I always find it fascinating both how the general foods can vary but especially the ‘special’ dishes made for festivals and holidays in different places around the world. That’s especially true for countries close together as in Europe. To me the dishes for festivals and holidays are often both some of the most traditional and creative dishes, whether they are full meals or smaller treats. Of course, usually you’ll find many variations, but there are usually a number of elements that are the essence of the dish. At this time of year, one of the traditional treats from my part of the world which I still hold a soft spot for is mince pies, made with delicious mincemeat.
What is mincemeat?
To a foreigner, I can understand the name is a bit confusing. Mincemeat contains no meat nor is it ‘minced’ but is instead a sweet fruit mixture. However you barely need to know much about British cooking to know it has many confusing names. Yorkshire pudding is savory. Spotted dick is indeed spotted but good luck guessing what it is otherwise. Toad in the hole is most definitely not made with toads. Ok when you see it, you can understand the logic a little, but it is a bit of a stretch. Cottage pie, shepherd’s pie, bubble and squeak…you get the idea. Maybe that is part of why British food hasn’t exported particularly well but to me it is part of the fun.
Mincemeat is another where there is a bit of background to the name that has some sense to it (I found a bit of a history for anyone interested). These days, however, it has lost the meat element, other than many recipes containing beef suet.
It can sometimes be hard to know with traditional recipes if you just like them because you grew up with them. But then there is so much to mincemeat that is good, I think there is more to it than nostalgia. Mincemeat is basically a mix of raisins (and often golden raisins/sultanas and currants), apple and spices cooked down usually with brandy or another spirit and citrus juice. As I said many recipes contain suet, but you can easily replace this and reduce the fat content.
I decided to add a little of my new home with cranberries in there, plus they are just plain tasty and right this time of year. I have tried to keep the sweetness down by relying on the fruit I have used rather than sugar. I used apricots both for their flavor as well as their natural sweetness as opposed to the more traditional candied peel. You can also get cranberries that are sweetened with apple juice rather than sugar to keep it completely sugar free.
Mincemeat is the key ingredient for mince pies but you can also use it in other baking. It’s very easy to make and this version is lighter than many you may have tried. It still has a lovely spice to it and is sweet despite there being no sugar. It is usually best to make it a day or so in advance of when you are using it in pies or whatever else, just to allow it to mature a little. The picture below is after five days and you can see that there is a bit of a change in color that is part of the maturing. I appreciate it may be hard to wait when you smell it cooking, but do try, and then have fun cooking with mincemeat (and licking the bowl clean).
- 1½ large /2 small apples, approx 200g peeled and cored weight
- a little under ⅓ cup/2oz/55g dried apricots
- full ⅔ cup/4oz/110g raisins
- ½ cup/2oz/55g dried cranberries
- Juice and finely grated zest of 1 orange
- 3 tbsp brandy
- 1 tbsp butter
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp allspice
- ¼ tsp nutmeg
- Peel and core the apples. Dice the apples and cut apricots small to roughly the size of the raisins.
- Place all ingredients in a saucepan over a medium heat.
- Bring to boil and boil for 15mins with lid on, stirring occasionally.
- Remove from heat, allow to cool and store in a jar or airtight container until ready to use. You can use it immediately but is better left to mature a few days. It keeps for a good few weeks if canned properly.