Sure, you could buy it in a tub – hell, you could just buy a packet of ready-made pies – but that’s not the point. The point is Christmas contentment.
I love a lot of things about Christmas in the United States. I love the cold, (sometimes) snowy weather in the Northeast. I love the bushy, unnaturally triangular firs that are grown here for Christmas trees. I love holiday sweaters. I love novelty pyjamas. I even love the months-long proliferation of holiday-themed food (sugar plum danish, anyone?).
What I don’t love is the lack of Christmas mince pies. They are completely absent. Generally when I tell someone about them, I have to also explain the very concept of fruit mince. And it’s not that easy to explain, even to people who are fine with pumpkin as a dessert. I’ve never seen fruit mince or Christmas mince pies in stores. And there are plenty of foods from home that I can manage just fine without, but Christmas mince pies are not among them.
Even when I lived in New Zealand, I generally made my own pies – following my mother’s recipe for buttery-soft, melt-in-your-mouth pastry. But until moving to the US four years ago, I had never even considered making my own fruit mince to fill them. Much like hummus, or peanut butter, I knew theoretically you could make it at home, it just never occurred to me why you would.
Well, thanks to necessity being the mother of doing things the long way, I am now in my fourth year of making homemade fruit mince, so I feel qualified to tell you it is easy, delicious, fragrant as all get-out and probably the most Christmassy thing you will ever make. It smells like making spiced apple cider, eggnog, and gingerbread at the same time. It smells like a Starbucks seasonal latte exploded in your kitchen – but in a good way. It smells like Christmas. And tastes like it, too.
Here’s how you do it.
First, go to the liquor store and buy whatever brandy you are comfortable with based on price or your level of sophistication as a drinker (my standard approach is to carefully consider the options before choosing a small bottle of the second-to-cheapest.)
Next, assemble your ingredients. After some trial and error, and a forgettable flirtation with pears, I’ve settled on granny smith apples for the base of my fruit mince. I use about six apples, peeled and grated. (This recipe will fill about four dozen small pies.) Add the zest and juice of two oranges and a lemon. Then four cups of dried fruit – I go heavier on the sultanas, and then equal parts currants and raisins.
All this goes in a large pot. It’s an enormous amount of fruit. You’ll feel like it’s too much fruit. It’s not though. It’ll cook down to be perfect. Put the heat on low, and once it starts to warm you’ll get a wonderful sweet, orangey, fruity smell. Stir in two cups of brown sugar. It will feel like too much sugar. It’s not though. You could add more if you like your fruit mince sweeter. Now cut about 250g of butter into chunks and dot it around the fruit, and then add the spices: two teaspoons each of cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Stir it all in. That spiced-apple smell will start to permeate your whole house.
Pour in half a cup of brandy. It feels like a lot of brandy! It’s definitely not! In half an hour you’ll taste it and think ‘where the hell did the brandy go?’ And then your spouse will come into the kitchen to taste it, make a serious thinking face, and then say ‘heck it, more brandy!’, and you’ll pour in another quarter cup. Do this probably two more times.
Relax and let it simmer gently for about 40 minutes. Definitely put on some Christmas music. Maybe use this time to decorate your tree or wrap presents. The smell wafting from the pot will get deeper and sweeter and spicier and, frankly, Christmassy AF. Taste it as often as you want. Honestly, just dip in a little piece of shortbread if you have some. Adjust the spice or the sweetness. At this point it can help to have some orange juice on hand in case it starts to get a little dry. You want the finished fruit mince to be slightly wetter than cooked pie filling, since it will dry out a little during baking. But water works too. Or brandy.
At this point, most recipes will point out that the fruit mince is best if you let it cool, cover it, and put it in the fridge for two weeks for the flavours to develop. I’m sure that’s true, but I’ve never been organised enough to do it, so I’m here to tell you that just putting it in the fridge overnight is definitely fine. Spooning it still warm straight into the pastry is OK too. No one has ever told me my fruit mince flavours were underdeveloped. They just ate the pies.
It’s true that none of us needs more stuff to do at Christmas. If you can, buying a tub of fruit mince is easy, and so is buying a packet of ready-made pies. These things are both good and fine and delicious. But if you have a free hour or so when you feel like pottering in the kitchen – maybe as an excuse to not take part in the annual untangling of the Christmas lights, for instance – then making your own fruit mince really is easy and delightful. And about as festive as it gets.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.