“Get under the table you ignorant child!” Fry Blaunched, 1390

It is January.

If you’ve come here for upbeat positivity about how we can all make some decent resolutions and start new health kicks then I’ve got news for you: you’ve stumbled onto the wrong site.

For the rest of you who, like me, have no intention of starting a juice cleanse nor any plans to give up chocolate or alcohol this month (why would you?!), read on.

My family has a tradition of getting together on the evening of 5th January and having a Twelfth Night dinner. It’s nothing too fancy – just a stew and some spuds – but it’s a great way to draw a line under the festive period and gives us all something to look forward to during the first working week after the break.

What is Twelfth Night?

Put simply, it’s the evening of the final 12 days after Christmas. Put less simply (and depending on who you ask), Twelfth Night is either the 5th January or the 6th January – it basically comes down to whether or not you count Christmas Day as being the 1st of the 12 days.

The 6th January is the Epiphany – the day the 3 Magi supposedly reached the infant Jesus to bestow their very child friendly gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh on him. Traditionally it’s Epiphany that was the big party of the festive season and not Christmas, which was reserved for contemplation and prayer.

In medieval England, 6th January marked the beginning of eight days of celebrations called the Feast of Epiphany. This feast began on the 6th and lasted until 13th January and it was during this celebratory week-and-a-day that gifts were given and general merriment made.

Twelfth Night Cake

One of the merriments to be made was Twelfth Night cake. These were rich fruit cakes which eventually developed into our modern Christmas cake. They were often drenched in alcohol and, in subsequent years, were decorated with a thick layer of royal icing.

Twelfth Night cakes could be as highly decorated or as simple as the baker could afford. By the Georgian period, they’d become extremely elaborate affairs and were decorated with feathers, gold, and sugar paste models of increasing intricacy.

“The Regency Twelfth Cake Not Cut Up” by James Sayers, 1789. The man on the right looks sad because he’s just started his January diet. Credit here.

But the thing that seperated twelfth night cakes from your bog standard fruit cake was the bean inside it. And this is where all the fun came from.

A bean? In a cake?

The tradition goes like this: a dried bean would be placed inside the cake mixture before baking. When the cake was cut and shared out, whoever found the bean would be crowned king for the day and everyone else would have to do as they said.

There are hundreds of variants to the game: in 1676 Henry Teong, a British naval captain, described a slightly NSFW version:

We had a great cake made, in which was put a bean for the king, a pea for the queen, a clove for the knave, a forked stick for the cuckold and a rag for the slut… which caused much laughter to see our Lieutenant prove the cuckold, and more to see us tumble over the other in the cabin, by reason of the rough weather.

The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson

“By reason of the rough weather” – nothing at all to do with the drinking and booze in the cake, then?

The French version of the game, according to 16th century writer Étienne Pasquier, included forcing the youngest child in the house to sit under the table and, as the master of the house cut the cake, shout out the names of the recipient of each slice. The idea was that the child (ignorant of the rank or age of the assembled diners and – importantly – unable to see which piece the bean was in) would call out the names of the guests in whichever order took their fancy. The result of this was that it was completely random who received the lucky slice.

The idea of putting a bean or counter into a cake in order to crown a ‘king’ seems to have been one that was shared across many European countries – not just Britain and France. It’s a tradition that maybe had roots in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. This was a December-time feast in honour of the Roman god Saturn and as part of the celebrations a ‘ruler’ would be appointed by lot from each household to be the master for the day.

As with anything like this, it’s impossible to say for sure that the Twelfth Night game developed from the games played during Saturnalia, but its popularity across multiple European countries and the vagueness of its origins suggests there may be some links.

Whatever the origins may be, my family prefers the French version to the ‘sluts and cuckolds’ version. This is partly because it’s a lot less awkward to see your dad crowned a ‘king’ than a ‘slut’, but also because it allows us to (lovingly) berate my younger sister and shout at her to “get under the table and stay there, you ignorant child!”

She is 26 years old.

Galette des Rois or Fry Blaunched?

There’s another reason my family prefers the French version of Twelfth Night cake to the English one. We’re usually too full of Christmas pudding and Christmas cake by Twelfth Night to feel excited about another fruitcake, but the French version – called a Galette des Rois – is nothing like that. Traditional Galette des Rois are puff pastry discs filled with frangipane. They are quick, simple and utterly delicious.

