Mincemeat Pie: The Pied Piper Of Christmas

By Madhulika Dash

From coffin like slab to mini pops, from savoury to sweet-savoury treat and a Christmas essential, the rise of the banal pie is just as interesting as the mince mix.

There is the tree, the cake, the roast and the marzipan bunnies, but Christmas doesn't arrive till the first mince meat pie comes out of the oven. This quote may have just said in zest back in the late 1600s when Christmas and mincemeat pie was reinstated by King Charles II, years after Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas from 1649 until 1658, by calling it as a pagan holiday; but it's a ritual today. Mincemeat pies are as big a part of the celebration as the famous Christmas Pudding!

But where and how did the mincemeat pie become a part of Christmas? Interestingly the pie followed the same route as the pudding with its beginning as a savoury treat for the workforce and horsemen. It is said that the shape of the pie was designed round/oblong so that it could be had as a finger food, while these men continued with their work.

But assuming the invention of pie led to that of the mincemeat pie would be wrong. Much like the pudding, the pie was a medieval period invention that was introduced into the British kitchens by the returning Crusaders. Back then the pie was made by mixing meat - cold, processed and semi-cooked fresh meat - along with fruit and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg and made into a cake that was baked, cut into slices and served.

The crusty pastry was a British addition, who continued to change the mince inside to the whim of the throne. Often the change would be in the meat filling - which went from beef to rabbit to lamb and even corn-fed country chicken.

Also read: Recipe for the Mincemeat Pie

By the time the Tudors took charge, the mincemeat pies or shred (shred) pies as they were often known because of the use of suet and shreds of meat, were a well-established savoury treat. So fond Henry the VIII was of this treat that it would be his usual nibble, pre and post meal and when not marrying/beheading his many wives.

Much of the earlier of pie making called for the generous use of neat or beef tongue, while later on boiled beef became more popular. A 1833 recipe of the pie goes as: "Boil a tender, nice piece of beef – any piece that is clear from sinews and gristle; boil it till it is perfectly tender."

Another Receipt Book written by an Oxfordshire aristocrat in 1609 states the filling as: made of equal parts of minced cooked mutton, beef suet, currants and raisins with ginger, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, orange rind, salt and a tiny quantity of sugar.

By the mid-Victorian era, meat took a back seat. Could it be for religious is but a conjecture. Today, beef suet is the only ingredient that hints to the pies’ protein-packed predecessors - though most cooks now use butter. But it wasn’t just the meat (and with it the taste) that changed, the other thing that shifted was the size.

In the Tudor period, the pies were often larger, and rectangular in shape, much like a "coffin", but by the 17th and 18th centuries, the pies began shrinking. One reason for this was because of the lesser use of meat; and the other Oliver Cromwell ban on Christmas. During which soldiers were ordered to go round the streets and take, by force if necessary, food being cooked for a Christmas celebration. Hence the pie, a popular snack by then, were given odd shapes to pass the muster of being safe. This continued till the traditional mincemeat pie  was reinstated along with Christmas when King Charles II ascended the throne in 1660.

Though by then the pie had found its shape - seemingly small, imperfectly oval and filled with mince - no meat.

"And that is the pie that is made today, with of course that personal baker twist," says Ipshita Mazumdar Chakladar, owner The Hot Pink  Cake Studio by Ipshita.

Though, adds Chakladar, "what has not changed is the benchmark of a good mincemeat pie, which even today is that crisp golden fragile pie crust with the warm, delicious mixture of rum matured fruits and nuts."

The trick, says the seasoned pastry chef, "is how you roll the pie and of course the quality of the unsalted butter, which should still be solid when you mix it in the flour."

About the Chef

Though an alumnus of IHM Bangalore, Ipshita Mazumdar Chakladar began her journey as a baker in the most unusual way: With a Facebook page called Cakes Mamma Bakes in 2010 after she quit her decade plus job at NDTV. What began as an attempt to understand the market and reinstate herself as not the run-of-the-mill baker soon bore fruit. With the starting year itself, Cakes Mamma Bakes became the go to place for interesting cakes and creation in Delhi, the premium rates notwithstanding. Result: the debut of her first store cum teaching studio, The Hot Pink Cake Studio By Ipshita early on this year.