
And here’s how it looked with the beef suet mixed in:
Since I had to hand over the mince pie to Shaiy without tasting it, I was somewhat tortured not knowing why beef suet was so frigging important in a mixture of fruits and nuts. Well, a miniature baking-and-tasting experiment with some of the leftover filling relieved the torture and answered the question: it provides a gorgeous, silky mouth feel and a richness of flavor that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Yum!
Here is the mincemeat filling recipe I used. It’s the one on Paola’s blog, which is Delia’s recipe, only doubled. It yields about 6 pounds of filling, plenty for two 9-inch pies. I used my standard leaf-lard-and-butter pie crust dough to make one big double-crust pie. But you can use all these ingredients to make a flotilla of little ones, too.
Mincemeat, adapted from Delia Smith & Paola Thomas
16 oz. firm, juicy apples, unpeeled, but cored and chopped (Delia calls for Bramley; I used Winesap)
8 oz. shredded beef suet
12 oz. raisins
8 oz. sultanas (golden raisins)
8 oz. currants (I used 4 oz. currants and 4 oz. dried sour cherries)
8 oz. whole mixed candied peel, finely chopped (I couldn’t find these, I confess, so I left them out)
12 oz. dark brown sugar (I would reduce this to 8 oz. or less next time)
Grated zest and juice of 2 lemons
Grated zest and juice of 2 oranges
2 oz. slivered almonds
4 tsp. “mixed spice” (Paola says this is a ready-made combo similar to our “pumpkin pie spice.” In the states, she substitutes 2 tsp. cinnamon, 1 tsp. nutmeg, 1 tsp. allspice and 1 scant tsp. cloves, so I did the same.)
6 Tbsp. brandy (I substituted port)
Weigh and chop all the fruits and nuts. Combine them in a big oven-safe bowl with the suet, spices, sugar, zest and juice. (I put mine in an old stock pot.)
Paola says you’re not supposed to add the brandy (port, in my case) now, but she did it by mistake and everything turned out great. Inspired by her freewheeling whimsy, I added my port at this point. (Having sipped it for a while, as I chopped and weighed, the freewheeling, whimsical part came pretty easily.)
Put the whole thing in a 225-degree oven for three hours. This melts the fat and lets you stir it through the fruits and nuts to coat everything nicely. (Definitely check out the pictures on Paola’s blog.) Let it cool a bit, and then refrigerate until ready to use (the longer the better, according to Paola).
When you’re ready to make a pie from your mincemeat filling, preheat the oven to 425. Roll out two disks of dough. Line a 9-inch pan with one, and trim the edges. Add the filling until it reaches the level of the rim of the pan. Cover with another circle of dough; trim, roll and crimp the edges. Chill in the refrigerator or freezer until well set. Cut a few vents in the top crust, brush with a thin layer of egg white. Bake 15 minutes.
Reduce the oven heat to 375; bake another 40-45 minutes. Cool at room temperature until ready to serve.