The trouble was I couldn’t find an original recipe for Galette des Rois. They must exist, but my modern French is bad enough, and my Middle French is non-existent.

What I did find was something that I though might capture an essence of them. It was in Forme of Cury, a 14th century cookbook compiled by the master cooks of Richard II. Many English recipes at this time took inspiration from French recipes and in fact quite a few recipes in F.o.C. share similarities with recipes in a contemporaneous French work, Le Viandier de Taillevent. Just to be clear, though, I’m not at all saying the experiment I tried today was a precursor to modern Galette des Rois.

Fry Blaunched
Take Almandes blaunched and grynde hem al to doust, do þise in a thynne foile. close it þerinnne fast. and fry it in Oile. clarifie hony with Wyne. & bake it þerwith

Take blanched almonds and grind them to powder and place them on a [thin sheet of pastry]. Close it therein and fry it in oil. Add clarified honey and wine and bake it therewith.

Forme of Cury. (Attempted) translation my own.

A word on pastry.

It seemed I was dealing with a fried, almond ravioli thing. Not quite the same as light puff pastry with a frangipane filling, but I was willing to try it.

Like all good medieval recipes (and if you’ve read any other of my medieval posts you can join in with this bit): there were no instructions. No details on how to make the pastry, or what ingredients to use, or even just a hint at any measurements.

Medieval pastry contained no fat. They didn’t use butter, suet or lard like we might today – most pastries were a simple mix of water and flour.

There were some additions, though. Egg was sometimes used instead of water to form a richer pastry and spices like saffron might be used to give a deeper colour. Because we were, after all, celebrating Twelfth Night I decided to really splash out and used a flour, egg and saffron mixture. I know, I know; such decadence so soon after Christmas!

The Method.

I rolled the dough out as thinly as I could; the word “foile” in the recipe actually meant as thin as a sheet of paper. Then I blitzed blanched almonds in a blender (you could use a mortar and pestle for a true medieval experience if you want but honestly, who has the time?) and cut the dough into neat ribbons.

I calculated I could fit a small teaspoon of filling into each pastry parcel without it spilling out the edges during the cooking. Once my ravioli-esque Frys were complete, I fried them in hot oil for a couple of minutes on both sides.

In the oil they puffed up nicely and looked like mini Galette des Rois, which I was really pleased about. I had to push a couple of them down with the back of a spoon as the sheets of pastry kept separating, threatening to spill the crushed almonds into the pan.

Once they were nice and crisp – but not brown – I laid them in a baking dish and poured over a mixture of honey and white wine that I’d warmed together in my very authentically medieval microwave, before cooked them in the oven for 15 minutes.

Not a Galette des Rois, but still delicious.

The Verdict.

They smelled lovely – of warm honey and fruit (because of the wine). They looked pretty appetising too; the blast in the oven had transformed them into golden brown crisps, shining in their sweet glaze.

And, truth be told, they still looked fairly similar to Galette des Rois. It was true they were smaller, but because the pastry was so thin to start with and because the frying process had caused it to puff up, it actually wasn’t too far off looking like puff pastry.

I was excited to try one and I wasn’t disappointed. The pastry was pretty pleasant: crisp, fairly rich and because it had been sitting in the pool of honey and wine during baking, also quite sweet.

Unlike Galette des Rois, the insides of Fry Blaunched didn’t taste of frangipane. They were pretty dry and a bit plain – just almond, really – without any sweetness. But that didn’t make the overall dish unpleasant. In fact, when an open pastry was dipped in the sticky honey and wine sauce, the almond mixture soaked it up which made for a sweet and nutty flavour.

Galette des Rois they might not have been (and they sure as hell weren’t Twelfth Night cakes) but as there won’t be any proper Twelfth Night celebrations this year (my family will have to shout at my sister via Zoom instead), perhaps they’ll be a good alternative.

Happy New Year!

