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{12} Mince Pies

Christmas Eve and everyone is busy with their last-minute preparations! Just to build a little suspense, I’ve held off with my twelfth and final post of the Christmas season until late on Christmas Eve. And what did you think it would be? I’ve love to know what the candidates were, but there was always a certain inevitability about mince pies. I mean, if I’ve made things from Japan, Norway and Italy, it just wouldn’t be right to ignore the perennial British favourite. And when it comes to mince pies, the home-made look is what it’s all about, so I’m happy that mine look charmingly rustic.



Mince pies have a long history. They started out as meat pies flavoured with fruits and spices (more likely than not done in the days before refrigeration to mask the taste of meat that was, let us say, less than fresh, rather than for flavour itself). They were banned under Puritanism in the 17th century, and have today morphed into the sweet treats we all know. Many visitors from abroad look at you most curiously when you offer them a mince pie, expecting something savoury, but most tend to like what they find – small pastry tarts filled with a mixture of dried vine fruits, citrus and spices, plus a little brandy to keep everything.

Mincemeat is also not particularly hard to make at home. You just need to gather the ingredients, cook gently in the oven to preserve the fruit (you use applies, and if you don’t cook them, they tend to ferment, with a propensity to make the jars of mincemeat explode in a rather messy way). There is a great recipe from Delia here.

However, this year I’ve been a little bit sneaky. Today is a little bit of a cheat’s recipe as the real hard work – actually making the mincemeat – is skipped ever so artfully by buying it and then just adding a few bits and pieces to customise it and make it a bit fancier. In fact, for this reason I was going to go with the title “Pimp my Mince Pie”. I just went with whatever met my eyes in the kitchen, and as it happened, that involved the zest of a clementine plus the juice, some chopped crystallised ginger and finely diced candied papaya and a spoon of vanilla sugar.

Inspired by the Heston Blumenthal mince pies currently in stores, I also wanted to have a flavoured sugar to dust on top of the finished pies. I toyed with a couple of ideas. Rosemary would be aromatic and sophisticated, but I was not sure it was quite right. Mastic gum would be equally aromatic, but I didn’t go with this one as when you grind it to a powder, it tends to stick to things and get messy. But the third idea was just right – clementine sugar.

I was very make-do-and-mend in my approach to the flavoured sugar. I saved the used peel from the clementine I added to the mincemeat. I trimmed off the pith, shredded the peel and left it overnight in a jar of caster sugar. The next morning – clementine sugar to sprinkle on the mince pies! While this tasted lovely, it had to be dried before use. I sieved the sugar to remove the peel (pop the peel into some mulled wine) then spread it on a plate. Leave to sit in a warm place until dry, then grind to a powder (go as fine as you like). This adds a lovely extra citrus note to the pies, warm or cooled.

For the pastry, I thought I would look to the recipes of master baker Paul Hollywood. His recipe uses lots of butter and some ground almonds, but needs to be chilled for three hours. So long? Yes, as it turns out, so long. The pastry was very soft. Think the texture of peanut butter, more like a paste. It needed to be completely chilled in order to be able to roll it out and cut it. I was dubious that this was going to work, concerned that the pastry would be too fragile to contain the filling during baking or to hold its shape afterwards. However, my fears were baseless. The fragile texture before baking meant that they pastry was wonderfully crumbly and worked perfectly with the filling. So good that it made up for the total pain of working with a pastry that preferred to hang out on the kitchen worktop in a semi-liquid state. Expect frequent trips for this little dough back to the fridge before you’re done!

As for the taste…these were sensational! The mincemeat bursts with citrus and the papaya adds flashes of jewel-bright red. The ginger adds a little warmth, and the brandy and sloe gin are, of course, always welcome.

