No, not that Will, sorry. We haven’t unearthed a long-lost Elizabethan recipe from Stratford-upon-Avon. We should say our very own Research Fellow and Lecturer, Dr Will Tosh, has been busy in the kitchen baking up a Christmas storm with his Granny’s mince pie recipe. Find out how to make your own sweet-meats, and learn the history behind one of our much-loved (and much-eaten) festive traditions. Here’s Will to do the honours…
6 | CHRISTMAS BAKE: WILL'S GRANDMOTHER'S HOMEMADE MINCE PIES.
I’ll be honest: thinking up Shakespeare-themed Christmas content is an annual headache, given that most of our festive traditions are nineteenth-century innovations or imports.
Thank heavens then for mince pies, bona fide revenants of a style of celebration cooking well-known to Shakespeare: a coffin of pastry (yes, really, that was the term) surrounding a potent sticky compound of all things sweet, scented, far-flung and expensive. True, Shakespeare’s mince pies probably contained as much real meat as fruit, but the principles were there.
‘For Shakespeare, dried fruit and spices were the valuable products of merchant-venturing in the eastern Mediterranean’
For Shakespeare, dried fruit and spices were the valuable products of merchant-venturing in the eastern Mediterranean. England’s taste for sugar was soon to drive the development of a genocidal slave economy in the Americas, but during Shakespeare’s life it was more likely to come in small and costly shipments from Madeira or Morocco.
Food fit for early modern banqueting needed to have a distant provenance to distinguish it from everyday local fare. In The Winter’s Tale the young shepherd is sent to do the shopping for a sheep-shearing feast with a list that doesn’t sound very different to an Ocado order for the Christmas baking weekend: sugar, currants, raisins, dates, prunes saffron, mace, nutmeg and ginger. In Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle Mr Merrythought – whose every disturbing utterance is a proclamation of insane good cheer – ascribes his Rudolfian ‘jolly red nose’ to ‘nutmegs and ginger, cinnamon and cloves’, key ingredients in early modern party foods and still the flavour profile of most things Christmassy.
I can’t pretend my recipe has a pedigree that stretches back to Shakespeare, but it’s got some historical lineage. It belonged to my grandmother, Rosamond Sillem, known as Rob, who died many years ago at an advanced age and who carried with her an air of the Edwardian world in which she was brought up (she was born in 1904).
‘In The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Mr Merrythought ascribes his Rudolfian ‘jolly red nose’ to ‘nutmegs and ginger, cinnamon and cloves’, key ingredients in early modern party foods and still the flavour profile of most things Christmassy’
I suppose I should now reveal in the life of my Granny some unexpected Shakespearean connection. There is none. Fond as she was of quoting the literature she loved as a girl, Shakespeare for her was a matter of admiration rather than adoration (her passions were Walter Scott and Rudyard Kipling, neither of whom have a social media operation as sophisticated as Shakespeare’s).
But none of this matters because Granny’s mince pies were the best I’ve ever tasted. Well into old age she remained an industrial baker, arriving on Christmas morning with four, even five dozen pies packed into tins, although she might not have been quite so productive if it wasn’t for incessant badgering from me and my brother. I now suspect Granny would rather not have spent hours bent over a rolling pin at the age of 91, but we were unthinkingly self-absorbed children.
‘I urge you to become a mince pie-making machine this Christmas, as I happily do for my family, and think about Elizabethan feast days past’
Nonetheless I urge you to become a mince pie-making machine this Christmas, as I happily do for my family. The recipe below makes exquisite little orange-scented pies, the crisp pastry pleasingly savoury against the intensely sweet mincemeat. Granny made hers with homemade mincemeat and old-fashioned lard; I use Trex. The important thing is to incorporate, in addition to the butter, a fat with minimal water content, as that ensures maximum flakiness. Be prepared for the pie tops to rise proud of their cases, like discs of wannabe puff pastry. The pies are best eaten slightly warm, as you scatter flakes over the carpet and think about Elizabethan feast days past.
Mix the flour and salt in a large bowl. Cube the butter and Trex, and rub them into the flour with your fingers or a pastry blender. Don’t try to reduce the mixture to sand, but smash the fat into the flour to make flattish shreds. Stir in the orange zest.
Halve the orange, and squeeze the juice of the first half into the bowl. Using a knife, begin to bring the pastry together, adding the juice of the second half if necessary. Keep mixing, switching from the knife to your hand and pressing the pastry into a mass to form a scrappy ball (if you must, you can add a dribble of cold water – but only a dribble!).
Scrape the pastry onto a sheet of wax wrap or clingfilm, pressing in errant crumbs. Wrap it up and shape into a slab; a firm hand here helps the pastry cohere. Refrigerate for an hour.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C and butter a 12-hole shallow bun tin.
On a lightly-floured surface, roll the pastry into a sheet about 3mm thick. Cut 12 rounds with a 7cm cutter, and press them into the bun tin.
Fill each with a heaping teaspoonful of mincemeat. Cut 12 lids with a 5cm cutter and place on top, pressing down gently (you’ll have some off-cuts of pastry left over). You can crimp the joins together if you want; I like to leave the tops sitting slightly proud of the bases for a better rise in the oven.
Brush the tops with milk, and cut a small hole in the top of each pie with the tip of a pair of kitchen scissors. Bake in the oven for 18-20 minutes, until golden and very crisp.
Leave for a few minutes in the tin to settle, then carefully prise them out and allow the pies to cool on a wire rack.
I eat these pies as nature intended, but there’s nothing to stop you lifting the lid and adding a few drops of whisky. A smear of brandy butter under the lid is also a good idea, especially if the pies are still warm (they reheat very well, incidentally: just give them 5 minutes at 160 degrees C).
We have 50 £5 tickets on offer for Christmas at the (Snow) Globe. One of the ingredients listed in the recipe above is the promo code you need to unlock the £5 tickets. Can you guess which one it is?
The all important Terms and Conditions…
- The discount will be applied to the first 50 customers to add standard price tickets for Christmas at the (Snow) Globe to their basket using the correct ingredient as the promo code
- If you choose the wrong ingredient, you’ll be informed of this before you add tickets to your basket and will have the opportunity to try again
- The discount can only be used online at shakespearesglobe.com and cannot be applied retrospectively
- This offer cannot be used for purchasing the film as a gift or for classroom tickets and is limited to one ticket per customer
- Our standard ticketing Terms and Conditions also apply