E x

Fry Blaunched

50g or 2 ounces blanched almonds
1 medium egg
85g or 3 ounces plain white flour
20ml or 2 tablespoons runny honey
20ml or 2 tablespoons white wine
Oil for frying (any will do; I used olive)

  1. Set the oven to 180 degrees C, 350 degrees F.
  2. Blitz your almonds until they are completely ground.
  3. Combine the egg and flour in a bowl and knead into a dough.
  4. Roll the dough out onto a floured surface to as thin as you can. It should be no thicker than 2mm.
  5. Cut the dough into strips, and then cut into squares – about 6cmx6cm.
  6. Put a small teaspoon of the ground almonds onto half of the pastry squares.
  7. Place the other half of the pastry squares over the squares with almonds on. Seal the sides shut – you will need to push them very tightly together or they will pop open during frying!
  8. Heat a shallow frying pan with oil and wait until a small piece of dough bubbles at the edges when dropped in.
  9. Fry no more than 2 at a time, turning over with a slotted spoon after a couple of minutes to cook on both sides. The pastry should puff up and go hard.
  10. When all your pastries are fried, lay them in a roasting tin or lipped baking tray.
  11. Heat the honey and wine together in a microwave or a pan until the honey has dissolved.
  12. Pour the honey and wine mixture over the pastries and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the pastries are a golden brown all over.

“All I want for Christmas is bread sauce”: A brief history.

The day of judgement is almost upon us.

Soon we will be called forth to follow the Christmas commandments of our lord and saviour Delia (or Nigella, whichever you prefer) and begin the rituals: the chopping, the stirring, the basting. We will sing the hymns of Wizzard and share communion of a bucks fizz (or two) well before 9am.

Whether you’re a ‘presents first thing in the morning’ kind of person or a masochist who waits until after lunch, there’s one thing you should know: the day is made or broken by the quality of the bread sauce.

It’s an opinion I haven’t seen too much online and yet it’s one my whole family shared when I was growing up. In fact, so seriously do my family take bread sauce that no one except mum was allowed to make it and the first year I took over my sister insisted mum make a ‘back up’ vat too.

‘Vat’ might seem an odd way to measure bread sauce – after all, it’s a once a year accompaniment, right? Just another sauce to go with the cranberry jelly and the gravy. Surely ‘jug’ would be better?

You might think so, but you’d be wrong; growing up our family of four tripled the recipe. The recipe that, as standard, served 8 people. For us, ‘vat’ is an entirely appropriate measurement – nay, the only appropriate measurement – when it comes to bread sauce.

Someone corrected my mother’s annotation that 3x the recipe was too much. Luckily, 2018 saw the return of my appetite and thus the return of triple portions.

That seems…excessive

Tis the season.

Anyway, I’d done an obligatory mince pie post to celebrate the festivities, but what I was really excited about was delving into the history of my very own reason for the season.

For the uninitiated, proper bread sauce contains nothing but bread, butter, milk and cream, an onion and some spices. It should look a little like porridge and taste creamy and mild and ever so slightly fragrant. Its flavours are best approximately 8-12 hours after lunch when it’s eaten cold from the fridge in gelatinous mounds off a silver spoon, or between two slices of cheap white bread which have been buttered and dotted with leftover stuffing bits. In short, if anything was going to prove the existence of God to me at this time of year, it’d be a perfect bowl of Delia’s bread sauce, not a nativity scene.

Using bread to thicken sauces was an ancient technique, but I was interested to see if there were any old recipes which made bread the central part of the sauce itself and what those recipes tasted like. Were any of them even remotely similar to modern bread sauce? Were they served alongside turkey? Was there any historical precedent for cooking up entire vats of the stuff, or was it just a bonkers tradition unique to my family?

Galentyne: 1390.

Take crustes of brede & grynde hem smale; do þerto poudour of galyngale, of canel, of gynger, and salt it; temper hyt with vyneger & drawe it vp þorow a straynour & messe hit forth.

Take crusts of bread and finely grind them; to this add powder of galangal, cinnamon and ginger, and salt it; temper it with vinegar, and blend it through a strainer, and serve it forth.

