Thursday, December 27, 2007

Memory lane

I fear that my theme is beginning to get redundant: Talk about the weather or season. Talk about food. Post recipe.

If I'm causing myself to slump, chin against palm, eyes drooping closed, what must you, dear reader, be doing?! Well, hopefully we'll both feel perked up by the end of this post because I am about to talk about two things that should make any sane person joyful. Mince pie and mulled wine. Okay, sorry, if you are an American who has been deprived of these essentials during the holiday season. Now is your chance to take note, and plan to bring some British flair into your next Christmas.

My childhood memories of mince pie date back seventeen years, which is nothing compared to the years it has been in the homes of England. According to Wikipedia, (I know, I know, not the most reliable source on earth, but I'm not writing a research paper here) even before Victorian times the word "mincemeat" existed. It referred to a combination of spiced meat and dried fruit (though the meat dominated far more than in today's recipes). Today the only meat element usually found in mince pie is suet, though sometimes minced beef or venison is included.

As an American child experiencing Christmases in New Zealand, I had to puzzle over the word "meat" used in a sweet dessert. I do not remember ever getting a straight answer as to whether or not the mini pie I was eating had meat mixed in with the zingy apples, currants, and orange peel. My mom did not seem crazy about them because they never ended up in our own home along with the Christmas tree and summer sunshine, but I have one distinct memory of picking one off a table at our friends', the Tooleys, holiday party and being intrigued by the unique flavors and flaky crust.

You can imagine my delight, then, when Christmas items began to appear on the shelves of the Oxford grocery stores I frequented two Decembers ago, and along with the Cadbury gift boxes came heat-and-serve mince pies (when you use a kitchen that looks like a closet and whose utensils are limited to one semester's worth, the idea of making your own pastries does not enter a reasonable mind).

When my sister joined me in Europe for two weeks, we spent several days in Oxford and there she was convinced of the goodness of mince pie...with the help of a local connoisseur. At least this lady came across as a connoisseur. We had stopped on a street in the neighborhood called Jericho, and as a stranger passed us, she paused to express the "divine" experience she was having eating a warm mince pie she had just picked up from a bakery. She was practically salivating, but in it all continued to gush about how this was the best mince pie she had ever tasted and offered us her second pie if we would promise to go straight to the bakery and buy more. A bit flustered, but completely amused, we agreed! (Once at the bakery, we inquired into whether she received extra pies for doing free advertising, but we only received a quizzical look.)

The second place my sister and I shared in mince pies was at a church's Christmas service, where they were paired with hot and spicey mulled wine. Ever since that day we have been talking about recreating the pair, and it took until yesterday to do just that.

We used good ol' Cook's Illustrated as our resource for the mince pies, since we were looking for a no-fail vegetarian version. I had company in the kitchen for only half the project, though, so I ended up tiring of making little pies after number nine and turned to a 7-inch pyrex dish to hold the remainder of the mincemeat.

The mulled wine was a simple recipe from my mom's 1977 edition of Joy of Cooking, and this is my very favorite holiday drink.

Mulled Wine
From Joy of Cooking (1977 ed.)

Make a syrup by boiling for 5 minutes:
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups water
4 dozen whole cloves
6 sticks cinnamon
3 crushed nutmegs
Peel of 3 lemons, 2 oranges

Strain syrup. Add to it:
4 cups hot lemon or lime juice

Heat well, but do not boil, and add:
4 bottles of red wine or Madeira, port or sherry

Serve very hot with slices of:
Lemon and pineapple
*Obviously I omitted this last step. Pineapple-shmineapple. I hate working around things in my cup (e.g. ice, fruit, etc.).


Sing&Wonder said...

I'm drooling.

kristin said...

What a wonderful combination and such a sweet story to go along with your new holiday tradition.

Rachael said...

I recall the conversations among my lady friends in New Zealand around Christmas time--whether they were going to bake their own mince pies or buy them that year. Most of my friends were the homemaker-kind that took pride in making their own.
We were always given some by some dear friends who thought our Christmas was lacking if we didn't have some mince pies among our Christmas baking. I never took the time to bake or purchase them because our sweet four kids had no interest in them--that was
So, thanks for bringing that taste and memory alive again. It was fun being crowded in our little kitchen with all four of us lending a hand with the filling.
It was delicious and fun(especially Brent's first gulp of the mulled wine).
Christmas cheers, Mum (definitely "Mum" this time)

brentmichaeljohnson said...

hey, i remember when i thought it was coffee!