Mince pies are a type of baked good that originated in the United Kingdom sometime in the Middle Ages. The traditional pie filling consists of meat, fat, fruits and some spices. The filling is placed in a pastry shell, covered and baked. The popularity of mince pies continues in the early 21st century, primarily in Britain, where they are commonly served during the Christmas season. Modern recipes often remove the meat from the filling and instead use only fruits, spices and beef fat.
There are several names for mince pies. They can be known as minced pies, mincemeat pies or Christmas pies. These pies originally were large and made in an oval shape. The pastry shell was referred to as a coffin. As time progressed, the pies reduced in size until they were smaller, single-serving pastries.
The main ingredient used in mince pies is known as mincemeat. It is important to note that there is a distinct difference between modern recipes for mincemeat and mince pie, and the recipe that was historically used. In the past, mincemeat was a collection of chopped meat and dried fruits. Fat from meat, called suet, was added to this along with spices such as cloves, cinnamon, mace and allspice.
Mincemeat also could include liquids such as vinegar, wine or brandy. This mixture was used to help preserve meats for storage. Many times, the mincemeat is aged to promote fermentation and merge the flavors, adding more overall sweetness to the mixture. A properly packaged and preserved batch of mincemeat can last more than 10 years.
Over time, variations of the classic mincemeat recipe emerged. Most notably, many recipes began to remove meat from the mixture. Instead, only beef suet or butter was added to the traditional fruits and spices to provide some savory taste element. In modern times, butter or vegetable oils are often called for instead of suet.
Mince pies are thought to have emerged in Britain when soldiers returned from the Crusades. They brought back many Eastern cooking styles, one of which was the tradition of mixing sweet and savory foods in a single dish. While there is some speculation on the subject, there is no clear explanation as to why mince pies became associated with Christmas.
When making mince pie, there are certain English traditions that have developed over time. One tradition is that everyone in the family, or in the home, should stir the pot at least once. While stirring, they can make a wish for the coming new year. When the pot is stirred, it should always be in a clockwise direction, because counter-clockwise stirring is an indication of bad luck.