Well, after what seems like months of the usual preamble featuring overhyped retailer ads, a poultry food scare, a badly staged Christmas Extravaganza, and pre-Christmas sales craziness, December is finally upon us. Although the supermarkets have been stocking chipolatas and chestnuts for months, I think the embargo on Christmas recipes can now been lifted and we can dive straight into a month of mulled wine, cranberries, and mince pies. There's just one problem. I hate hate hate mince pies.
A couple of months ago my friend who is the Food Editor of UK foodie mag Delicious asked me if I wanted to take part in a mince pie challenge for their Christmas issue. To be honest, the thought of testing a load of mince pies to come up with the ultimate recipe left me retching and I politely declined, however she managed to convince me to develop a mince pie for mince pie haters like myself and after considering it for a while, I accepted the challenge.
What is it that I hate about mince pies? Well it's the cloying, overly sweet filling with its dried fruit and candied peel. It's the same reason I hate Christmas pudding and fruit cake which, let's face it, is a bit of a problem this time of year. I still wanted to create something with familiar Christmas spices, but I wanted to play around with the filling and move away from traditional mincemeat in favour of more Middle Eastern flavours, after all it is the region that provides the backdrop to the nativity story. Out went raisins and candied peel and in came dates, cardamom, pistachios and rosewater. I also wanted to recreate the aromas of a blazing log fire for that added Christmassy feel , so I brought in some smokiness by marinating sultanas in Lapsang Souchong tea. For the topping, I wanted each little pie to have a snowy top, so I created a smokey spiced marshmallow topping which, when warmed in an oven, would soften and ooze over the filling. In the end I was quite pleased with what I had created, although the ones I made for judging weren't as good as the previous batch I'd made for testing. Unfortunately though there was no time to do another batch.
I headed to London for a photoshoot where three different mince pies were to be judged by John Farrand, the MD of the Guild of Fine Foods, and Richard Bertinet, French master baker. My left-field pies were up against two traditional pies baked by a Granny and a Blogger.
In the end, Granny won the best mince pie competition with her traditional pie and mincemeat filling. I wasn't too bothered though, as my version wasn't trying to be a mince pie, and the experience allowed me to develop a new recipe for Christmas.
Unfortunately the recipe and pictures of my pies never made it into the magazine, although there is a nice pic of me which is the most important thing, of course!
Eastern Christmas Pies
Makes 24 mini pies
This is my version of the traditional mince pie, inspired by the three kings of the nativity story and the ingredients common to the region they came from. The pies are topped with a smokey, spiced marshmallow to evoke the aromas of a log fire burning in the hearth on Christmas day.
For the pastry
125g cold butter, diced
250g plain flour
1 medium egg
Approx. 1-2 tbsp water
Pinch of salt
For the mincemeat
2 lapsang souchong teabags infused in 75ml boiling water for 15 minutes
75g chopped dates
1.5 tbsp Cointreau
1/4 tsp concentrated rosewater mixed with 1tsp water
25g pistachios, chopped
1 black fresh fig diced
45g diced bramley apple
3 pinches ground cardamom
1.5 tsp veg suet
For the marshmallow topping (there will enough mixture to make extra marshmallows)
1 egg white
225g granulated sugar
½ tbsp. liquid glucose
1 sachet powdered gelatine (about 12g)
3 lapsang souchong teabags infused in 100ml boiling water
¼ tsp ground mixed spice
2 tbsp cornflour
2 tbsp icing sugar
To make the mincemeat, pour the 75ml of lapsang souchong infused water over the sultanas. In a separate bowl, mix the rosewater with the Cointreau and pour over the dates. Allow both to macerate for 24hours.
Drain the sultanas of all the surrounding liquid then roughly chop and place in a mixing bowl. Add the dates, chopped pistachios, diced fig, apple, suet and cardamom . Taste and add more rosewater or cardamom if required. Reserve until needed.
To make the pastry,
Pulse the butter with the flour and salt in a food processor until it resembles breadcrumbs. Combine the egg and water and add to processor, pulsing to combine. Turn the dough out onto a worktop and bring together into a ball.
Roll out the pastry to about 2mm thickness. Using a pastry cutter, cut out rounds of pastry large enough to fill 24 cups of a mini tartlet tray. Press the pastry evenly into the trays. When the whole tray is full, chill in the fridge for 30 mins. Turn on the oven to 160°C
Remove the pastry tray from the fridge, then fill each cup with mincemeat. Place in the oven and bake for 15-18 minutes. Remove and cool on a wire rack.
While the pies are cooking, make the marshmallow topping
Boil 100ml of water and add 3 lapsang souchong teabags. Leave to infuse for 30 minutes. Remove the teabags and squeeze out any liquid to ensure you still have 100ml. There is also a product called Liquid Smoke which you can add to the 100ml water instead of the tea Just a few drops though as it is powerful stuff.
Place the 50ml water in a small bowl then sprinkle the gelatine over the top. Allow the gelatine to ‘bloom’ by absorbing the water and reserve until needed.
Place the laspsang water in a small saucepan with the sugar and liquid glucose, and over a low heat allow to dissolve. Once all the sugar and glucose has dissolved turn the heat up to boil the liquid. Using a sugar thermometer, wait until the temperature reaches 117°C then start to beat the egg white in a stand mixer to a stiff peak. When the sugar syrup reaches 122°C take it off the heat and add the gelatine, stirring to combine. It will froth up at this point. With the whisk still running at full speed, pour the syrup into the egg white begin careful not to pour onto the whisk itself. Leave the whisk running for 15-20 minutes while the mixture slowly cools down.
Place a round nozzle in a plastic piping bag. Combine the icing sugar and cornflour and dust the inside of the piping bag. Transfer the marshmallow to the piping bag.
When the pies are cool, pipe peaks of marshmallow directly onto the mincemeat, pulling upwards to get slightly spiked tops which should flop. Dust with edible glitter and gold shimmer spray for a ‘toasted’ look. Leave for a couple of hours so that the marshmallow sets.
To serve reheat in a hot oven for 5 minutes but no longer. The marshmallow should retain its shape but turn lovely and gooey inside!
Warning: These are cakes with no real nutritional value. Fine to eat every now and again, but don't eat too many!