In 1907, a Chicago man was arrested for shooting his wife in the head. A pie, he said, made him do it—mincemeat pie.
In those days, newspapers praised the blubbery dish, packed with a weeks-old concoction of beef suet (raw, marbled fat), chopped meat, raisins and spices, doused with brandy, according to Chicago Reader journalist Cliff Doerksen, who researched the pie's history.
But the media also warned of the potential dangers of a gluttonous appetite, including severe indigestion, uncontrollable nightmares and death.
All seemed to have been the case for Albert Allen, the aforementioned Chicago man. Doerksen's article includes his plea in court:
"I ate three pieces of mince pie at 11 o'clock and got to dreaming that I was shaking dice. The other fellow was cheating and I tried to shoot his fingers off. When I awoke, I was holding the pistol in my hand and my wife was shot."
Mincemeat pie, which originated in England, became a staple in American homes by way of British settlers, enjoyed the way any expat would relish in a taste of home. Although mincemeat pie isn't photogenic, an ad in Fanny Farmer's 1933 Boston Cooking-School Cook Book beamed: "There is an indescribable 'something' about grandmother's Mince Meat which is never forgotten."
At Riverside Restaurant in Hillsborough, owners Leon and Dorothy Lea vaguely remember mincemeat pie. "That's old-fashioned food," Dorothy says. "You didn't really like it. You just grew up on it."
She never made it herself but she thinks of three of her aunts, all older than 75, and picks up the phone. I speak with two, who both tell me their mothers also made it. They didn't like it.
Leon recalls a gamey meat in his family's version, which he thinks was rabbit.
I ask around and find a resounding aversion to mincemeat pie. No one still makes it—well, almost no one.
"Hi, this is Lauren, Eric Hodge's wife," began the voicemail. And here's where her voice bellowed, balancing from jovial to serious, rivaling that of her husband's famous newscaster inflection. Drawing out every word, she declared: "I'm calling to defend the mince pie."
Lauren's two-big-bite version looks cute, fluffy and harmless. Lauren grew up in England, where she loved cooking classes at her prep school so much that she knows scone and shortbread recipes by heart. She makes her own mince, which requires at least three weeks to settle. She also waits for a shipment of shredded beef suet from her brother in London. It includes "a lot of brandy. It doesn't go off. It stays literally for years, there's so much alcohol in it."
A flaky crust kissed by citrus, sweet raisins, zesty currants, a dollop of sugar-whipped cream cheese and the smooth, familiar, mouth feel of lard made me a believer in this complex, decadent pastry.
"It's part of a deep culture of comfort food and sustaining food," Lauren says.
"It's quite good with a glass of port," Eric suggests, admitting he eats about four in one sitting.
Try Lauren Hodge's version at home. For ready-made-from-scratch pies for purchase, I found two local sources. Durham's Hummingbird Bakery will have them ready by Dec. 10. Chef Amy Tornquist's recipe hails from her stint cooking at the British embassy in Paris. At Fearrington House in Pittsboro, British-born Chef Colin Bedford treats all holiday guests to his special, bite-size recipe as a savory dessert.
Lauren Hodge says she has to substitute some ingredients that she can't find in the U.S. Her brother sends her shredded beef suet from London. Hodge also has rendered her own suet: Melt beef fat, available at from Cliff's Meat Market in Carrboro, and then strain through cheesecloth to remove any bits. Let it cool and harden in the fridge. Grate or finely chop it.
To make mixed citrus peel, use grated zest of lemon and of orange.
Also, muffin tins tend to be too deep; buy patty tins, if possible, available at cooking stores or from Amazon.com.
1 lb. seedless raisins
1 1/2 lbs. currants
3/4 lb. lean steak, all fat trimmed off and then minced (ground)
1 1/2 lbs. shredded beef suet, as above
1 lb. soft dark brown sugar
4 oz. chopped mixed citrus peel
Half of a nutmeg
2 lbs. cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped finely
Grated rind and juice of a lemon
1/4 pint, or a little more, of brandy
Thoroughly mix all the ingredients in the order given. Stir in the lemon juice and brandy. Press closely into jars to exclude air. Leave for at least two weeks before using.
ORANGE PASTRY CRUST
Makes enough for 24 pies
1 lb. all-purpose flour
12 oz. butter, chilled
Grated rind of 1 large orange
Juice of one orange
Cut the butter into the flour and rub with your fingertips until it resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the grated rind. With a knife, stir the orange juice into the pastry until it just begins to stick together (if there is not enough juice, add a little bit of cold water). Gather into a ball, wrap in foil and place in the fridge for half an hour or more before using.
8 oz. cream cheese
2 oz. fine sugar
1 lb. orange pastry
1 lb. mincemeat
A spot of milk
Granulated sugar for dusting
Butter for greasing tins
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Put the cream cheese and sugar into a bowl and beat until smooth. Knead the pastry lightly and roll it thick. Using a 3-inch fluted pastry cutter, cut out 24 rounds, re-rolling the pastry as necessary. Line greased patty tins with the rounds.
Fill to about half their depth with mincemeat. Put a teaspoon of the beaten cheese cream mixture on top of the mincemeat and smooth over. Roll out the remaining pastry and with a 2 1/4-inch fluted pastry cutter, cut another 24 rounds.
Moisten the underside of the rounds with water and a pastry brush, and place them on top of the pies. Press the edges lightly together, or pinch them together to make a fluted pattern and make a small slit in the top of each pie. Brush with cold milk and bake in the center of the oven for 15-20 minutes or until light golden brown.
Let the pies cool before gently easing them from the tins with a round-bladed knife or small spatula onto a cooling rack.
Before serving warm—which is best—or cold, sprinkle them generously with sugar. Serve with rum butter.