Mincemeat—commonly thought of as a traditional Thanksgiving or Christmas dish—actually traces its roots back to Medieval times, when preparing meat with fruit and spices was, like smoking or salting, a form of preservation. A recipe for mincemeat pie appears in one of England's oldest cookbooks, published in the late 1300s.
Early New Englanders would make large batches of mincemeat and store it in crocks sealed with a layer of lard for use over many months.
Mince means "small," and in England, mincemeat pies are often tart-sized. But here in New England, the tradition has been to use mincemeat filling in full-sized holiday pies. So, how do you make mincemeat?
Two Mincemeat Recipes: One Vintage, One for Modern Cooks
Most modern mincemeat recipes no longer include meat and some include liquor. But if you want to make mincemeat the traditional way, here is an early New England receipt (or recipe), originally published in 1832 in Lydia Maria Child's American Frugal Housewife and provided for reprint by Old Sturbridge Village, the famous living history attraction open year-round in New England's Last Green Valley:
"The recipe yields filling for two pies: Boil a tender, nice piece of beef—any piece that is clear from sinew and gristle; boil it till it is perfectly tender. When it is cold, chop it very fine, and be very careful to get out every particle of bone and gristle.
The suet is sweeter and better to boil half an hour or more in the liquor the beef has been boiled in; but few people do this. Pare, core, and chop the apples fine. If you use raisins, stone them. If you use currants, wash and dry them at the fire. Two pounds of beef, after it is chopped; three quarters of a pound of suet; one pound and a quarter of sugar; three pounds of apples; two pounds of currants, or raisins.
Put in a gill of brandy; lemon-brandy is better, if you have any prepared. Make it quite moist with new cider. I should not think a quart would be too much; the more moist the better, if it does not spill out into the oven. A very little pepper. If you use corn meat, or tongue, for pies, it should be well soaked, and boiled very tender. If you use fresh beef, salt is necessary in the seasoning. One ounce of cinnamon, one ounce of cloves. Two nutmegs add to the pleasantness of the flavor; and a bit of sweet butter put upon the top of each pie, makes them rich; but these are not necessary. Baked three quarters of an hour. If your apples are rather sweet, grate in a whole lemon."
Sounds pretty involved, eh? Don't be daunted. Fortunately, Old Sturbridge Village also shares with us a mincemeat recipe that has been adapted for the modern cook. It appears in the Old Sturbridge Village Cookbook.
1 1/4 pounds of beef round or leftover roast
1/4 pound suet
1 1/2 pounds apples
1 cup raisins or currant
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon clove
2 teaspoons nutmeg
1/4 cup brandy
2 cups cider or apple juice
Double recipe for Pie Crust (try this shortcrust pastry recipe)
1 tablespoon butter (optional)
How to Make Mincemeat
1. If uncooked meat is used, simmer beef 2-3 hours or until very tender, adding suet for last 1/2 hour of cooking.
2. When cooked, chop beef and suet very fine, into about 1/4-inch pieces.
3. Pare, core, and chop apples to make 3 cups.
4. Mix beef, suet, apples, raisins or currants, white and brown sugars, spices, brandy and cider or apple juice.
5. Prepare pie crust.
6. Line pie plates with pastry, fill each with half of meat mixture. Cover with top crusts, seal edges, slit holes on top for steam to escape. If desired, spread a thick layer of butter on pastry for flaky upper crust.
7. Bake 3/4 hour in 400°-425° oven.
Yield: Two 9-inch pies
Reprinted from Old Sturbridge Village Cookbook, Globe Pequot Press, with permission.