So there we have it – another series of the Twelve Bakes of Christmas! I hope that you have enjoyed them this year. I’ve probably played fast and loose with the time in the festive season that these things appear on this site (as some people do not feel shy about pointing out!) and made tweaks to recipes that take them away from being truly authentic. However, I’ve tried to make things that are delicious and appealing, and things that I would want to eat and be happy to serve to people who come to my place over the Christmas period. I hope you’re also able to relax and enjoy time with friends and family. wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


To pimp your mincemeat pies:

Makes 12 pies

The filling

• 1 jar mincemeat (400g)
• 1 small clementine, zest and juice
• 2 pieces candied ginger
• 1 small handful candied papaya
• 1 small handful flaked almonds
• 1 teaspoon vanilla sugar
• 1 tablespoon brandy
• 1 tablespoon sloe gin

The pastry

• 165g plain flour
• 25g ground almonds
• 120g unsalted butter, cold
• 55g caster sugar
• 1 egg, beaten

1. Pimp the mincemeat – throw everything in a bowl. Mix well, cover and leave to sit overnight.

2. Make the clementine sugar – remove the remaining orange peel from the used clementine. Cut into thing strips and put into a jam jar with some caster sugar. Seal, shake well and leave to sit overnight as well.

3. Make the pastry – put all the ingredients apart from the egg into a bowl. Work with your fingers until you have a mixture that looks like large breadcrumbs. Add the egg and mix to a soft dough. Cover in cling film and chill for two hours minimum.

4. To make the tarts, preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F). Grease a muffin tray with butter. Roll out two-thirds of the pastry and cut out large circles with a cutter. Use to line the muffin tray. Add around two generous teaspoons of the mincemeat mixture. Use the rest of the dough to cut out lids for the pies. Star shapes are easiest and look great!

5. Brush the tops of the pies with milk, then bake for 20 minutes until golden. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

6. In the meantime, prepare the clementine sugar. Put the sugar into a sieve and shake – you’ll be left with the peel in the sieve. Spread the sugar onto a plate and leave in a warm place to dry. Once dry, grind until fine and use to dust the mince pies.

Worth making? I love these pies! It’s a great way to add more of what you like to the filling – I adore the extra shot of citrus, and there’s nothing quite the same as home-made mince pies.


Filed under Christmas, Recipe, Sweet Things

Pumpkin Pita Pie

When it comes to selecting blogging themes and developing ideas, pretty much everything I do is based on ideas I have or some sort of national or international event (Olympics, Royal Wedding, Norwegian National Day), but from time to time it’s nice to get a suggestion of something new. And so it was then I was recently asked by the folk at Sunvil Supper Club if I wanted to try a recipe for pumpkin pita pie. It sounded rather nice, so I thought I’d give it a go and said yes.

At this point, I’ll share a learning from a now-wiser person – don’t agree to do anything when you are on holiday, as you will feel for a couple of weeks as if you have all the time in the world. Then you arrive back home in your blissed-out state, only to realise you’re up against the baking clock. Eek!

Anyway, this recipe is for a Greek savoury pie combining the sweetness of squash with the saltiness of feta, and enlivened with a dash of mint. It’s all quite easy to make, although I did come up against two little issues during my attempt.

First, the recipe wasn’t too clear about whether I should be using just tinned pumpkin puree, just mashed up butternut squash, or some combination. I think it was a choice, rather than both, and the fact I failed to read the recipe until I got home was a bit of a bummer. I had just come back from the United States, where the shelves were groaning under the weight of tinned pumpkin. But could I find it in Clapham? Nope. I had a look in a few stores, but wherever it was, it was hiding from me, and I just gave up (remember that jet lag?). I went instead for the idea of just mashing up a whole squash. That seemed the way that a Greek granny would do it, so I should do that too.



The second thing I grappled with a little bit was the way that the pie should be formed. I assumed you lined the tin with several layers of pastry, brushing with olive oil between each layer, then dump in the filling, then cover again with more filo. However, it was (inevitably) more complex than that, involving preparing sheets of pastry, brushing with oil, adding a little filling, rolling into a cigar shape, then lining them up in a coil in the pan. Once you know what you’re doing it’s a breeze, but I would advise you not to use a pastry brush for applying the olive oil. Just put the oil into a bowl and dip your palm in there. It’s more fun to do it this way, and your hands will end up nice and soft.

