I often feel that I am on a one woman quest to convince my Italian friends/family that not all English food is stodgy/overcomplicated/filled with too many flavours/too much butter. But then there are mince pies, which essentially could stand accused of all the above. But wait! they don’t have to be those sort of mince pies, they can be this kind.
In truth, not all British foodstuffs have an appalling reputation in Italy. There is a great appreciation for our 'biscuits made with butter' (shortbread is much loved), and one of my 12 year old students who recently returned from his school trip to Bury St Edmunds (of all places) announced our 'potatoes with cheese' (I think he must mean jacket potatoes with grated cheese) to be veramente eccellente. I try to picture a 12 year old English child pronouncing a national Italian delicacy as 'truly excellent'. Italian children have such a funny, mini-adult way of pronouncing their opinions.
Anyway, let us return to mince pies. It is the season for Christmas baking, and having gone fully Italian the last few years I hear the call of an English Christmas this festive season, especially as we will actually be spending it in England. Lorenzo is coming to the UK to experience his first authentic English Christmas, so it feels only right to pull out all the Christmas stops.
I am a devoted lover of mince pies, and always have been, so it saddens my heart to hear of people not liking them. There are many things that initially put people off. The numerous bad examples of them which range from bland to nauseating; the suet (which I actually like but can understand why others wouldn't), and the fact that they have both the words mince and meat in their make-up is particularly un-vegetarian friendly and not widely appealing, especially speaking as one who loathes mince and isn’t generally hugely meatily inclined. Which is partly why I am much fonder of the Quince Pie, a perfect way of incorporating one of my favourite winter fruits into a much more refined, elegant sort of buttery little pie, with an infinitely more charming appellation.
Buttery, crumbly, fruity and fragrant, with a slight but essential tang, these pies retain the best of the season without being either overpowering or underwhelming, as can sometimes be the case with Christmas food.
I leave out the peel altogether (this is best put to other purposes, in my humble opinion), and the traditional flaked almonds, which I find off-putting in a pie I want to be completely soft within, and I make them extra zesty and fruity and a little boozy but not too much. Suet is replaced by the friendlier and more flavoursome butter, and I use only raisins to make life streamlined (I have never come across a currant in Italy, either). The pastry is a lovely, buttery, nutty, crumbly almond meal affair, which works perfectly with them and which was recommended to me by a friend who in turn squirrelled and stole it from Anthony Worrall (squirrel) Thompson. Eat warm, with mascarpone or semi-drowned in a large puddle of pouring cream.
When cutting your pastry you can choose to cut shapes/lattice top them if you prefer, I keep them classic and put a whole pastry lid on, as I like as much pastry as possible and the surprise of the filling when biting into a completely closed pie.
Serve with a glass of aged Vernaccia/Sherry
For the Pastry
Makes 10 pies (top and bottom, or 12 if you want to do lattice/star-topped)
200g plain flour
50g ground almonds
Finely grated zest of 1 clementine
50g caster sugar
1 egg yolk
A good pinch of salt
Place the flour, almonds, sugar, butter, salt and zest in a processor and blitz into fine crumbs. Add the yolk and a teaspoon or 2 of orange juice (from your zested orange) and pulse briefly until it comes together as a dough (if things still look dry add a squeeze or two more juice).
Remove and wrap in clingfilm and leave to chill for 30 minutes. Once ready, roll out the dough to just over a pound thickness, adding flour if things get sticky, and cut tops and bottoms, using a slightly larger cutter for the bottoms.
Lay in a very well-greased muffin tin (this pastry is sticky!) and then fill with a generous tablespoon of your quincemeat. Dampen the edges of the cases and then stick the lid on the pie, pressing well around the edges to seal, and piercing a couple of slits in the centre to let steam escape.
Brush the top of the pies with eggwash and bake in a 190 oven until golden, 12-15 minutes.
For the Quince Meat
I used to make my mince-meat by the rulebook – that is without quinces and with grated apple and suet and – as many recipes advise – without cooking it at all. After years or experimentation I am now convinced that it needs to be cooked first to become extra jammy and for the flavours to blend as they should. The cooking also helps break down the quince, and gives you an opportunity to taste your filling and adjust its seasonings accordingly. Potting jars of raw suet mincemeat does not allow for this, as I learnt to my detriment.
Makes 2 large jars (enough for 12 pies). Can be stored in the fridge for a few months or used immediately.
A pinch of salt
180g light muscovado sugar
Grated zest of 1 lemon and 1 clementine
80ml aged Vernaccia or sweet/dry aged sherry
2 large quinces, peeled and cored and cut into small pieces.
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp ground ginger
Start by cooking the quince pieces in around 300ml water over a low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally and topping up the liquid if necessary, for around 40 minutes, until the quince is soft and pink and collapsing. Mash or blend them and then add the remaining ingredients to the saucepan. Keep cooking and stirring occasionally for around 10 minutes, until jammy and syrupy. Taste for seasoning and add extra zest/sugar/spice according to taste. Set aside and allow to cool before potting or storing until you want to use it.
Variation: If you love and miss the glace cherries (I don’t need them here) then add either the standard variety or some Amarena cherries which work well too.