Okay, friends: it is time to start soaking your fruit.
I know that we've just packed away the Halloween costumes, and that many of you are thinking in terms of Thanksgiving menus, but it is only six weeks until Christmas . . . and making your own mincemeat is a really satisfying (even relaxing!) way to prepare for the holiday of all holidays. It is easy, too; all you need is a big pot and a wooden spoon.
Mince pies are ubiquitous in England during the Christmas season. So much so, in fact, that the original delicacy is in danger of being debased. People get so used to the cheap boxes of pre-made mince pies that they forget how utterly delicious the homemade version is by comparison. When done right, commonplace things are ambrosial.
There is something about a homemade mince pie, with its meltingly soft pastry and mouthful of rich fruit, that makes me think of all of the coziest Christmas associations: snow on the outside when you are on the inside, roaring fires, favorite carols, candles in the window, dark nights, a glittering tree, visiting loved ones.
I do realize that not everyone likes dried fruit, or the Christmasy treats made with them. (I think that I used to be one of these people, actually, but no longer!) I grew up with baking traditions that revolved around cookies and candy, but in England you've got the holy trinity of dried fruit: Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and mince pies. Although I haven't abandoned the sugar cookies, the gingerbread men, the toffee or the peanut brittle from my childhood, all of these years in England have added their own cultural accretions. Really, I couldn't contemplate Christmas without mince pies.
A few years ago I started making my own mincemeat -- a misnomer, really, as no one puts meat into their mixture these days. Every year I try a new recipe, and I've had good results with both suet and butter. I've added apricots, candied ginger and pear in place of the usual apple, but this year I was in the mood for something more classic. This recipe comes from Mary Berry's Christmas Collection. (Was there ever a better name for a Christmas cookery writer?) It is a very traditional recipe -- and I'm going to give it to you straight, just in case there are some mince pie neophytes out there who want to give it a go.
Having said that, I made several alterations to this blueprint: namely, I left out the apple, substituted pecans for the almonds, slightly reduced the mixed peel, and doubled the quantities of everything. I made one batch with rum, and one with sherry. I really fancy the idea of mixing in the rum-soaked fruit to some vanilla ice cream and making a Christmas version of one of my favorites: rum-and-raisin ice cream.
I had planned on giving some of the jars as gifts, but I can't promise that I will follow through. Last year, I had several jars from the previous year's canning sessions. I gave one to a friend, and when I tasted how absolutely delicious this vintage blend was I was sadly tempted to ask for it back!
We should probably make mincemeat in July, but who wants to think of Christmas then? You need a cold, dank November day to really get into the spirit of boozy soaked fruit.
175g (6 oz) currants
175g (6 oz) raisins
175g (6 oz) sultanas
175g (6 oz) dried cranberries
100g (4 oz) mixed peel
1 small cooking apple, peeled, cored and finely diced
125g (4 oz) butter, cut into small pieces* (you could also use the traditional suet here)
50g (2 oz) whole blanched almonds, roughly chopped
225g (8 oz) light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon mixed spice
finely grated rind and juice of 1 lemon
200ml (7 fl oz) brandy, rum or sherry
Measure all of the ingredients into a large saucepan -- EXCEPT for the alcohol.
Heat gently until the butter has all melted, and then simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Stir occasionally to evenly distribute all of the ingredients.
Allow the mixture to cool completely, and then stir in the alcohol of your choice.
Sterilize your canning jars -- I tend to do this in the dishwasher, and then dry them out well in a low oven. Spoon the cool mixture into the jars and seal tightly. The longer you leave them, the better.
If stored in a cool place, they should last well for months . . . and maybe even until next Christmas!