To finish off my pie, I took a bit more filo and tried to wrap it artfully into a sort of swirl on top, and when it came out the oven, it did indeed look golden and inviting. The flavour of the pie is superb – rich sweetness and sharp salt, topped with very crisp pastry, complemented by a green salad (as suggested in the original recipe). This pie is tasty while warm, but is also nice cold, so I’m looking forward to wedges of this over the next few days for lunch.


However, if I were to have another go at this recipe, I’d make one little tweak. Instead of the pie shape, I would instead make smaller fingers of the filling wrapped in filo, like mini savoury strudels. Christmas is just around the corner, and we’ve all the need for handy little recipes that we can use to wow our guests. This should be super-easy to make ahead of time, then just pop into the oven, serve with drinks and enjoy the kudos.

However, if you’re convinced the by the coiling approach, this is how it looks – rather nice, yes?


To make a Pumpkin Pita Pie (adapted, original recipe here):

• 1 large butternut squash (around 500g once peeled)
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 3 onions
• 340g feta, crumbled
• 2 eggs, lightly beaten
• 1 1/2 teaspoons dried mint
• 2 tablespoons uncooked rice or bulgar wheat
• freshly ground black pepper
• 400g filo pastry

Prepare the squash:

1. Peel the squash, remove seeds and chop into chunks. Place in a large bowl with a spoonful of olive oil and mix with your hands until the squash is coated. Put the squash chunks into an overproof dish, and roast in the oven at 200°C (400°F) for around 45 minutes until tender and the edges are just starting to brown. Turn off the heat, and leave the squash until cool (easiest to do this the night before, and leave to cool overnight).

Make the filling:

2. Chop the onions, and saute with two tablespoons of olive oil until they are lightly browned and translucent. Leave to cool.

3. Take the cooled squash and mash or puree as you prefer. I like chunks of squash, so prefer to mash and leave some texture.

4. In a bowl, combine the squash, feta, cooled onions, eggs, mint, black pepper and rice/bulgar wheat. Mix until combined, but make sure you still have visible pieces of feta.

To assemble to pie

5. Preheat the oven to 175°C (350°F). Get hold of a large springform pan (the recipe called for one that was 14 inches (35cm), mine was nearer 9).

6. Take a piece of filo pastry. Lay it lengthways in front of you, and brush olive oil on the lower half (or smear with your hands). Brush again with oil. Add a little of the filling along the middle of the strip, then roll into a cigar. Aim for 1 inch (2.5cm) diameter. Brush with olive oil, or rub with oily hands.

7. Repeat the process, placing each roll into the pan, start at the edge, to build up the pie. You should end up with some sort of spiral. To keep things neat, arrange the rolls with the seam underneath, and lay the coils in the tin as tightly as you can.

8. One all the filling has been used, brush the top of the pie with a little more olive oil, then bake for around 50 minutes until the top of the pie is a rich golden colour.

Worth making?This is a classic flavour combination, and works very well in a pie like this. The mint is a welcome addition. Highly recommended, either as a pie or as the basis for festive party food (just reduce the cooking time).


Filed under Recipe, Savoury

Guest Chef: Onion Tartlets

Very exciting, as today’s recipe is not one of mine, but is something my mum made last time I was visiting up in Scotland. Just a couple of weeks ago, but we still had snow outside, so spent most of the time indoors trying to keep warm. The poor cat didn’t know what was happening – it’s been at the mercy of the white stuff since mid-November.