Forme of Cury. Text and translation copyright Christopher Monk 2020

Galentyne was the earliest English precursor to bread sauce I could find. Forme of Cury, where this recipe comes from, was compiled around 1390 and was the cook book for Richard II’s master cooks. Being a 14th century recipe, galentyne wasn’t intended to be eaten with turkey, but it also didn’t give any indication what it was an accompaniment to. Knowing how the rich ate in the 14th century it could have been anything: pork, beef, porpoise, swan, seal…

Dr. Christopher Monk, who has written a post about the various galentynes of Forme of Cury, points out that the word ‘galentyne’ is pretty hard to pin down. In some recipes it appears as a sauce, in others a jelly. It can be served hot, or cold. Some versions use vinegar, others use only wine, some both.

The first thing I noticed was a lack of quantities. This was totally standard for the 14th century and just as totally unhelpful as it sounds, especially given the only liquid in this recipe was vinegar.

I blitzed a handful of white bread crusts with the ground spices and added tablespoon after tablespoon of white wine vinegar until I ended up with a fairly thick paste, which I pushed through a sieve before trying.

Perhaps I tried too much at first, because the first taste was like eating a tablespoon of acid. My lips tried to eat themselves as they curled back from the sourness and my eyes began to prickle but once the initial assault was over I began to appreciate the tartness and the aftertaste, which wasn’t too bad: slightly spicy and salty.

I even went back for more, this time a small smear on a bit of ham and it was actually delicious. It reminded me a bit of a pickle, the sort of thing you’d serve with chutneys and mustards and piccalilli; I reckon I’d make this to serve alongside a Christmas ham in future years.

You do not need to triple the recipe for this one.

Was it a good approximation of modern bread sauce, though? No, not even close. It had vaguely the right consistency and colour, but that’s where the similarities ended. I moved onto the next recipe.

Henry VIII’s rabbit sauce: 1594.

Fine Sauce for a roasted Rabbet: used to king Henrie the eight. TAKE a handfull of washed Parcelie, minced small, boil it with butter and vergious upon a chafingdish, season it with Sugar, and a litle pepper grose beaten: when it is readie, put in a few crums of white bread amongst the others let it boile againe til it be thick: then lay it in a platter, like the bredth of three fingers, lay of each side one rosted Cony or more so serue them.

The Good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin, Thomas Dawson.

This seemed more like it; no mention of vinegar and plenty of butter. There was still a worrying lack of cream or milk to give the sauce a decent thick creaminess, but it was moving in the right direction and, as the recipe suggested it had been served to Henry VIII himself, it seemed promising that it’d be rich and filling at least.

I placed the chopped parsley, butter and verjuice in a pan and let it boil together for a minute or two. Verjuice is just the juice of unripe grapes. You can make it yourself, but it’s easier to buy a bottle “just to have in for historical experiments.” Once bought, the bottle will take up cupboard space in your kitchen and your husband will moan that it just adds to the clutter and never gets used.

As soon as the butter had melted I added sugar, pepper and a handful of breadcrumbs and…panicked. The recipe definitely said ‘sauce’, but the breadcrumbs soaked the liquid up like a sponge. It didn’t resemble a sauce at all, no matter how much more verjuice or butter I added, it just stayed a dense mass. I re-read the recipe; it suggested the ‘sauce’ be served “the breadth of three fingers” which suggested some sort of solidity but I was still a bit taken aback, especially as it was easier to cut with a knife rather than spoon onto a plate and looked alarmingly like pork stuffing.

A sausage of bread sauce, sire?

In terms of flavour, however, this was by far the most pleasant. It was rich and buttery, like a good bread sauce should be. Modern bread sauce has a slight sweetness to it, but this was far sweeter than I was used to because of the verjuice and added sugar.

The main flavour was parsley, which unfortunately wasn’t like a good bread sauce at all. Good bread sauce should be stodgy and carbohydrate heavy, with nary a hint of anything as healthy as a green herb in sight. Henry VIII’s nailed the stodginess (perhaps a little too well…) but the overeager abundance of parsley in this one meant it still wasn’t right. I moved on.

Gallendine sauce for a Turkey: 1653

Take some Claret Wine, and some grated Bread, and a sprig of Rosemary, a little beaten Cloves, a little beaten Cinnamon, and some Sugar.

A True Gentlewomans Delight, Elizabeth GreyCountess of Kent

Did I really want to make another version of galentyne again? No, of course not, and besides I was pretty sure I didn’t have enough vinegar left. But what intrigued me about this recipe was that it specified serving it with turkey, just like modern bread sauce.

