December 04, 2011

Nigella's christmas cheer and her star-topped mince pies

Now don't worry, I will have PLENTY of low-fat Christmas sweets and treats for you this holiday season, but to kick off the cheer, here is one of my favourite Christmas foods - the traditional mince pie. Many people are quick to write off the mince pie, full of fruit and spice, they don't have much to do with the 'mince' you may think of but are so much more special than that. I love mince pies because they are one of those tastes and flavours that you don't encounter at any other time of the year. They instantly bring on Christmas cheer.

Nigella is the queen of Christmas; she adores the season and embraces all facets of the holiday - from decorations, to mulled wine, kitchy treats and edible gifts. She is the go-to source for Christmas recipes and her star-topped mince pies are quite a treat. I made tiny baby versions, as I figured this made them automatically more skinny. They make a divine gift and are freezer friendly if you want to be nice and prepared for entertaining over the Christmas break. Just defrost them a few hours before serving or pop in the oven.

Follow Nigella's poetic instructions:

This is the way I make my mince pies, and there is no changing me or them: they are small, to be popped straight into the mouth in one go; the pastry is plain, the better to contrast with the rich, fruited filling; and they have not full casings but little stars as lids, which makes them look beautiful and taste flutteringly light.

By all means use good shop-bought mincemeat if you want, but I’m hoping you might give my new Cranberry-Studded Mincemeat a go (see p.189): it tastes both rich and boozy and fresh and fruity at the same time; and it makes for a slightly different mince pie, but in a welcome rather than challenging way.

With mince pies, I must have butter of some sort: I’ll take brandy butter (my mother’s), rum butter or a brown-sugar bourbon butter (see p.190 for butter recipes). Mince pies are to be savoured – not just as one of the last truly seasonal foods in England, but also as a home-grown culinary triumph, provoking one delighted Frenchman to exclaim in a letter, as quoted proudly by Agnes Jekyll in her Kitchen Essays: “ce que j’adore dans la cuisine anglaise ce sont vos petits mince-pi”.

Star-topped Mince Pies


* 240g plain flour
* 60g vegetable shortening, such as Trex
* 60g cold butter
* juice of 1 orange
* pinch of salt
* approx. 350g mincemeat
* icing sugar for dusting


1. Get out a tray of miniature tart tins, each indent 4.5cm in diameter, along with a 5.5cm fluted, round biscuit cutter and a 4cm star cutter.
2. Measure the flour into a shallow bowl or dish and, with a teaspoon, dollop little mounds of vegetable shortening into the bowl, add the butter, diced small, shake to cover it, then put in the freezer for 20 minutes. This is what will make the pastry so tender and flaky later.
3. Mix together the orange juice and salt in a separate, small bowl, cover and leave in the fridge to chill.
4. After the 20 minutes, empty the flour and fat into the bowl of your food processor and blitz until you’ve got a pale pile of porridge-like crumbs. Pour the salted juice down the funnel, pulsing until it looks as if the dough is about to cohere; you want to stop just before it does (even if some orange juice is left). If all your juice is used up and you need more liquid, add some iced water.
5. If you prefer to use a freestanding mixer to make the pastry, cut the fats into the flour with the flat paddle, leaving the bowl in the fridge to chill down for the 20-minute flour-and-fat-freezer session. Add liquid as above. I often find the pastry uses more liquid in the mixer than the processor.
6. Turn the mixture out of the processor or mixing bowl onto a pastry board or work surface and, using your hands, combine to a dough. Then form into 3 discs (you’ll need to make these in 3 batches, unless you’ve got enough tart tins to make all 36 pies at once).
7. Wrap each disc in clingfilm and put in the fridge to rest for 20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 220°C/gas mark 7.
8. Roll out the discs, one at a time, as thinly as you can without exaggerating; in other words, you want a light pastry case, but one sturdy enough to support the dense mincemeat. This is easy-going dough, so you don’t have to pander to it: just get rolling and patch up as you need.
9. Out of each rolled-out disc cut out circles a little wider than the indentations in the tart tins; I use a fluted cookie cutter for this. Press these circles gently into the moulds and dollop in a scant teaspoon of mincemeat.
10. Then cut out your stars with your little star cutter – re-rolling the pastry as necessary – and place the tops lightly on the mincemeat.
11. Put in the oven and bake for 10–15 minutes: keep an eye on them as they really don’t take long and ovens do vary.
12. Remove from the oven, prising out the little pies straight away and letting the empty tin cool down before you start putting in the pastry for the next batch. Carry on until they’re all done.
13. Dust over some icing sugar by pushing it through a tea strainer, and serve the pies with one of the butters on p.190.

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