Having grown up in two different countries, my husband and I each bring our own set of holiday traditions to the relationship, which I love. We now alternate between celebrating Christmas in the US and UK, and I feel very fortunate that we’re able to share our own personal versions of the holidays with each other. Many of those holiday traditions revolve around food (of course!), and he and I each have our own distinct dishes and flavors that we associate with Christmas. For me, Christmas with my family, like many Italian-American families, is synonymous with seafood. I think immediately of my grandmother’s seafood salad with calamari, shrimp, olives and lemon that always kicks off our Christmas Eve dinner. For my husband, it’s the roast dinner on Christmas day – a spread that includes turkey, lamb, crisp roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding.
But the undisputed highlight of an English Christmas for my other half is definitely mince pies – in his experience, an essential Christmas treat. He’d go as far as to say that it’s not Christmas without them. For those of you that aren’t familiar with mince pies, these bite size pies are filled with fruit, spices, and booze and you’ll find them just about everywhere in the UK at this time of year. On this side of the pond however, they’re still relatively rare. Back when we were dating and decided to spend our first Christmas together in New York, I decided I would attempt homemade mince pies so I could give him a taste of home during the holidays. He declared my efforts a success, and ever since, it’s been a tradition to make our own mince pies whenever we spend Christmas stateside.
Making the filling, or mincemeat, is the fun part as far as I’m concerned. It’s kind of soothing, and a perfect way to pass the time on a chilly December Sunday. I put on some Christmas music, and get to work weighing and mixing everything into a fruity, boozy, sugary concoction. My husband is the official taster, and his feedback usually amounts to “add some more brandy.” I’m told you can’t have too much brandy in a mince pie. The filling is at its best after it’s been left to sit for a few days, or even longer if you’ve got the time.
Then it’s on to making the pies, which is the stressful part – for me at least. I’ll admit that I’m no expert when it comes to working with pastry, and getting these mince pies to stay in one piece after baking them often eludes me. No matter how I approach the task, some of those little guys don’t make it out of the pan in one piece. This year, I managed to get a handful of intact pies, along with several others that require a fork to eat. It’s safe to say this part remains a work in progress for me.
I had a lot more mincemeat to use after making that first batch of (moderately successful) pies, so I wanted to try a variation that would deliver the familiar taste and texture in an easier to handle format. I decided to try putting the mincemeat in a crostata – basically an Italian free-form tart that’s usually topped with jam. Mincemeat makes a great replacement for the jam, and topped with toasted slivered almonds and confectioners sugar, it makes for an elegant-looking holiday treat. And since it’s one large tart, it’s much easier to work with than a bunch of small, delicate pies. It delivers the confluence of sweet, buttery, boozy flavors that you’d get in a mince pie, in a lot less time than it takes to roll out and assemble all those little pie shells and lids. This British-Italian fusion is time-saving twist on my husband’s favorite festive treat, and maybe even a new holiday tradition at our house.
If you’re looking for a new festive treat, try your hand at this mince pie crostata. It’s something you can eat all day long – for dessert, for a snack, and alongside your morning coffee too.
Homemade mincemeat – fruit and nuts with a healthy dose of spices, sugar, and brandy
Mince pies – a couple of the survivors
Mince pies in a new form – easy to make and perfect for sharing
The sweet filling and buttery crust make a good partner for your morning cappuccino
Makes about 3 lbs
Adapted from The Good Food Channel
1 large cooking apple, peeled, cored and cut into large chunks
1 orange, finely grated zest and juice
1 lemon, finely grated zest and juice
125g butter, chilled and grated*
140g currants, or dried cranberries
140g golden raisins
60g candied peel (candied lemon or candied ginger will also work), chopped
325g soft dark brown sugar
25g chopped almonds, or chopped pecans
Approx 1tsp mixed spice (1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp nutmeg, and good pinch each of clove and ginger)
40ml brandy, or to taste (be prepared to add more)
*Traditionally, this is made with suet, or beef fat, but butter works very well as a substitute.
- Place the apple chunks in a small saucepan with 1/2 teaspoon of water, cover and cook over a low heat for about 8–10 minutes until the apple is cooked down to a pulp. Allow to cool.
- Mix the apple with all the remaining ingredients in a large bowl and put into a sealed container (or sterilized jars).
- Leave to mature for at least a few days before using. Anything not used during the holidays will keep for ages in the refrigerator.
250g all-purpose flour
2 tbsp sugar
Grated zest of one lemon
¼ teaspoon salt
140g (10 tbsp) butter, chilled and diced into ½-inch pieces
3 tbsp ice water
¾ – 1 cup of mincemeat
1 tbsp sliced almonds, toasted
confectioners sugar, for dusting
- Add the flour, sugar, lemon zest, and salt to a food processor and pulse briefly to combine. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture has the texture of coarse meal. Add the ice water a little at a time and pulse until moist clumps begin to form. Dump the dough onto a clean table or workspace, shape it into a ball and then flatten it into a disk. Wrap it in cling film and refrigerate for about an hour, or until firm.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and place a rack in the center.
- Roll out the dough on a piece of parchment paper to an approximate 11-inch round. Carefully place the dough and parchment paper onto a baking sheet. Spread the mincemeat on the dough beginning from the center and leaving a 2-inch border around the edge. Fold the edges of the dough over to form a crust, pleating it loosely and sealing any cracks with your fingers.
- Place in the oven and bake until the crust is golden, about 40 minutes. Place the baking sheet on a rack to cool for 10 minutes, then remove from the parchment and cool until lukewarm. Transfer to a plate, and sprinkle with almonds and sugar before serving.