Last week, I made a real, honest-to-goodness mincemeat pie.
It had venison in it, and a bunch of spices and fruits, and a thick, flakey crust, and it was staggeringly good. I was just a little bit surprised, I have to admit.
For some people, maybe, the idea that ground meat and sugar and fruit are going to meld together in the oven into something delicious makes total sense. Unfortunately, I have never been one of them. Mincemeat pie, ever since I started watching Friends at the age of about fourteen, has always reminded me of the episode when the cookbook pages get stuck together and Rachel makes half an English trifle and half a shepherd pie. She is a little bit puzzled but puts it all together anyway—a big, layered dessert with ladyfingers, custard, jam, and—horror of horrors—beef sautéed with peas. Then she tries to convince everyone to eat it by telling them it's the same idea as mincemeat pie.
Needless to say, this was not an overly winning introduction.
But the other day, I pulled something out of the freezer labeled "burger '09." Once it had thawed out, Alex informed me that it was actually venison from a deer shot locally, by a friend. It seemed wrong to waste it, and so I called my mother, who called her friend Sally, who said she knew just the thing: mincemeat.
Sally, as it turns out, is a big mincemeat fan. She makes jars and jars of it each December and gives them out as Christmas gifts. She has to bargain for the meat, usually, by giving a jar in exchange, but since most traditional mincemeat recipes make 20 pints of preserves, this is a fairly good trade. She gave my parents a jar a while back, and she told them that the trick is to cut the mincemeat with apples when you make the pie, so that the filling gets the flavor and the heft of the sweet meat preserve but has a solid apple base.
Mostly, this is because an all-mincemeat pie is a little too heavy for most people these days. The recipe Sally uses came from a man named Azel Adams, who used to live in Western Maine, in a place called West Forks. She recorded him on cassette a while back for a book, talking about recipes that kept him going when he worked in the 1920s and 1930s in the winter woods. Mincemeat, apparently, used to be a sort of power food—meat and sugar and fruit slapped between two biscuits for a hearty January lunch. Most of us, as Sally pointed out, don't really need that sort of midday meal to keep us going any more.
But we do need pie. And toned down with apples and served with a hunk of cheddar cheese, mincemeat pie, as it turns out, can sometimes be just the thing.
[for modern-day lightweights]
I adapted this from The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book by Fannie Merritt Farmer. In the header of the very old, very dilapidated copy of this book my mother picked up for me a few years back, Fannie calls this recipe "Quick Mincemeat." Based on what Sally told me, I'm guessing this is because traditionally, making mincemeat was a huge, once-a-year production. Whereas most recipes make enough for twenty pies, this one makes filling for only one. For mincemeat beginners, I think that's just enough.
for the mincemeat:
1 cup apples, chopped
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup cranberries
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon molasses
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup venison or beef stock
1 cup ground venison, cooked
2 tablespoons fruit jam or jelly (I used cranberry apple, but I'm not sure it matters much)
for the pie:
2 cups mincemeat
5 cups apples, chopped
1 nine-inch pie crust, top and bottom
Combine all of the mincemeat ingredients except the cooked venison and the fruit jam in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Bring everything to a boil over medium heat, and then turn the burner down as low as it goes and simmer the mixture for 45 minutes to an hour. Keep a close eye on it during this time, stirring frequently, as you would a jam. As the mixture loses moisture, it will become increasingly thick and sticky and can burn if you aren't paying attention. When it gets to be the consistency of a runny jam, add the venison and the jam and simmer it for another 15 minutes or so, until it cooks into a nice, thick preserve. Turn off the heat, and allow the mincemeat to cool to room temperature.
To make the pie, first preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Then combine the mincemeat—the recipe above should make about 2 cups—with the 5 cups of sliced apples. Mix the two up well so that the mincemeat coats the apples. Any crust will work, but the best choice would be one that is thick and flaky, and more salty than sweet. Roll out the bottom crust, drape it over the pie plate, and spoon the filling in. Then roll out the top crust and drape it over the filling, making sure to pinch the edges and cut a few slits in the top to let steam out. Bake the pie for 25-30 minutes at 400, then turn the temperature down to 325 and bake another 25-30 minutes, or until the crust is golden and the filling is thick.
Eat the pie warm or at room temperature, served with a thick, sharp slice of cheddar cheese.