England’s treasured mincemeat pies are an edible Ghost of Christmas Past. They’ve been a technical challenge on The Great British Baking Show. They graced the tables of rich and poor alike in Victorian England—the era that, thanks in part to Charles Dickens, became the idealized version of a proper Christmas backdrop.
Victorian England is also where mincemeat pies developed their confusing name: Today’s tarts are tiny affairs filled cloyingly sweet dried fruit and aggressive spices, with not a speck of meat to be found. Though many of our beloved Christmas traditions debuted in the Victorian Era—the piles of toys beneath an evergreen tree, the very concept of Santa Claus, the onslaught of Christmas cards that, in 2019, go straight in the trash—mince pies were an existing tradition that merely evolved into the pie we know and love today by dropping the bits of meat and suet that had given them their name.
By the late 19th century, these bits were quite tiny and scarcely studded throughout what had essentially become a fruit pie. In the 18th century they had been quite a bit larger, making a pie that was still quite sweet, but meant as a savory dish. Before that, in the late 17th century, the mincemeat pie was beloved not only for its flavor but also what it stood for, as in 1644 Christmas had been banned by the Puritans, whose strict form of religious influence had overtaken the country.
To the Puritans, Christmas—a holiday meant to celebrate the birth of Christ— was far too holly and far too jolly. Christmastime was a celebration that could last well over a month, a hedonist carnival of gluttony, revelry, tomfoolery, and overt displays of lust. There were no fields to till and no crops to harvest. It was the time when that year’s supply of beer and wine had fermented to perfection and was waiting to be uncorked; back then, Christmastime was more akin to modern-day Mardi Gras celebrations. Social inversion was a popular form of merriment: men dressed like women, women dressed like men, masters would wait on their servants, and children played the part of rulers and clergy.
But back to the mincemeat pie (which, at the time, was two words: “mince meat”). Most of the calendar year was the season for grains and produce; winter was the season—the only season—for meat. It was near impossible to slaughter and store prized animals for meat in any other month, because warmer temperatures would cause the meat to go bad. When the temperatures plummeted in December, the common folk could once again taste fresh meat before preserving the bulk of their butchery for the rest of the year through heavy salting and drying, transforming it from something succulent and delicious into something that was meant to be thrown in a pot with other humble ingredients. Meat pies were so integral to the Christmas season that they, too, found themselves banned by the Puritans. An essay written in the early 1700s indicates that religious zealots considered micemeat pie to be “an Invention of the Scarlet Whore of Babylon, an Hodge-Podge of Superstition, Popery, the Devil and all his works.”
The earliest mincemeat pies on record were true minced meat, with the ultra-wealthy adding small amounts of exotic dried fruits and spices that had been brought from the Middle East by returning crusaders. The following—thought to have been written in 1430—is one of the oldest recipes for such a pie, found in the Harleian Manuscripts that are preserved in the British Library:
Take buttys of Vele & mynce hem smal, or Porke, & put on a potte; take Wyne, & caste ther-to pouder of Gyngere, Pepir, & Safroun, & Salt, & a lytle verthous, & do hem in a cofyn with yolkys of Eyroun, & kutte Datys & Roysonsys of Courance, Cloyws, Maces, & then ceuere thin cofyn, & lat it bake tyl it be y-now.”
Harleian Manuscript 279 (written about 1430)
After some trial and error, I have rewritten this recipe for modern times, though perhaps not modern palates. I wanted to experience mince pies the way they had been enjoyed nearly 600 years ago. So, after much (much) research, I was able to infer the ingredient measurements that, to medieval cooks, would have been determined by what they had, and what they wanted to show off at their celebration.
The meat, of course, is the most important part of it all, front and center to fully enjoy the good fortune of a freshly slaughtered pig. Dried fruits and spices would have been plentiful enough to be tasted (and shown off), but not overdone; this way, whatever prized quantity had been acquired could be savored as long as possible. The “cofyn” is a hot water pastry crust, a dough that baked up so stiffly it could be used as its own pot. While not commonly used in American cooking, it is still an integral part of modern British cooking, meaning that you should learn more about it not from me, but from Paul Hollywood.
