I fell in love with mince pies in London on a cold December day. British winters are shockingly raw, wet, and dark to an American visitor accustomed to sharp, east coast wind and bright winter light. These sweet, spiced pies warmed me to my core. Traditional British holiday festivity is full of warmth and spice to combat the cold, the dark, and the damp. The mince pie that converted me was made by my spouse, Joseph, who also helped me prepare this recipe for “minceed pyes” from Ms. Codex 214, Catherine Cotton’s recipe book that also led us to three interesting gingerbread recipes.
Although most mince pies today start with a base of raisins, currants, and occasionally apples and quinces, mince pies traditionally began with meat. The meat was flavored by these additional fruits, not the other way around. This recipe begins with a “neats tongue,” a calf or beef tongue. Gervase Markham’s starts with a leg of mutton. A mince pie recipe that I considered preparing from MS Codex 252 uses ox cheek. This nineteenth-century cookbook published in Boston even has a mince pie recipe that starts with tongue. I swallowed my reservations, took the trolley to Reading Terminal Market in Philly, and ordered a beef tongue from a butcher.
To make minceed pyes
Take a neats tounge parboyle it and mince it very small
put to it a pound of beefe suit and 2 pound of reasons
of the son stoned and minceed very small a qua
a pound of sugar the peal 2 lemmons cut small a little
cloves & mace and nutmeg a quarter of clarret a little
salt mix all this together with 6 or 8 pipings smally shred
and two po
uund of currants or as many as you see feet
for your past take a pound and quarter of flower a pound
and a half of butter and put it into water and seet it on
the fire & let it boyle make the past & put in half a pound
of lofe sugar finely beaten & mix it in the flower put in the
yolks of 4 eggs & the whites of 2 so worke it up and
as you fill them put in canded orange & green sittorn
finely cut such as you eate hot when they come out of the
oven put in sume butter & white wine
The recipe begins with instructions for preparing a rich mincemeat: parboiled tongue, grated beef suet (or beef fat), raisins, sugar, lemon peel, pipings (or apples), and currants seasoned with clarret (red French wine from Bordeaux), cloves, mace, nutmeg, and salt. In many ways, this ingredient list is similar to modern recipes for mince pies — fruit, suet/fat, booze, spices, sugar, and citrus. But then there’s that tongue. Tongue is, of course, a staple of many cuisines, but I’d never prepared one before. Luckily Joseph has never balked at an offal challenge and helped me by brining and parboiling the tongue following Fergus Henderson’s recipe from Nose to Tail Eating. This process adds at least three days of brining and three and a half hours of slow boiling to the overall cooking time. Another food blogger has reconstructed the recipe with great photos of the method here.
Once the mincemeat is ready, this recipe calls for an interesting method of pastry making and a final round of seasoning with candied orange and “sittorn” peels (lemon peel), butter, and white wine. Between the lengthy tongue preparations, ingredient sourcing, and making the candied peel, I decided to prepare my favorite pie crust from Orangette instead of trying out this pastry method as well. Although this was really born out of fatigue and convenience, there’s another more pressing reason, too: Early modern pie crusts weren’t always meant to be eaten. In many cases they simply served as a semi-edible container that would preserve meat and other ingredients during extended periods of storage. Ken Albala discusses this in a recent essay where he re-reads Hamlet’s famous statement that the baked meats from his father’s funeral were served at his mother’s wedding. Sure, Gertrude may have remarried quickly, but baked meat pies were designed for long storage all the same. The instruction to add butter and wine at the very end also tipped us off that this pastry might fundamentally be utilitarian because sealing meat pies with hot fat and alcohol was part of the preserving method. I’ve included an updated version of the pastry recipe below and I plan to revisit it in the future (pastry off?), but we wanted you to have mince pies in time for Christmas!
Our recipe is quartered from the original, but we’ve included the original amounts [in brackets] as they were given in the recipe.
1/2 lb beef or calves tongue, parboiled and chopped. (The tongue we purchased weighed three pounds. We added 1/4 lb of tongue to half the mincemeat mix.) [1 neats tongue]
1/4 lb (4 oz.) suet (beef fat) [1 lb] substitute in butter or vegetable shortening for a vegetarian version)
1/2 lb (1 1/2 c) raisins [2 lbs]
1/2 lb (1 1/2 c) currants [2 lbs]
2 apples, peeled and chopped very small [6-8 apples]
1/4 c sugar [1/4 lb]
zest of half a lemon [zest of 2 lemons]
1 c claret (or other red wine) [1 quart claret]
1/2 t mace
1/2 t ground cloves
1/4 t nutmeg, ground or grated
1/4 t salt
1/2 c candied orange and lemon peel (We used this recipe from Smitten Kitchen to make ours from two clementines and one lemon.)
1/3 c white wine
2 T butter, cut into small pieces
This is the full recipe. As we discussed above, we made our favorite pie crust from Orangette because of tongue fatigue.
1 1/4 lb flour
1 1/2 lb butter
1/2 lb sugar
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
Prepare the mincemeat:
Mix together tongue, suet, raisins, currants, apples, spices, lemon zest, sugar, and claret and set aside. Right before you make the pies, add the candied peel, white wine, and butter.
Prepare the pastry:
*We didn’t test this part of the recipe. Feel free to use your favorite pie crust like we did.*
Put your flour in a bowl. Heat the butter and water in a small saucepan until it comes to a boil. Pour into the flour and stir until a dough forms. Add the sugar and eggs. Mix until your have a workable pastry.
Preheat the oven to 425 F.
Roll out the pastry. Using a pastry cutter or drinking glass, cut circles. We used a 2 5/8 in (68 mm) pastry cutter to make nice little pies. Make sure you have an even number of circles so that you have bottoms and lids for all your pies.
Butter two-three baking sheets. Put 2 t mincemeat on each bottom. (Remember to add the candied peels, white wine, and butter to the mincemeat just before!)
Place a lid on each pie. Push down the edges of the pastry to seal. Poke a few air-holes in the lid with with a fork. We brushed the top with an egg wash for a golden crust, but this step is optional.
Bake mince pies for 10-15 minutes until golden brown. Sprinkle with powdered sugar to serve if you want these to look especially festive.
This recipe made 25 mince pies with enough leftover mince meat to make another full batch.
These mince pies are delicious: spicy, fatty, and subtly sweet. We divided our mincemeat into two batches, one with and one without the tongue. The pies with the tongue were deeply meaty, but the currants, raisins, and apples held their own to compliment the umami flavors. The pies without tongue were very fruity. They tasted really similar to mince pies I’ve made before from Nigella Lawson’s recipe, which includes quinces in the mix. (There’s a version of that recipe on this blog.)
Next time, I’ll add more mace, cloves, and nutmeg. I might add the candied peel and white wine to the mincemeat from the beginning. On the other hand, I might leave out those last 2 T butter which felt extraneous. We also have a ton of leftover mincemeat in the fridge. I’m excited to see how the next batch tastes after the flavors marry for a bit longer. There’s a Christmas tree that needs trimming and there’s nothing like eating holiday baked goods and making the house merry.
Alyssa and I would like to thank Joseph Malcomson for rising to the tongue challenge and helping us devise and prepare this recipe.