"...the two days preceding that on which your sisters are expected will be devoted by Hannah and me to such a beating of eggs, sorting of currants, grating of spices, compounding of Christmas cakes, chopping up of materials for mince-pies, and solemnising of other culinary rites, as words can convey but an inadequate notion of to the uninitiated like you."
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë, Chapter 34
There's something you tend to find with the Brontë sisters - you're either a Charlotte or an Emily fan (all respect to Anne fans, but people do tend to fall into one of those two camps). I do admire and appreciate the literary masterpiece that is Wuthering Heights but, I have to say, Cathy and Heathcliff don't do a whole lot for me. I'd much rather embroil myself in Jane's life - I admire her quiet courage, independence and her discovery of a strong sense of self worth. The Christmas scene above is marvellously evocative - it puts me right in the kitchen with our heroine, preparing my own Christmas alongside her.
I'm a great fan of a mince pie. I'm also well aware that the mince pies described above would have included not only suet, but sirloin. I'm going to take some liberties here and present a modern recipe instead; I have developed my recipe over the past six years with considerable help (as ever) from my Christmas guru - Nigella. I like my mince pies to taste fresh, fruity and spicy, and these are just the ticket - the addition of clementine in the mincemeat and pastry works perfectly.
100g dark brown sugar
1tsp ground ginger
1/2tsp ground cloves
2 small apples, grated
1/4tsp almond extract
90g vegetable shortening
360g plain flour
Icing sugar, to decorate
Sterilised jars or tin for mincemeat storage
Food processor/mixer (or your fingertips)
Shallow cup muffin trays
A fluted biscuit cutter (about 1cm large in diameter than the top of your muffin cups)
A star shaped biscuit cutter (the width of your muffin cups)
1. Place the port and brown sugar in a medium sized saucepan over a low heat. Swirl the pan until the sugar dissolves. Pour in the spices, dried fruit and grated apple then zest and juice the clementines, and add these to the pan too. Cook for around 20 minutes on a medium heat, stirring every so often to ensure the mixture isn't sticking to the bottom. Once the mixture has come together and the liquid has reduced, turn off the heat and add the vanilla and almond extracts, and the honey. Beat well with a wooden spoon. Transfer the mixture to jars (which make a lovely gift) or an airtight tin. This mixture will keep for good few months in a sterilised jar, but can also be used the same day (once cool) if needed.
2. To make the pastry, cut the butter and shortening into chunks, toss through the flour and put the whole lot in the freezer for 20 minutes. While it is chilling, zest and juice the clementines, and place both zest and juice into a glass with a pinch of salt, then place the glass in the fridge. Remove the flour mix from the freezer and blitz in a food processor until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs*. Slowly drizzle the chilled clementine juice into the processor, stopping when the pastry comes together (scoop out the zest and add this if it's stubbornly staying in the glass). If you need more liquid, add some chilled water. Tip the pastry out of the processor, squidge together into a ball, wrap in cling film and chill for at least an hour.
*You can rub the fat into the flour with your fingertips, but try and work quickly and avoid touching the mix with your palms; you want the ingredients to remain as cold as possible.
3. Preheat your oven to 190C. Cut your pastry into quarters, storing it in the fridge until needed. Roll each piece of pastry out between two sheets of baking paper and cut fluted circles and stars out of it, bringing it back together and rolling out again to use it all. Thanks to the vegetable shortening, your pastry shouldn't mind being played around with too much - you can shape, reshape and knead as required. Push each pastry circle into the cups in the tray (it doesn't need greasing, because of the high fat content in the pastry), fill with a tablespoon of the mincemeat, and top with a pastry star, pinching the star points and tart edge together.
4. Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden brown on top. Allow the tarts to cool in the tray, then push one edge (lightly - you don't want to break the pastry) and the tart should pop out. Place on a cooling rack and, once cool, dust with icing sugar before serving.