Yes I know it’s Boxing Day and Christmas is in its last stages but I hope you’ll forgive me only just getting to this post: Christmas started for me on the Eve (when the mince pies were made) and a family meal in my house with daughter, son and daughter-in-law; then Christmas Day saw daughter and I heading round a sodden M25 in heavy rain to Kent and my brother’s house and a lovely celebration with family in ages ranging from my octogenarian mother to my little niece and nephew of 7 and 9.
Homemade mince pies are a must in my house. If only because my son and daughter insist that the boxed variety isn’t good enough for the Christmas meal. My son added spectacularly to the ‘homemade’ aspect this year by making the mincemeat. We searched my books from Mrs Beeton to Delia and Gary Rhodes and he took some home. Then with friend Emma, and a collection of her books, they compared recipes and drew up an Excel spreadsheet – yes, really, but they are both accountants! – to come up with a ‘perfect’ recipe. I have to say it was exceptionally good mincemeat and he’s promised me the recipe which I’ll share with you sometime.
Meanwhile, I was making pastry by hand. With everyone – including often myself – throwing pastry ingredients into a food processor these days and pressing a button, I was pleased to hear Paul Hollywood telling Mary Berry in a Christmas baking special on TV last week that he always makes dough by hand because it’s important to learn the feel of a good dough: the quality of your flour will govern how much liquid you need, for instance – it’s not just a straightforward measurement. I always make pastry for a special occasion by hand in the belief – and most usually in the eating – that it’s a better pastry. And anyway I just love doing it that way. For many years I followed the pastry recipes in the classic The Roux Brothers on Patisserie book (one of my own Top Ten cookery books), putting the flour on a clean surface, making a well and adding butter and then slowing adding the other ingredients, pulling it all together at the end. With my daughter on hand, I was even able to manage some action shots (action shots of pastry making while cooking on your own is a feat beyond me!).
If you think my kitchen looks rather untidy, may I just point out that it’s a small kitchen with only a small amount of work top. Rachel Koo has made a whole TV series out of working in a small kitchen but lots of others of us have small kitchens too!
I’ve been making pastry for enough years now not to need the Roux brothers’ book to hand but – showing my age – I can only work in pounds and ounces to understand what I’m doing … it’s a bit like when I go to buy meat at The Village Butcher and apologise to Matt for asking for a pound and a half of stewing meat, because that’s the only way I understand the right amount for four people! However, my neat and new digital scales easily convert to pounds and ounces and I’m sure yours do too.
This amount was perfect for 12 mince pies: Sift 8 oz of plain flour on to a clean surface (I always use Sharpham Park’s organic spelt white flour now for its healthier properties but most importantly gorgeous, slightly nutty taste and nicely grainy texture). Make a well in the four and add 5 oz of soft butter (please! do not even dream of using margarine!!). Soften the butter a bit with your fingers, drawing in a little of the flour, then add one whole egg and a heaped tablespoon of icing sugar. Start mashing it all with your fingers and as the egg and soft butter mix, gradually draw in the flour and eventually it will gather into a ball. Knead it gently at the end to gauge you have the right smooth consistency. This should all be done as quickly and lightly as possible: overworked pastry, warmed by too much handling will turn out hard and unpleasant. Cover the ball of dough in cling film and put in the fridge for about 20-30 minutes to rest. This allows the gluten to relax and you end up with a lighter pastry.
Once the dough has rested, roll out on a floured surface till it’s about the thickness of a 10p piece (about 2 mm). Lightly grease your baking tin with butter and dust some flour over the top then turn upside down and shake gently. By lining the tins in this way with butter and flour, the pies will pop out more easily at the end. Use the large side of a pastry cutter to line them. This blue version is almost antique! It was my maternal grandmother’s and since she died about thirty years, this cutter goes back a long way. My grandmother was a great cook and I was often cooking at her side as a child and when she died, I was given the tin containing her Christmas icing tools and pastry cutters.
Fill the pastry shells with mincemeat. Brush the edges with beaten egg then cut out tops with the smaller side of the cutter. Brush them with a little more egg and cut a cross in the middle to let the steam out as they cook. Then pop into a hot (220C/200Fan) oven for about 15 minutes, or till nicely browned. Remove from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack.
Dust with a little icing sugar to serve.
The combination of the buttery light pastry that did that whole ‘melt in your mouth’ thing, with the gorgeous homemade mincemeat was wonderful. Though, thinking of my waistline, it’s probably as well Christmas only comes once a year! And now I’m off to a Boxing Day party … enjoy the rest of your Christmas celebrations!!