If there is one item with the power to collect and distill my associations of Christmas it is the mince pie. Each year my British mother, not generally a nostalgic cook, made them with religious, even fanatical devotion. From the first of December till New Year we were fed a seemingly endless stream of mince pies, piping hot from the oven and fat with a melting dollop of brandy butter. We’d eat them after dinner, when friends came around for tea, and even for breakfast.
Sometimes I would gleefully discover a mince pie or two tucked into my December lunch boxes along with a small pot of brandy butter.
“What have you got there,” my teacher asked one day, squinting over my little meal.
“It’s brandy butter, Mr. Lehman,” I replied and watched with satisfaction as his expression became doubtful. I was about ten years old and dimly aware that brandy was something very grown up indeed. Sometimes, to prove my maturity, I didn’t bother with the pies but simply ate the heady butter straight from its pot, a pudding in its own right.
Perhaps it was the drawn-out, rhythmical process of preparing mince pies that so branded them into my sense memory. It began months before Christmas, after the torpor of a Pennsylvania summer had lifted. With a renewed vigor Mum set out her gargantuan mixing bowl and piled in dark and golden raisins, apples and almonds. This was combined with brandy, spices, sugar and butter and then heaped into jars and shoved to the back of the fridge. As December dawned the jars were extracted again and the contents spooned into tiny pastry-lined muffin tins. Mellowed by age the mincemeat transformed into a deep, potent conglomeration. Biting through its flaky, butter-rich cocoon, each mouthful reverberated not just around your taste buds but throughout your whole body.
Such is my continuing obsession with good quality mince pies that I confess to a severe case of snobbery on the subject. The store bought version simply won’t do. Over sugared and generally encased in a thick, leaden crust, they might look flashy but leave me feeling cranky and cheated. As a friend once complained of a bad meal, it’s all very well to imbibe a mountain of calories in an orgy of gastronomic pleasure, but to add chichos to your hips and not enjoy it—a horrific thought!
And mince pies are certainly not low in fat. The fruit mixture is coated in suet; the pastry is folded with butter; and the pie is finished with further lashings of brandy butter. Yet all this fat is unsurprising when you remember that it is an old recipe, growing out of a time when the struggle was to put flesh on the bones rather than take it off and butter a luxury item, well-suited to the conspicuous extravagance of Christmas.
We had several dozen mince pies for my Christmas party last night. And to wash down them down I made an equally archaic drink called lamb’s wool. Sources differ on the authentic ingredients for this wintry warmer, but all include hard cider or ale, spices, and the flesh of roasted apples. This last curious addition is what creates the lamb’s wool effect, as the tender chunks of apples float to the top and form a layer reminiscent of a sheep’s coat. Unsatisfied after an exploratory sip, I added a wallop of brandy and an extra pinch of ginger. This did the trick, producing a hot and powerful punch. If anyone had the beginnings of a cold before the party, this potion must had asphyxiated any conspiring germs on contact.
So here is my variation on lamb’s wool. I’ve decided to christen it . . .
The Drunken Lamb
3 liters of hard cider
300 grams of sugar
350 milliliters of brandy
12 bramleys or other cooking apples
1 whole nutmeg, grated
1 stick cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
Preheat the oven to 125C. Quarter the apples, cut out the cores, and arrange on a baking tray. Cook for about 30 – 45 minutes or until tender and puffy. Allow to cool a little and then scrape the flesh into a bowl, discarding the skins.
Heat the sugar with a little of the cider until dissolved. Add the spices along with the rest of the cider and heat very gently until hot. Add the brandy. Finally whisk in the roasted apple fluff and ladle into mugs.