British

Why This Classic British Treat Should Be on Your Holiday Table This Year

The stars of my Christmas cookie plate.

December 14, 2018
Photo by Ty Mecham

Mince pies have a misleading name. (There, I said it.) For those unfamiliar with the classic British Christmas dessert, they're little fabled tartlets the size of peanut butter cups, commonly filled with raisins, sultanas, cranberries, and other dried fruits, all macerated and cooked in heavily-spiced brandy or port. As their name suggests, mince pies traditionally did at one point have minced beef or lamb mixed in with the dried fruits. Some versions even used suet (beef fat) or lard to bind the filling together. Thankfully, most modern iterations of mincemeat—the filling of mince pies—have done away with the “meat” part, opting instead for the agreeable boozy dried fruit filling that’s ubiquitous in England, especially around the holidays.

While mince pies aren’t all that common in the U.S., they're a non-negotiable festive tradition in the U.K., like watching the Queen’s Christmas message on the telly. For me at least, they come to mind when British food writers like Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson wax lyrical about them, or in random movie cameos, like that scene in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when Ginny awkwardly feeds Harry a mince pie.

Local bakeries will start baking them as early as September. English families will serve them for tea. And you’ll even find them at supermarkets like Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s (the British equivalent of Kroger) at less than £5 ($6.50) a dozen.

Now let me be clear: I wasn’t always a fan of mince pie. Like most eventual converts, my road to mince pie piety was long and contentious. My first taste was definitely one to remember, for all the wrong reasons. It was a cold, stale, brick-like pebble gingerly served to me at the customary Christmas dinner at boarding school, with its plastic Tesco’s wrapper still on. Barely a bite into it, and a wave of acrid, aniseed-heavy, cough syrup–like flavor hit my tastebuds and burned the back of my throat. This was followed by sandy clumps of pastry that scraped its way down my esophagus. It was a horrendous experience to say the least, so naturally I swore to never touch a mince pie again.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“After witnessing the fiddley-ness of making them, I would have passed on making mince pies but you might have changed my mind ;)”
— HalfPint
Comment

But fate can be funny sometimes, as I spent the next six years furthering my studies in the U.K. And let me tell you, six years is a lot of mince pie encounters. Not a year into my abstinence, I was faced with yet another mince pie. This time it was one freshly baked by my college lecturer’s spouse, offered to me at one of those intense 2-on-1 Cambridge classes (supervisions, we called them). With my grades possibly hinging on it, I obliged—and boy was I glad I did! The filling was sweet and punchy with a nice kick of brandy, and so wholesomely spiced, it started a holiday party in my mouth. All of this, encased in a crumbly, buttery shortcrust, was to me the culinary epitome of Christmas magic.

Six years and many mince pies later, I’ve grown to be more discerning of this classic Christmas treat. Since store-bought mince pies are almost never pleasant—often cardboard-dry with an overload of sugar and spice, my preferred mince pies have always been the freshly-baked sort. Even better are those you bake yourself, as you’re then able to cut down on the amount of sugar (I find that the dried fruits in the filling provide plenty of sweetness on their own), and use some fine brandy or wine with which to infuse the mincemeat. Another benefit of making them on your own is that you can use the very best shortcrust pastry recipe to complement the filling. I always default to Stella Parks’s No-Stress, Super-Flaky Pie Crust, which, as Food52 Creative Director Kristen Miglore can probably attest to, is a wondrous workhorse.

The filling was sweet and punchy with a nice kick of brandy, and so wholesomely spiced, it started a holiday party in my mouth. All of this, encased in a crumbly, buttery shortcrust, was to me the culinary epitome of Christmas magic.

So whether you’re a mince-pie virgin, a mince-pie abstainer, or just one who regularly partakes in the glorious English custom of eating 12 mince pies over the 12 days of Christmas, bake some mince pies this holiday season. Because even if you manage not to finish them all in one sitting (like I do), they're always handy to have on standby for when it’s snowing outside and you’re all wrapped up in front of the fireplace, Michael Bublé playing in the background, and all you need to cap off this token Christmas scene is a sultry sweet treat.

Do you love mince pies, too? Homemade or store-bought? Let us know in the comments below.

Food52's Automagic Holiday Menu Maker
View Maker
Food52's Automagic Holiday Menu Maker

Choose your holiday adventure! Our Automagic Menu Maker is here to help.

View Maker

14 Comments

marymc December 17, 2018
Forty years ago, I did my junior year of college in England. I spent my first few months there in London, so I was eager to get out and see more of the countryside. That's how I came to be tramping around a tiny Welsh village, dressed quite unsuitably for the foot of snow on the ground, searching for a bed and breakfast that wasn't closed for the season, a week before Christmas. I finally found a b&b where the elderly proprietor first told me she was closed, then invited me to come on in. She warned me that she couldn't offer me meals with the room, and then every evening I was there she would call me down and say she'd made too much food for her family, and hand me a heaping plate. One afternoon I came in from exploring and she called me into her kitchen, all toasty-warm and filled with a delicious smell. On the table were rows and rows of little mince tarts. I'd never had these before. She told me to help myself, and as I scarfed them down, she told me that every mince tart you eat at Christmas means a month without tears in the new year.

Her tarts were exquisite, and I think I ate enough that afternoon to guarantee me a whole tear-free year. I've had some pretty good mince tarts since then--even made some of them--but none like the ones I had in that warm kitchen somewhere in the middle of snow-covered Wales--and I've never eaten them without thinking of that sweet lady who made them.
 
Deedledum December 18, 2018
What a great story!
 
Eric K. December 16, 2018
Ugh, these were so delicious warm, straight out of the oven.
 
Michele December 16, 2018
Love this! In the middle of making my candied oranges for my mincemeat. Traditionalist here, but thank you so much for a newer, and quicker recipe to try!
 
HalfPint December 14, 2018
The Great British Bake Off holiday episode has recently been added to Netflix (there's only 2, so far but very enjoyable). Mince pies was a technical challenge. After witnessing the fiddley-ness of making them, I would have passed on making mince pies but you might have changed my mind ;)
 
Eric K. December 16, 2018
Mary Berry makes the best mince pies, probably!
 
Katherine K. December 20, 2018
Delia forever! (https://www.deliaonline.com/recipes/books/delias-happy-christmas/traditional-mince-pies)
 
Michele December 24, 2018
Completely agree!! Those and her Christmas cake recipes have been my staple for years!
 
Michele December 24, 2018
Admittedly assembling the fruit ingredients is a bit time consuming but once you have the mincemeat they really are not difficult at all, and are so worth the effort.
 
Will December 14, 2018
Love Mince Pies. Only have some from Thanksgiving thru New Years.
 
alex December 14, 2018
really tempting and loving.
 
Deedledum December 13, 2018
I love these (and Eccles cakes too). You've talked me into doing some this year.
 
Katherine K. December 20, 2018
Ooh, Eccles cakes, now that's an idea!
 
Deedledum December 20, 2018
I've never made them-do you have a recipe?