The first thing that struck me in this recipe was the addition of claret wine. True bread sauce should be white. I began to feel very nervous as I poured wine over my heap of breadcrumbs and watched them turn white to deepest red.

There was no cooking to be done here, so once the herbs and spices had been added I assumed it was done.

Bread would be a good tool for mopping up a murder scene, I think.

This was the most unpleasant of the lot, which surprised me. I think I’d assumed because it was the latest of the three it would somehow be the best – as if time would afford the creator of the recipe some additional skill or appreciation for good bread sauce. Of the three, however, this was the only one we ended up not being able to finish.

Consistency wise it was the closest to modern bread sauce, but appearance wise it was about as far away as you could get: bold and bright and covered in twigs. The taste was also nothing like bread sauce: it was just wine with soggy lumps of bread and the occasional sprig of rosemary poking you in the gums. No, thank you.

The verdict.

The closest taste to modern bread sauce was probably Henry VIII’s rabbit sauce. The addition of butter made it by far the creamiest of the lot but the appearance was more like a log of sausage meat than a sauce. None of them were very good matches – either too acidic, too solid or too alcoholic, which just goes to show that having bread as an ingredient does not a bread sauce make.

Three bowls of bread, none of them sauce.

By this point I was beginning to suspect that Delia had invented the perfect recipe for bread sauce through divine intervention rather than historical evolution… and then I found Hannah Glasse’s 1747 recipe:

Bread sauce for Roasted Partridge

Bread sauce…made thus: Take about a handful or two of crumbs of bread, put in a pint of milk or more, a small whole onion, a little whole white pepper, a little salt, and a bit of butter, boil it all well up; then take the onion out and beat it with a spoon.

The Art of Cookery, Hannah Glasse.

Given Delia’s militarily precise and inflexible timings for Christmas day lunch, I don’t know how much she’d approve of Hannah’s somewhat lackadaisical approach to the quantities and measurements here, but I couldn’t fault the foundations of the recipe. Bread? Check. Milk? Check. Butter? Check. Wine, vinegar, verjuice? No, no, no – thank God.

So, were any of the three I made worthy of triple portions? No. But, more importantly, did any of them make the cut for this year’s Christmas Day table? Also no – it’s meant to be a day of unbridled joy and pleasure for God’s sake.

For the day itself I’ll stick to Delia’s bread sauce recipe, but maybe now I’ll pause before dunking my head into the bowl and remind my husband and daughter of the rich history of the stuff – much to their delight, I’m sure. And if there’s one positive to the Christmas lockdown, it’s that my mum – who texted to tell me I had “better not let her down” with this post – wasn’t around to see some of the unfortunate origins of her beloved side dish.

Merry Christmas!

E x

“The principal season for the killing of hogs”: Christmas-Pyes 1728

We had a Christmas tradition when I was growing up. Perhaps tradition is the wrong word; superstition might be better. Mum would bring the mince pies out around the first week of December and they’d sit on the plate patiently while we all ignored them and ate biscuits and chocolate instead.

Eventually the yule log and gingerbread men would be gone and we had no option but to acknowledge the pies’ existence. The superstition went like this: you could eat as many as you liked, but you couldn’t speak a word until the last crumb had been licked from your lips. Each pie you ate silently bought a month of good luck for the coming year.

And…as I type that I realise it may have been a superstition invented by my mother to buy herself some peace and quiet during the school holidays. Regardless, mince pies seemed an obvious choice for my first ever Christmas post!

The secret is to use real Englishmen.

Why ‘mince’ pies?

The earliest recipes for mince pies (or pies that us modern folk would call mince pies) contained minced or shredded meat, as well as fruit and spices. Meatless mince pies are a relatively modern concept and began around the start of the 19th century, although suet was still a popular ingredient. Traditionally these pies would have been all kinds of shapes and sizes, often quite intricate but have today become boringly round.

Today’s mince pie experiments are of the meat-and-fruit variety and appear as ‘Christmas Pyes’ in Richard Bradley’s The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director. This was intended to be a useful manual for farmers and their families and contained not only recipes but practical farming advice and jobs to be done in each month. December, if you’re interested, is “the principal season for the killing hogs” – perfect for when you’ve run out of board games and need a festive family activity.