I digress. This is the classic pairing of sweet, caramelised onions with cheese. The onions as basically shredded (so a bit of weeping is likely), and cooked with a glug of olive oil and a little butter and sugar until they are caramelised. Finish with a glass of white wine and a squeeze of lemon juice, allow the liquid to evaporate, then bake in the oven with cheese. the key here is to go for something with a decent flavour – Gruyère is the usual pairing, but a sharp, tangy cheddar will work just as well. Or if you feel greedy, a bit of both. But the result is great, and really for minimal effort.

Minimal effort? But surely you made the pastry, and that’s a faff! Well…time for a little confession. When we made these, we decided to take the “relaxed” option of using pre-made cases. Making pastry is pretty easy, and something I can do quite happily, but you can also buy some good all-butter pastry cases, and so we did that. Minimal fuss, so rather than all that sift-rub-chill-roll-chill again business, we just had to take care of the onions. As all the cooking is on a gentle heat to allow the flavour of the onions to develop properly, you probably don’t need to spend more than 10 minutes actually working in the kitchen. Spend it with the cat, watching it chase a silver thing on a stick instead!

The result is impressive, tastes great, and you can still bask in the “oh-I-made-them-myself” glory, while saving ourselves quite a lot of the hard work. Just don’t tell the guests! Or if you feel guilty, make your own pastry.

We also thought about some adaptations that I have on my “to do” list – using red onions, replacing the dash of lemon juice with a little balsamic vinegar, and crumbling goats cheese on top before baking. I expect great things!

To make 6 onion tartlets:

• 7 large onions
• 1 tablespoon sugar
• 25g butter
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 glass white wine
• 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
• salt and pepper, to taste
• 6 pastry cases (8-10 cm diameter)

Peel the onions, cut in half, and slice very thinly. Place in a frying pan with the sugar, butter and olive oil, then cover and cook very gently for about an hour, stirring from time to time. The onions are ready once they are soft, translucent and starting to caramelise.

Set the oven to 180°C.

Add a glass of white wine and lemon juice to the onions, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir well, and cook off the liquid.

Divide the onions between the tartlet cases and sprinkle with the cheese. Bake for 10-15 minutes until the top of the cheese has melted and is slightly brown.

Serve warm.

Worth making? These were great little tartlets, wich a rich and flavourful filling. The basic recipe can be easily customised depending on which onions and which cheeses you have to hand. If you’re ambitious, you could easily adapt them into amuse-bouche for those fancy parties we all host these days.


Filed under Guest chef, Recipe, Savoury

Cherry Pie

dum…dum dum dum dum-te-tum dum dum…

Yes, you might recognise that as the theme tune for the classic TV series Twin Peaks. Famous for many things (secrets, lies, Laura Palmer, white horses), but specifically some damn fine cherry pie.

Cherries are now in season here, so what better time to make pie from them? There is a tree on Stoke Newington Church Street which is positively groaning with tantalisingly large, ripe fruit, but sadly it is behind a large metal fence, and so they will remain out of reach. Shame! I could do great things.

What I did manage to get were a few punnets of lovely English cherries from Kent, which are beautiful – deep rich purple in colour, sweet and juicy. A lot of people will only use sour cherries for cherry pie, and while they will give you that wonderful tart-but-sweet pie, you can still easily use sweeter fruit if you add some lemon juice to your pie to give it a little more kick. In this way, you can use sweet black cherries, which makes for a visually stunning pie.

My recipe is pretty simple – an easy pastry with lots of butter, to produce a flaky, buttery result, then a juicy filling with lots of fruit, and just a touch of cinnamon. Sometimes, fruit pies using juicy fruits can be very watery as all the juices come out, but that is easy to deal with. Just cook the cherries in a pot until they release their juice, add the sugar, and then cook briefly with a little cornflour so that you get a thick, glossy pie filling which will lightly set when you bake the pie. The result is something that might even please Agent Cooper.

This looks like quite a lot of work, but it isn’t – I’ve just tried to set out all the steps clearly!

