At the Lewis house it’s not really Christmas without weekly bakes of spicy fruit-filled individual mince pies. These butter-crusted sweets are a generational part of Karen Lewis’s heritage. Even though her British family of four has called Boston home for the last five years nothing gets in the way of her clan’s culinary traditions.
Making Mince Pies—Creating the Perfect Pastry
Karen Lewis stood in her kitchen sifting flour and confectionary sugar onto the cold surface of a granite island. When finished she cut butter into cubes and began gently tossing the chilled bits onto the white sifted mountain that would eventually become short crust.
Deftly, using the tips of her fingers, which is the coldest part of the hand, she quickly mixed the butter into the dry ingredients until it resembled floury lumps. She worked fast to keep the butter cold. Two eggs and lemon zest were dropped into a well she created.
She began working the flour and eggs until dough started emerging. Within a minute or two she dropped a dollop of milk into the mix. Miraculously after a few quick turns a push and a pat Karen had a golden ball of butter-filled pastry.
For most, pastry or crust making is daunting and sends a good many to the dairy aisle for bland pre-made offerings. Not so for this Brit. It just might be hereditary.
“It’s all about doing it,” she said with an accent one could listen to for hours. “Try not to overwork it, but don’t give in, just keep going.”
Be it good or bad, “Whatever happens, happens,” she said. “It’s not for the school show. Who cares, it’s for family.”
With that, she placed the dough in a bowl, covered it with plastic wrap, turned quickly and put it in the fridge to chill. She grabbed a shallow pan for the mincemeat.
Making Mince Pies—Adding the Filling
The name—mincemeat—is really a misnomer since there is no meat in Karen's mince. Old recipes—and some new—still call for meat or suet, but most prefer it without.
While measuring raisins, currants, sultanas, dried cherries and cranberries and tossing them into the pot, Karen recalled Christmas and mince pie pasts.
Her mom owned a gift shop in Midsomer Morton and would frequently bring in “tray bakes” for customers and visitors. (Tray bakes are the equivalent of deep rectangular sheet cakes or pot pie.) Some people came just for the pie.
Great dough runs in the family. “My great aunt made the best mince pies in the world,” she said. “Bless her, I don’t know what she did. It was so good, you could have just eaten the pastry.”
Aunt Jeanne was a local legend and “everyone called her Aunt Jeanne. We have all tried to replicate it, but none have succeeded.” Those who’ve tasted Karen’s pies might disagree.
Perhaps one of her favorite memories is a few decades back when she was five or six. “Grampy Seymour” surreptitiously removed the lid of her pie and doused the filling with thick rich cream, making hers even more tantalizing.
In the UK, said Karen, everyone buys boxes of six starting around mid-December. “They eat it with every meal.” They are sold, explained Karen, everywhere.
In England, on the last Sunday in November, Brits observe the Stir Up Sunday. That’s when you make your Christmas puddings, cakes and mince.
“If you get to December and haven’t made cake or mince …” Karen let the words trail and made a disapproving face.
There are jarred versions, but “homemade is still the best.”
As she spoke, oh-so-elegantly, she measured raisins, currants, sultanas dried cherries and put them in the pot.
“I kind of make things up and mess around as much as I like,” she said adding cranberries. When it came to the mixed fruit she confessed that she usually takes the green from the colorful chopped rinds. “It’s wrong,” she said.
As she chopped the ginger and a few maraschino cherries, citrus and ginger smells wafted through her kitchen. Unpeeled apples were diced and chopped and added to the mix. “Don’t grate it. You need chunks the size of sultanas, but not too small.”
Whatever you have is fine, she said as she opened a cupboard and grabbed the spice containers. “As long as you have the trilogy” of raisins currants and sultanas. Figs or dates are great too, it depends upon taste.
Although only hours from Christmas, Karen begins making pies right after Thanksgiving. The mincemeat is jarred and stored. She makes the dough every few days.
The mince needs at least 12 hours to marinate. In fact, Karen said anyone making it now could jar or freeze and store it until next Christmas.
Karen had words of wisdom for all those who have rules about making mince. “Those who proclaim, ‘you should never … don’t do this … you should do this … that won’t end well,’ it is all piffle. Just ignore and cook.”
“It’s whatever you like and in no particular order,” she said. Her mother is her greatest inspiration. “Mainly, she taught me never to be frightened by cooking for those you love. It’s for family.”
Lastly, she added three cloves. She tries taking them out later, but no worries if they aren’t found. “If not it’s the penalty of eating a mince pie.”
After stirring the mixture she placed it on the stove on low for 10 minutes or until it started bubbling. As the fruit started to burp under the heat she finally added the butter. “I can’t tell you why I heat it before I add the suet (butter). It’s what my mom did.”
About 20 or 30 minutes later—or when the apples darkened—it was done. There was a bit of liquid, which is fine. As it cools the fruit absorbs the fluid and the butter solidifies.
Making Mince Pies—Completing the Pies
Since this mince was too hot to handle, Karen took a tub of previously made mince from the refrigerator, along with the cold dough.