This pie is a true feast that can feed at least 12, with a flavor that is unusual at first but quickly becomes irresistible. It’s best served with a keg of ale, an entire barrel of wine, seven swans, six geese, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtledoves, and a spatchcocked partridge with pear sauce.
Serves 12 or more
- 1 (6- or 7-lb.) pork shoulder roast (bone-in and skinless)
- 1/2 lb. thick cut bacon
- 1/2 cup red wine
- 2 pinches saffron
- 2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
- 4 egg yolks
- 1 tsp. ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp. cloves
- 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
- 2 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 tsp. black pepper
- 1 1/4 cups chopped dates
- 1/2 cup dried black currants
- 4 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 1 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour
- 1 Tbsp. kosher salt
- 2 cups lard
- 1 cup water
Using a sharp knife, cut the meat of the pork shoulder off the bone, removing any excess pieces of fat, gristle, or odd-looking bits. You don’t want to trim off so much that it’s lean—you need a good amount of pork fat in your pie—but the large fat cap and some silvery bits around the middle can be lopped off. Don’t worry about being too fussy about butchering the meat, as you’re going to be mincing it. Just cut it into rough chunks about 2" or so.
Though it’s not how they did things in 1430, the best way to mince the pork is using a food processor. You don’t want it to be the consistency of ground meat, but mincing, pounding, and scraping the meat by hand is quite a chore—feel free to do it that way if you want, though! Add only a handful of pork shoulder to the food processor at a time along with a strip of raw bacon, as barely much more than that is enough to jam up the blades. Pulse only two or three times before transferring the meat to a larger bowl.
In a small cup, mix the saffron with 2 Tbsp. of scalding hot water. Make a well in the center of the minced pork; add the saffron, wine, egg yolks, and spices, and give it a little stir. Add the chopped dates and currants, then, using your hands, mush everything up for a minute or so to make it all come together. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate while you make the hot water pastry.
Use a wooden spoon to mix the two flours and salt together in a large bowl. Put the water and lard in a saucepan and cook over high heat until melted, then pour into the dry ingredients while stirring until a soft dough forms. Turn out onto a generously floured board and knead for a minute or so until it all comes together. Divide the pastry into three pieces; put two pieces back into the bowl to use for the top crust. Cover and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put a 10" springform pan on top of a sheet pan; it does not need to be greased or lined.
Put the remaining ball of dough between two sheets of parchment and roll until about 1/4" thick. Since hot water pastry stiffens as it cools, at this stage it will not be particularly easy to transfer it to the pan, as you could with a common pie dough. The pastry can be cut into smaller pieces to patchwork the bottom of the pan—once it’s lined, you can smoosh everything together as if you were working with Play-Doh. Continue lining the pan with dough scraps; when you run out, take the second ball of dough and repeat until there is an even 1/4"-thick crust on the bottom and sides of the pan with a slight bit of overhang.
Put the meat mixture into the pan, making sure it’s evenly distributed and not packed down.
Again, between pieces of parchment, roll out the final portion of pastry into a circle about 16" wide. Remove the top sheet of parchment, carefully flip over onto the top of the pan, and peel off the bottom parchment. Crimp the top and bottom crusts together, trimming off excess dough and setting aside. Cut a hole at least 2" wide in the center of the top crust to vent the pie.
Make a simple egg wash by beating an egg well with 2 Tbsp. of water and brush over the top of the pie. If you wish, make decorations out of the dough scraps and stick them to the pie, then egg wash.
Slide the sheet pan holding the very hefty mincemeat pie onto the center rack of the oven. Bake for 2 hours, then allow to cool at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before serving. Can be served warm, room temperature, or cold.