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Catholic Recipe: Little Mince Pies

    INGREDIENTS

  • Short Crust Pastry
  • 2 1/2 cups sifted all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup vegetable shortening
  • 5 tablespoons cold water, approximately  

    Filling

  • Mince Meat (homemade or canned)
  • Details

  • Yield: 10-12 pies
  • Prep Time: N/A
  • Difficulty:
  • Cost: N/A
  • For Ages: 3+
  • Origin: England

Christmas in England is unthinkable without plenty of little mince pies. According to old superstition the Twelve Daysthe period between Christmas and Epiphany-mirror the entire year, and country people predict one happy month during the next twelve for each pie you eat at a neighbor's between December 25 and January 6. Probably the happiness increases with the number of pies consumed. I have yet to meet a North Country woman who-in July or August-does not still boast of the quantity of little mince pies she turned out at Christmas.

The ancestor of the modern little mince pie was a huge affair that sometimes weighed over a hundred pounds and bulged with "neats' tongues, chicken eggs, raisins, orange and lemon peel," in addition to quantities of sugar and spice. Robert Herrick wrote a motto in which he whimsically suggests that we bury our sorrows in the Christmas pie:

"Without the door let Sorrow lie, And if for cold it hap to die, We'll bury it in a Christmas pie And evermore be merry!"

Many seventeenth-century English notables relished mince pies not only at Christmas time, but on other festive occasions. On January 6, 1662, Samuel Pepys comments in his Diary on dining with Sir William Pen, who celebrated his wedding anniversary with ". . . eighteen mince pies in a dish, the number of years that he hath been married."

The Christmas pie was so important in early English holiday celebrations that in Herrick's day a night watch was appointed to guard the pies against butterfingered thieves. As the poet writes in the Hesperides:

Come, guard this night the Christmas-pie That the thief, though ne'er so slie, With his flesh-hooks don't come nie, To catch it.

Today mince pies are universally popular. But in Cromwell's time, when mince pies were known, also, as Christmas pies, the Puritans condemned them as "an hodge-podge of superstition." The crust, or "coffin," as early English cookbooks call it, was rectangular in shape. This, it was claimed, represented the Christ Child's manger, while the costly spices in the filling symbolized the offerings of the Magi.

For over a hundred years mince pies were a center of stormy theological discussion. Religious tracts were even issued "to preach down superstitious minc'd pyes." An attempt was made to bar the clergy from enjoyment of the unholy fare. The dispute reached impassioned heights. Indignant chaplains to the nobility reasoned that what was food for the flock should be food for the shepherd!

The little mince pies of modern England bear slight resemblance to the huge creations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Individual mince pies are a happy reminder of holiday entertaining. Make plenty of them, since they keep when stored and are easily reheated to their original freshness. Serve them hot with a glass of wine; or have them for evening refreshments, accompanied by coffee, or eggnog, and wedges of sharp cheese. The young will enjoy little mince pies with mugs of hot chocolate and bowls of buttered popcorn, when they gather about the fireplace for holiday get-togethers.

DIRECTIONS

Sift together flour and salt. Add half the shortening and cut it in with fork or pastry blender until mixture is consistency of coarse meal. Add remaining shortening and blend until particles are size of a pea. Add water, a tablespoon at a time, and work particles together with a fork. Add just enough water to moisten. Press dough into ball, handling no more than necessary. Roll out thinly on floured pastry cloth.

Line patty tins with pastry, fitting it in lightly. Trim edges evenly, leaving an extra inch around the edge. Fill shells with mincemeat, homemade or prepared, heaping it in the center. Roll out pastry for top crusts, cutting around saucer or small plate of correct size. Fold rounds in half, cut several slits and place over filling. Brush edges of crust with water and seal with tines of fork. Brush top of pies with milk. Bake about 20 minutes in hot oven (400? F.), or until done.

Recipe Source: Feast-Day Cakes from Many Lands by Dorothy Gladys Spicer, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960
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