Karen rolled it on the cold floured surface. She couldn’t say how thin or thick, she just rolled until it looked big enough to cut 12 large and 12 small covers.
A stemless wine glass and a champagne flute served as the large and small cutters for the base and the cap of the pie. “Again, this is my mother,” she said of the improvisation.
She gently placed each disk in a tin pocket. About a tablespoon or more of the mince was dropped onto the pastry.
On this day Karen decided to adorn her pies with stars and attached with a water dab. She then dipped a finger in the water and circled the lip of the pie. When the tops are added there’s no need to push or crimp, the heat does the rest.
She could have used an egg, “but as mom says, eggs are too important.” (With the wine glasses and the water it’s becoming clearer where this Yankee heritage came from.)
The tin was placed in a 375 degree oven and cooked for about 20 minutes. The results were 12 individual pieces of heaven. Those with proper manners will usually finish one in about four bites. Ravenous souls will only need two.
Karen’s advice for those craving mince pie: Cobble together whatever you have and try. If you don’t have the patience or the raisins, buy the crust and jarred mince. She’s not fond of the jarred offerings but said that Robertson’s (from England, of course) is the closest she’s found. Anything is better than Christmas without mince pie. There are a few days until Christmas, which means Karen is bound to make a few dozen more…
Karen Lewis’s Mince Pie Recipes
Karen Lewis is British through and through, so her ingredients are measured in grams. Not to worry, the ounces and cups are in parenthesis.
Proper British Short Crust
- 500 grams of flour (2 ½ cups)
- 250 grams salted butter, cold and cubed (2 sticks or one cup)
- 2 eggs beaten and placed in a bowl
- 100 grams powdered sugar (7/8 cup)
- Zest of one lemon
- Dash or two of milk
- Sift the flour and sugar onto a cold work surface.
- Add the zest and butter.
- Using fingertips, work the butter into the flour.
- Create a well and add the two beaten eggs. Continue until it resembles a course mass of buttery bits.
- Add a dash of milk, or maybe two, and form into a ball.
- Place the dough in a bowl, cover with cling wrap and refrigerate.
Karen suggests using what you have and not following preconceived or recipe rules. If you have more mixed peel rather than lemon, just add more of that and less the other. Have a jar of Maraschino cherries? Chop up a few and throw them in the pot. Cranberries, unavailable in England, are prevalent here, so Karen uses them for her English/American version.
- Raisins, 175 grams (7/8ths of a cup. Feel free to round up or down.)
- Sultanas, 175 grams (see above)
- Currants 175 grams (see above)
- *cherries dried or jarred – or both (optional)
- *Dried cranberries (50 to 100, depending upon taste) (optional)
- 200 grams dark brown sugar (8 ounces or 1 cup)
- 200 grams preserved candied lemon peel (8 ounces or one cup)
- 50 grams of mixed peel (1/4 cup)
- 200 grams grated butter (2 sticks or 1 cup)
- 2 unpeeled diced cored apples
- 150 milliliters orange juice (A little more than 5 ounces)
- 5 or 6 pieces of dried ginger, diced
- Lemon or orange zest
- Juice from two lemons or oranges
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons nutmeg (less if you’re not a fan)
- 3 whole cloves
- 2 teaspoons pumpkin spice
- Brandy, rum, or sherry or as Karen said, “A good splash.” Karen used small “nips” available in any liquor store
- Measure dry ingredients and put into shallow pan.
- Add mixed and lemon peel, spices, zest, citrus juice and your favorite alcohol.
- Place on stove top on low heat.
- After about 10 minutes or when it begins bubbling add the grated butter and let it simmer on a low for about 30 minutes. You may also throw everything in a roasting dish pop it in the oven and cook for three hours on a low.
- As the mincemeat sits, the raisins will absorb the liquid and the butter will solidify. This makes enough for dozens of pies, so jar or freeze until ready for use.
Heat oven to 375 degrees (Lewis has an American oven, but in the UK it’s 190 C.)
- 2 molds, biscuit cutters or glasses, one larger than the other
- A small bowl of water
- Flour for work station
- Rolling pin
- Mince pan (A tin with 12 shallow spots for each pies. Do not us a regular muffin tin. A mini muffin version will work.)
- Remove the dough from the refrigerator and place on floured work surface.
- Sprinkle a little flour over the dough and begin rolling until it is thin enough to cut 12 rounds. Take each round and place in the tin. Spoon a tablespoon of the mincemeat into each round.
- Next, gather the remains of the dough and roll again.
- Use the smaller mold create 12 small tops. There should be enough dough left to create a star or leaf or decoration for the finished pie. If you are decorating make sure to brush water where the decorating will sit – and stick.
- Now, dip your finger into the bowl of water and run it around the rim of the larger piece of mincemeat filled dough. Grab one of the smaller – maybe decorated – pieces and cover the pie.
- Place the tin in the middle of a 375 oven and cook until brown or about 20 minutes.
Nothing says Christmas at the Lewis home like these spicy fruit-filled mince pies. Let this British tradition become a part of your tradition and discover why this culinary tart is so important to generations of Brits—and how it can make a fun way to bring some holiday spirit to your home.