Mince pies are a traditional British Christmas treat, but they have a long and surprising history. They were not always sweet, round or filled with dried fruits and spices. In fact, they used to be savoury, rectangular, and made with minced meat.
The history of mince pies can be traced back to medieval times when pies were a common way of cooking and preserving meat. The pastry crust was often discarded after eating the filling, which consisted of finely chopped meat, honey, dried fruits and spices.
The shape of mince pies changed in the Tudor period when they were made to resemble a manger and had a pastry baby Jesus on top.
The mince pie became rounder and sweeter after the Reformation when the religious connotations were discouraged.
And the meat was replaced by suet, and the dried fruits and spices became more prominent. Sugar also became more widely available, adding to the sweetness of the pies.
Here, the Christmas.co.uk team explain more about mince pies which are a delicious and festive dessert that can be enjoyed by everyone.
What is mince pie filling made of?
The ‘mincemeat’ filling is a fruity combination of raisins, grated apple and mixed citrus peel with a splash of brandy and lemon. There are, of course, variations on this recipe. In recent years, food retailers have developed quirky takes on the classic recipe, adding salted caramel, extra orange or chocolate.
For convenience, mincemeat can be bought readymade in big jars. But if you’re making your own, make it an end of summer ritual as by the time December arrives, the flavours will have developed, and your mince pies will be showstoppers.
Do traditional mince pies have meat in them?
Modern mince pies do not have meat in them, though it’s surprising how many people think they do.
However, vegetarians and vegans should beware!
Some mince pies are made with suet, the fat that can be found around a cow’s kidneys, though most supermarket mince pies will use vegetarian suet instead.
Which pastry is best for a mince pie?
Buttery shortcrust pastry with a sprinkling of sugar is the most common type of pastry for mince pies, especially shop-bought.
Often, the lid of a mince pie is decorative. Lattice tops which show the rich fruit glistening beneath are popular and flaked almonds with cherry jam underneath make divine frangipane mince pies.
Flaky or puff pastry can be used for mince pies, though you will find that, once baked, they will be flatter and much less uniform than shortcrust mince pies.
How did mince pies become part of the Christmas tradition?
If you travelled back in time to the Middle Ages, you would find that a traditional mince pie would have been filled with finely chopped meat, dried fruit and a preserving liquid such as brandy.
It was a good way of making meat such as pork, beef or lamb last throughout the year without having to smoke or cure it, which was a costly process.
Originally, the traditional mince pie we know and love was savoury. The ‘meat’ was just that. During the time of the Tudor Kings and Queens, mince pies were an integral part of the Christmas feast, and they were shaped to look like the manger in which baby Jesus slept.
In homage to the adult Jesus and his 12 disciples, mince pies were filled with 13 ingredients. Lamb or mutton represented the shepherds at the nativity and the spices were in honour of the three wise men.
During the Reformation, the religious symbolism of the mince pie became less important, and the shape changed to the round pie we eat today.
In the Middle Ages, mixing meat and fruit was commonplace.
In fact, it wasn’t until Victorian times that meat was removed from the festive mince pie recipe.
Though they did add a couple of charming rituals to mince pie making and eating that is still cherished by modern families.
For example, you should make a wish when you eat your first mince pie of the season, and when making the mix, only stirring the mince meat in clockwise direction will bring good luck. Oh, and the pies should never be cut with a knife.
Homemade mince pie recipes
Good Housekeeping has a fantastic recipe for make and freeze mince pies. On a quiet weekend in November, before the festive chaos starts, make a few batches of these and future you will be very glad you did.
Juice and zest of half a lemon and orange
450 g of Bramley apples that have been peeled, cored and chopped
150 g of soft brown sugar
200 ml of cider
75 g of chopped glacé cherries
1 tsp mixed spice
150 g of currants
150 g of raisins
2 tbsp of Grand Marnier
Icing sugar for dusting
- Cut 250 g cold butter into cubes
- Sift 400 g plain flour
- 100 g of caster sugar
- Beat 1 egg and have 2 large egg yolks
- Finely grated zest of 1 large orange
- 100 ml double cream
Put the citrus juice and zest, cider and apples in a pan. Bring the mix to a boil before simmering for 10 minutes. Add the spice, brown sugar, currants and raisins and continue stirring over a low heat. When the sugar dissolves remove from the pan from the heat, add the liqueur – if you are using it – along with the cherries and allow to cool.
For the pastry, put the butter and flour in a food processor and whiz this until it looks like breadcrumbs. Add the zest and sugar and whiz again. Then add cream plus egg yolks and while whizzing, add the flour until the mixture begins to clump together. Briefly knead the mixture before wrapping in cling film and chilling for 30 minutes. With some flour, dust a worktop and roll the pastry out so it is 3mm (1⁄8in) thick. Then make 24 pastry rounds with a 9cm (3½in) cutter and use these to line the holes in a 24 bun tray. Add 1dsp of mincemeat to each one.
Preheat your oven to 190ºC (170ºC fan) mark 5. Then press 12 circles with an 8cm (3¼in) cutter and 12 stars with a star cutter.
With water, brush the base rims and top the pies with either a circle (You will have to cut a slit in the circles) or a star, then brush with one beaten egg. Chill the trays in a fridge for 30min then cook for 15-20min until the tops are golden. Leave for five minutes before turning out onto wire racks for cooling and when cool, use icing sugar to dust them. You can now serve your mince pieces cold or warm.
How do you make Mary Berry’s mince pies? Watch the video below to delight your guests, they are traditional with a twist and incredibly moreish.
Mary’s mince pies with a twist | Mary Berry’s Absolute Favourites
We love this recipe from Mary Berry which offers a mince pie with a twist.
She uses mincemeat and adds orange to hit the taste spot.
Every step is easy to follow, and we found it is more-or-less foolproof.
Adding a zest of orange to the pastry is a winner!
Mary rolls out the pastry thinly, cuts the pie shapes and advises that this cutter should be larger than the tin shape so the pie can expand.
There’s also a great tip that you should prick the base of the pastry in the tin rather than greasing the tin.
These pies look different with a crisp bottom (Copyright Great British Bake Off. Probably.).
What do mince pies go well with?
How do you eat yours? The Christmas.co.uk team could argue about this for hours.
A mince pie can be served warm with a splodge of boozy brandy butter or with a huge spoon of clotted cream.
For some, the only way to eat a mince pie is with rum and raisin ice cream, for others it HAS to be crumbly white cheese.
Mince pies are a thing of beauty on their own, however, whether it’s custard or squirty cream, they are the perfect partner for lots of other sweet treats.