For the pie shell:

• 400g plain flour
• 200g unsalted butter, from the fridge
• 50g caster sugar
• ice cold water

In a bowl, combine the flour, sugar and butter with your hands until it resembles breadcrumbs.

Add enough water until the pastry is just mixed. Cover in cling film, and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

For the filling:

• 800g fresh cherries (I used ripe sweet black cherries)
• 200g granulated sugar
• juice of 1 lemon
• 4-5 teaspoons cornflour
• 2-3 drops of almond extract
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Prepare the cherries by pulling off any stalks and removing the stones. Place the cherries in a saucepan with the sugar and lemon juice, and cook gently until the cherries have released their juice (around 10 minutes).

In a bowl, combine the cornflour with 2 tablespoons of cold water. Add the mixture to the cherries, stir well, and cook the cherries until the liquid thickens. At this stage, add the almond extract and/or cinnamon (if using) and stir well.

To assemble the pie:

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

Roll out half the pastry, and use to line a 23cm pie dish. You want to leave 2-3cm of pastry hanging over the edge of the dish. Pour in the cherry filling. Use a little milk to wet the overhanging pastry.

Roll out the rest of the pastry and use to cover the pie. Make sure the edges of the pie are well sealed, and trim off any pastry. Make a few holes or slits in the top of the pie to release steam when it cooks.

Coat the surface of the pie with a little milk or cream, and sprinkle generously with granulated or demerara sugar.

Bake the pie for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 175°C and bake for a further 25-30 minutes until the crust is golden. Allow to sit for at least an hour before serving with vanilla ice-cream, or a dollop of softly whipped double cream.

Worth making? This pie was incredibly good. The fruit makes for  rich, dark filling, and using the lemon helps to keep it suitably tart and highlights the flavour of the cherries. The pastry is also very easy, and can easily be made ahead of time – perfect if you are off for a country walk and expect to come back with a haul of goodies.


Filed under Recipe, Sweet Things

Spinach Feta Pie

I need to make something simple for lunch today, so it’s time for that old favourite, spinach feta pie. I will avoid referring to this as spanakopita as I am sure I have strayed far enough from the original so as to no longer merit that name! This version is loosely based on the recipe from Ottolenghi’s The New Vegetarian column, but adapted to take account of what I had in the cupboards and fridge and the fact that it’s a bit chilly and I don’t really fancy leaving the house in this weather, especially as the election results continue to roll in.

What makes this a great pie, in my view, is the lemon zest (which lifts it slightly), the cheddar in addition to the feta (for an even stronger cheesy taste) and using a few spices. Super easy, and really, really tasty.

For the spinach feta pie:

• 700g frozen chopped spinach, thawed
• 1 tablespoon olive oil
• 1 onion, chopped
• 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
• 1/2 teaspoon cumin
• 1/2 teaspoon paprika
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 2 tomatoes, deseeded and chopped
• 120g feta, crumbled
• 70g cheddar cheese
• 1 egg, beaten
• 50g butter, melted
• 12 sheets of filo pastry

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Cook the thawed spinach for a few minutes in a little water. Allow to cool, and then squeeze out most of the water.

Fry the onion in the oil until translucent. Add the garlic and cook gently for a few minutes. Add the spices, salt, pepper and the tomatoes, and cook on a moderate heat until any liquid has evaporated and it becomes a thick “sauce”. Put aside to cool.

Combine the cooled spinach, cooled tomato mixture, egg and lemon zest. Add the feta and cheddar and mix well.

Cover the bottom of a rectangular pie dish with six layers of filo pastry, brushing melted butter between each sheet. Let the pastry hang over the edges at this stage. Put the filling into the dish, and cover with another six layers of filo pastry, again brushing butter between each sheet. Brush the top with butter, and trim off any excess pastry.

Bake for 40 minutes until the pastry is golden. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

Worth making? This recipe is very easy and absolutely delicious. It’s great either still warm or once it is cold, so perfect for a day in the park or for a picnic.

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Filed under Recipe, Savoury