Relationships with mothers-in-law can be a dicey lot. Happily, I’ve only had one wife, and so I’ve only had the one mother-in-law. Luckily, I had smooth sailing with Peggy Bowman, Ann’s mother. She used to regularly say to me, “Lex, you’re my favorite son-in-law.” That sounds pretty good, but I was the only son-in-law she had.
The one thing I did for her each holiday season was make her my homemade mincemeat. I’m not sure how she fell in love with mincemeat, but she used to order English mincemeat packaged in a glass jar from New York. One Thanksgiving I had a taste, looked at the ingredients, and knew I could do better. I made it for her each holiday season after that – I think it reminded her of the ‘good ole days’.
The mincemeat-making ritual itself adds a certain depth to an otherwise ordinary day. I hate cooking from a recipe, and mincemeat gives me a great chance to be creative with the odds and ends I find around the kitchen. That crystallized sample of yet another English orange marmalade, those currants that have ‘sugared’ from being open and unused for too long… In fact, apple butter – which was originally a last-minute addition – has become an essential ingredient, and we now buy some before we make mincemeat each year. We’ll do it differently every year based on what is available. Back when we lived on Mt. Sinai, I have memories of using an old coffee grinder from the 70s to grind cloves and allspice. I also used to add bottles of brandy that I would pick up on my global travels for Whole Foods. Now, we experiment with spirits like bourbon, rum, and sherry.
Mincemeat is an English thing, and developed as a way for preserving meat without salting or smoking – instead using fat, spice, and brandy to preserve the meat. It gets its name from the word ‘mince,’ which is a term that refers to being very finely chopped. It has a big-time connection with the Christian holiday of Christmas. Mincemeat pie, also called Christmas pie, came about at the time when the Crusaders were returning from the holy land. They brought a variety of oriental spices home – and it was important to add three spices – cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, to represent the three gifts given by the Magi. To honor the birth of Christ, the mince pie was originally made in cradle-shaped oblong casings, with a spot for the Christ Child to be placed on top. It certainly had nothing to do with dessert pie in its inception – it was a main course meat pie. Over time, though, it became a sweeter pie. Medieval cooks began to adopt the Eastern technique of using sugar to preserve meat. In the 18th century, this became easier as cheaper sugar arrived from slave plantations in the West Indies.
Mincemeat pie was only later adopted by the Americans in New England, where it further morphed into a dessert pie. New England was fond of fruit pies (year round), and the mincemeat was a practical way to preserve fruit. As the mincemeat became sweeter, the meat became a smaller and smaller ingredient as the fruit and spices increased. In most cases, it actually had no meat at all…there were some versions that still included some of the fine suet gathered from around the kidney of the cow.
The mincemeat that Ann and I make today has only a knob of butter, and no beef fat at all. Even so, most Americans (especially children) run from the mincemeat pie. It has an image problem, made worse in the 70s when some nutritionist labeled it the most caloric dessert of the holidays. I think it needs a new name that evokes its English roots, like “Yorkshire Pie” or “Providence Pie.” But I do love an underdog. Homemade mincemeat, slowly simmered on the stove for most of the day is one of the most complex and flavorful pie fillings, to me. It’s probably my favorite.
Our friend Cindy Cuomo began making the mincemeat with us a number of years ago, because her father was fond of mincemeat. I never had a recipe in the early years, but Cindy is more organized and insisted on measuring and writing the recipe down one year. Here’s an approximate:
Here’s what you need
You don’t need to be precise and measure everything in this recipe. What you do need to do is make sure it isn’t too sweet and is acidic enough to balance the inherent sweetness. Here are the things that help keep the mincemeat from being too sweet – adding some citrus peel (lemon and orange), using tart dried sweetened cherries instead of Bing cherries, and making sure to add some alcohol (bourbon, brandy or rum). The natural fruit juice to add would be fresh apple cider but tart cherry juice is also excellent. A bit of orange juice adds a brightness of flavor and acidity and works well. Hey! A combination of the three is better yet!
8-10 peeled, cored and chopped apples*
1 ½ pounds currants
1 ½ pounds dried sweetened tart cherries*
16 ounces apple butter
8 ounces orange marmalade, cherry or strawberry preserves (whatever you have on hand)
2 ½ tablespoons minced lemon peel
½ cup maple syrup*
¾ cup dark (black) rum, bourbon or brandy*
Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, allspice*
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
7 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 ½ cups tart cherry juice or apple cider
Splash of freshly squeezed orange juice
Combine all ingredients and cook slowly for four or five hours, up to all day*, checking and stirring often to ensure there is enough liquid to stew the fruit to the proper consistency for a pie. Taste as you go – the key is to get the spice and sweetness correct. Substitute freely to balance the sweet to tart flavor with fresh orange juice, apple cider, bourbon or other liquors.
1. What kind of apple should we use? Any crisp apple that would be used for an apple pie, Honeycrisp, Pink Lady, just avoid the dreaded Delicious twins, red and gold delicious apples.
2. Dried cherries definitely don’t buy cherries that have been soaked in sugar water. Montmorency cherries are the ideal choice
3. Start with a very small amount of the spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice), perhaps a scant ¼ teaspoon. Taste the mincemeat and add more spices if desired.
4. If you have Grade B maple syrup, the darkest one, use it. It’s the least good for pancakes but the best for cooking. Use sparingly.
5. The natural fruit juice to add would be fresh apple cider but tart cherry juice is also excellent. A bit of orange juice adds a brightness of flavor and acidity and works weccll. Hey! A combination of the three is better yet!
6. You slowly simmer the ingredients to evaporate the liquid. The consistency should be like a good pie filling, not too watery, so that when it bakes in the oven it is moist and not dry.