Mince pies herald the beginning of the festive season: spicy, fruity filling encased in buttery, flaky pastry, preferably served with boozy brandy butter. Here, six popular recipes are tested, followed by a recipe for what I think is my perfect homemade mince pie.
Neven Maguire, Nigel Slater, Nigella Lawson and Avoca all use shortcrust pastry, each with slight variations. Maguire’s traditional shortcrust pastry is complemented by an almond frangipane topping (like a Christmassy Bakewell tart). Slater uses a combination of lard and butter in his pastry – lard has a higher melting point and results in a tender, flaky pastry, while the butter is essential for flavour. Lawson, meanwhile, uses vegetable shortening as well as butter, and orange juice to bind. The Avoca pastry adds ground almonds to a traditional shortcrust.
Ravneet Gill opts for cream cheese pastry – the higher fat content gives it a beautiful flakiness. JR Ryall’s cream pastry is similarly rich and flaky with an even higher fat content (equal parts butter, cream and flour), resulting in a buttery yet light pastry that works exceptionally well with the traditional mincemeat.
Traditionally, mince pies were filled, as the name suggests, with minced meat – usually mutton, pork or game. Most mince pies served nowadays are vegetarian, but some still contain beef suet, made from the fat surrounding the kidneys. The flavour and texture from traditional suet is delicious but should be eaten warm as the suet solidifies at room temperature. Butter is a popular alternative for beef suet, although the Avoca recipe uses vegetarian suet.
Mincemeat contains a combination of fat, sugar, dried fruit, citrus, alcohol and Bramley apples. Most recipes use dark brown sugar, which adds a molasses-y flavour as well as a deep, rich colour. The dried fruits used vary, though raisins, sultanas and currants are popular, with dried cranberries included in some (a welcome addition).
Lawson’s recipe goes a step further and includes fresh cranberries, which are cooked down in port – delicious and tart, but fruitier than a traditional mince pie. A citrus hit is essential, and this is provided by the zest or juice of fresh oranges and lemons or candied peel (as in Ryall’s and Maguire’s). Good quality marmalade is an excellent alternative if homemade candied peel is not readily available as many of the supermarket options are devoid of flavour and have a tough, chewy texture.
The alcohol used varies widely from brandy (Gill) to port (Lawson) to whiskey (Ryall, Maguire, Avoca). All work well, and mincemeat is a great opportunity to use up lurking bottles of alcohol in the back of the cupboard – think rum, Grand Marnier, Amaretto, sherry.
Mince pies should always be served warm. If they haven’t been recently baked, they can be refreshed in the oven (never the microwave) at 120 degrees for 8-10 minutes. They are best served with brandy butter (even better when the lid is prised off and a generous scoop of brandy butter is placed inside the warm pie), although the mince pies at Ballymaloe House are served with Irish whiskey cream.
Recipe: Beth O’Brien’s Best Mince Pies
Recipe Sources: Sugar, I Love You by Ravneet Gill; Ballymaloe Desserts by JR Ryall; The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater; Neven Maguire, bordbia.ie; Nigella’s Christmas by Nigella Lawson; Avoca, Avoca 2.