As far back as I can remember we have celebrated Christmas in pretty typical Anglo fashion. When we lived in the UK, on Xmas morning, the stockings we put out would be filled not only with smaller gifts, but also oranges and nuts, lunch was roast turkey and pork with all the trimmings (but I recall boiled bacon and pease pudding was served before we adopted the Turkey tradition) and the table wouldn’t have been complete without Christmas Crackers. Of course dessert was always a flaming Xmas pudding served with brandy butter. Other traditions our family subscribed to apart from the Queens speech, included the exotic addition of a fresh pineapple, obligatory bowls of nuts ready to be cracked (only ever Brazils, Hazel and Walnuts) trays of dried dates, crystalised and glace citrus and always, but always, trays and trays of mince pies dusted with a “snow” like layer of icing sugar.
Over the years, many of our family “traditions” like all traditions, have morphed and changed. Once in Australia Xmas stockings became pillow cases, fruit and nuts became lollies, lunch became dinner then dinner became an all day graze (as the turkey and pork took a back seat) and Pavlova joined the pudding table. On the side of the main event, things changed as well, the no longer exotic Pineapple disappeared, thank goodness, the whole cracking nuts thing waned in favour of the ready to eat roasted and salted variety, and sensibly dates and sugared fruits went out in preference to fresh summer fruits like cherries, apricots and mangoes.
But with all these changes, two things have remained constant, Mince Pies and Christmas Crackers. The crackers thing is not surprising, they are as much a symbol of Christmas excess as a present laden tree, but why when everything else has changed did we keep the mince pie tradition? Essentially it was mums “thing”, in fact the more Xmas celebrations changed, the more she embraced her passion for baking and giving away literally thousands of mince pies as Xmas gifts each year for friends and family, and they were universally loved and looked forward to, even by people that had previously professed not to like them.
So what made mum’s pies so popular?, was it the filling, well maybe not, she only ever used “Robertsons” off of the shelf, but she did add copious amounts of brandy, and I mean lots of brandy. Or was it the pastry, no thick, sweet and heavy dough like shop bought long life mutations here, mums pastry was a instead an unsweetened short paste and rolled paper thin. Of course both these elements are important but I think the key ingredient in mums pastry was the love she put into them. I know this is a cliché but I can’t think of another explanation.
The pastry itself though is something mum was famous for amongst family and friends. Passed down by her maternal Nan, it is the only type of pastry she ever made, and it graced everything from blackberry and apple pies through to sausage rolls. Technically it is very similar to an all lard pie crust I like to use, but mum’s recipe differs in two distinct ways, first she used softer self raising flour instead of the plain or bakers I would use and secondly, and critically, the fat she employed (in Australia at least) was “Fairy” pastry margarine.
Now this poses a problem for me, I really dislike margarine and prefer to use pure natural fats and for years I tried to make her pastry using only butter, but always without much success. However this year after deciding to honor mum by making her mince pies for the Barossa Farmers Market (albeit with our own fruit mince – see image at right) I decided to give her recipe yet another go with just one amendment and that was to replace margarine with a mixture of butter and lard and hey presto, in a blind tasting I would swear we were eating mum’s pastry.
And I suspect my great grandmother would approve, because by reverting back to butter and lard we have gone full circle, after all margarine was not popularised until the middle of the 20th century and so natural fat would have been the only option when she learnt to make it back in Mrs. Beetons day. So if you feel like getting in the Xmas spirit (or just want a foolproof pastry recipe) why not give the following a try.
Pastry (makes 2 doz small pies)
225g self raising flour – sifted
75g salted butter – cold in 5mm cubes
35ml iced water (approx)
- Rub fats into flour gently with fingertips to make a fine crumb
- Add water and continue to work with fingertips until it starts to come together
- Press dough into a flat rectangle, (do not knead) wrap in plastic film and chill for 20 minutes before using
Mince Pies (to make 2 doz small pies)
1 recipe pie pastry (above)
350g Fruit mince
2 tablespoons milk
1ciing sugar to dust
- Roll out half the pastry on a floured surface until almost paper thin, using a small (6.5cm) crimped cookie cutter, cut out 24 tops, cover and refrigerate and reserve trimmings separately
- Roll out remaining pastry to the same thickness as before and using a larger (8cm) plain cutter, cut out 24 bases (you will need to rest and reroll trimmings to achieve the full quantity)
- Place bases into small round based patty pan trays pressing into place firmly
- Mix Brandy and fruit mince and place a heaped teaspoon into the centre of each pie, do not flatten out or push to edges the top will do this for you
- Brush lightly the inside of each lid with milk and press milk side down onto the top of each pie sealing around the edges
- When all pies are filled and covered, brush lightly with remaining milk, prick or cut a small slit in the top of each pie and bake at 170c until golden brown
Remove from the oven and dust immediately with icing sugar. Enjoy while still warm or cool and store in an airtight container for up to a week if you have strong will power and please don’t refrigerate!