Rachel Bennett

Mince Pies and a Drunken Lamb

In Food on December 12, 2010 at 23:34

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

Makes enough for an enthusiastic crowd

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
3 cloves
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.

  1. I don’t understand the mince pie

  2. how can one NOT understand mince pies? well, I suppose there is something higher, devine about them, come to think of it..:)

    thanks for the little party, R! J absolutely loved the hot sider drink – and I honestly thought your mince pies were like the best mince pies ever (where did you get that brandy butter btw?)

    • It was so lovely to see you Katrina, and to meet your hubby! I made made the brandy butter. It’s just butter whipped up with icing sugar and a splash of brandy.

  3. Darling did I really put brandy butter in your lunch box I thought I only put champagne in your thermos! Did we not add a bit of brandy again to moisten the mince meat just before putting them in the pastry shells. Drunken lamb

    • Oh you did both mum! The champagne in the thermos happened when the Lehman’s came over for Thanksgiving. I was begging for a sip of it, probably threatening to throw a tantrum. I think the thermos idea was so that P. Lehman didn’t know what I was drinking. . . . it was only a very little watered down bit of booze. . .

  4. Ahhhh Rachel, your writing is so de-licious…my mouth waters…I can’t believe your Mum put brandy butter in your lunch box…or was it champagne in the thermos? 🙂 As a child, I loved eating the brandy “pudding” (hard sauce) my grandmother made for our Christmas dinner to go with the plum pudding…I didn’t much care for the plum pudding, but oh that butter, sugar and brandy…ummmm

    • She did both! Champagne in the thermos and brandy butter in my lunch box.

      That’s funny you don’t like plum pudding. I heartily agree! I was just about to write a piece on “the merciless persistence of plum pudding.” I think barely anyone actually likes it, so leaden and stodgy.

  5. Rachel, those mince pies must run in the family as its the ONLY thing i’m allowed to bake for my clan along with the hard sauce. I think we are all quite intense about them. And they are yummy!

    • Hah! It must be a family thing, although evidently my darling brother, ehem, missed out on the gene as he apparently “doesn’t understand mince pies.” It’s a family disgrace!

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