Killing hogs in December was all well and good and no one seemed to have a problem with this. The thing that seemed to really divide people, that seemed to get them properly foaming at the mouth, was the name of the pastries: Christmas pies.

Christmas pies – cute name or sign of the devil?

It all depended on who you asked.

Check any history textbook and it’ll show: the Puritans banned Christmas. It’s probably the only thing most of us remember from year 8 history lessons. Unfortunately, like most historical facts, it’s false. Or hugely exaggerated, at least. As Foods of England shows, nothing was outright or nationally banned at all; at some local levels certain individuals attempted to ensure 25th December was business as usual but these miserable souls were, for the most part, roundly ignored.

In 1650 – three years before before Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector – the writer Robert Fletcher made fun of Puritans and their supposed hatred of Christmas – and fear of Catholic conspiracies – by writing an imaginary dialogue between two Puritanical “zealots” on the topic of Christmas and, yes, Christmas pies:

Christ-mass? Give me my beads: the name implies
A plot by its ingredients beef and pyes.
A feast Apocryphal,
A popish rite, kneaded in dough in the night…
An annual dark-lanthorn Jubile:
Catesby and Vaulx baked in conspiracie [sic]…”

Robert Fletcher, ‘Christmas Day; Or the Shutle of an inspired Weaver bolted against the Order of the Church for its Solemnity’

In 1720, just to really cement the idea that Christmas pies were to Puritans what bulbs of garlic are to vampires, Thomas Lewis wrote that fanatical Puritans in the civil war had decried Christmas pies as “abomination[s]”.

Then, in December 1733, The Gentlemen’s Magazine published an essay on Christmas pies by the curiously named Philo-Clericus. Despite proclaiming a “love” of them, he suggested Christmas pies were only “in vogue” during winter “owing to the barrenness of the season and the scarcity of fruit and milk to make tarts, custards and other desserts…” And as someone who would rather lick the crumbs from the yule log plate before eating a whole mince pie, I can kind of see his point.

Philo-Clericus goes on to describe how it wasn’t just Puritans, but Quakers too, who hated these festive treats. According to Phil, Quakers viewed Christmas pies as “an invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon, an hodge-podge of superstition, popery, the devil and all his works.”

I mean, how could I resist?

The recipe.

Take an Ox-Heart, and parboil it, or a Neat’s-Tongue, boil’d without drying or salting, or the Inside of a Surloin of Beef; chop this small, and put to each Pound two Pounds of clean Beef-Suet, cleaned of the Skins and Blood, and chop that as small as the former; then pare, and take the Cores out of eight large Apples, and chop them small, grate then a Two-penny-Loaf; and then add two or three Nutmegs grated, half an Ounce of fresh Cloves, as much Mace, a little Pepper and Salt, and a Pound and a half of Sugar; then grate in some Lemon and Orange-Peel, and squeeze the Juice of six Oranges, and two Lemons, with half a Pint of Sack, and pour this into the Mixture.

Take care to put in two Pounds of Currans to every Pound of Meat, and mix it well; then try a little of it over the Fire, in a Sauce-pan, and as it tastes, so add what you think proper to it: put this in an earthen glaz’d Pan, and press it down, and you may keep it till Candlemas, if you make it at Christmas.

Memorandum: When you put this into your Pyes, press it down, and it will be like a Paste.When you take these Pyes out of the Oven, put in a Glass of Brandy, or a Glass of Sack or White Wine, into them, and stir it in them.

Richard Bradley, The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director.

The method.

Ox heart and ox tongue were quite hard to come by. I don’t know how easy it is to get hold of them usually but for some weird reason, on the week of the 14th December, the shops and butchers were all more preoccupied with selling turkeys, ham or big joints of beef instead, so I used the inside of a sirloin steak for the meaty part of these.

I added beef suet, chopped apple, breadcrumbs, spices, lemon and orange peel and a good glug of brandy to the chopped sirloin and then left the mixture overnight to mingle.

It looked a bit worrying, but it smelled amazing.

The second half of the recipe made it sound as though these pies were meant to be open to accommodate the addition of more alcohol after baking, but I chose to bake mine with a crust on top because, as I’ve stated numerous times before, I don’t believe a pie is a pie unless it has a full crust (top and bottom). The additional alcohol, I decided, would just have to be drunk as an accompaniment.

The recipe wasn’t clear which type of pastry should be used. By the 18th century, pastry had moved on a bit from just a basic flour and water mixture and, given the richness of the filling, I thought I needed something special.

Luckily, Richard Bradley had included a pastry section in his recipe book, and I selected the one I thought would go best – “sweet paste”.

If you would have a sweet Paste; then take half a pound of butter, and rub it into about a pound of flour, with two or three ounces of double-refined sugar powder’d, and make it a Paste, with cold milk, some sack and brandy. This is a very good one.

Richard Bradley, The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director.

A very good one it was indeed, with its sugar and double helping of yet more alcohol. As the smells of brandy and mincemeat and, er, minced meat mixed and wafted round the air as the pies were baking, I began to feel very merry. Perhaps it was the festive atmosphere or the several glugs of sherry I’d drunk to check it was okay to serve alongside the pies (always best to double check, I think), but I suddenly felt more Christmassy than I had done all December. By the time the buzzer went off I was practically ready to open the presents and carve the turkey.

The verdict.

My husband, lured downstairs by the smell of festive baking, couldn’t wait to get started.

“Don’t tell me what’s in them, I don’t want to know,” he said as he took a bite. “They smell better than anything else you’ve made so far and I don’t want you to ruin it for me.”

They didn’t just smell great, they tasted great too. Like, unbelievably good: buttery, spicy, fruity. The meat was more of an aftertaste rather than a flavour on its own, and the pastry was glorious – flaky and rich as Christmas pastry should be.

The abundance of spices and sugar and meat probably made these a treat to be enjoyed only by the rich at this time of year and, frankly, the alarming amount of butter and suet used which melted and bubbled up out of the pan as they cooked meant that modern day folk probably wouldn’t want to eat these all year round, either.

I made about 14 and even though I’m not a mince pie fan, they were all gone 48 hours later. I’m not 100% sure what the meat added, other than a slightly more savoury element than usual, but the addition of sirloin certainly didn’t detract from the pies either.

Even the little skater on the plate’s dancing with joy at how well these turned out.

Merry Christmas (in more ways than one…)

It’s unclear exactly when mince pie recipe writers dropped the meat element. Recipes in Mrs Beeton’s 1861 version still contained meat although it appears meaty mince pies were on the decline by this point as subsequent editions only printed versions for her meatless mince pies.

If like me you’re struggling to get properly ‘into’ Christmas this year – if you’ve had plans cancelled at the last minute, or the year’s been, frankly, a bit shit and you just want it all over with – but you want to give the Christmas spirit one last kick up the bum to try and get it going again, you could do a lot worse than giving these mince pies a go. And if they don’t manage to bring back the festive feeling they will at least get you a little too tipsy to mind! Merry Christmas!

E x

Christmas Pyes

For the mincemeat:
500g currants
200g shredded beef suet
160g sugar
2 apples, peeled, cored and diced
Zest of 1 lemon and its juice
Zest of 2 oranges and their juice
1 sirloin steak
1 small cob, grated into breadcrumbs
1/2 teaspoon mace
1 teaspoon nutmeg
Salt and pepper
4 or 5 cloves, crushed
5 or 6 tablespoons of brandy or sherry

For the pastry:
150g plain flour
75g butter
28g sugar
Milk or brandy or sherry

  1. Chop the sirloin steak up as small as you can.
  2. Add the steak to a bowl with the other mincemeat ingredients and mix. Leave to stand in a fridge overnight.
  3. For the pastry, rub flour, butter and sugar together.
  4. Add as much milk, brandy or sherry as you like to form to a sticky but still pliable dough.
  5. Roll the dough out on a floured surface to as thin as you can.
  6. Butter a mince pie tin or a standard muffin tin and cut out circles of dough to fit into the holes.
  7. Place a few spoons of mincemeat in each pastry case.
  8. Cut out slightly smaller circles to fit on top of the mince pies and place them on, pushing down at the edges to seal them.
  9. Brush with egg wash, slash a hole in the top of each pie with a knife and bake at 180 degrees for 25-30 minutes until golden brown.