Most Brits associate mincemeat with Christmas – its intoxicating mix of fruit, spices, booze, nuts and mixed peel provide Pavlovian stimuli, stirring memories of cherubic choirs a-caroling, roasted poultry, and the Queen’s speech – whereas I associate it with Easter, because it was always around then that we finally ran out of mince pies. I use the term “ran out” quite deliberately, as mince pies were the kind of thing that, growing up, were considered within the realm of “supplies”, so numerous were they. Every year in early December, my industrious mother would make at least six, but often as many as ten, dozen individual mince pies, fashioned lovingly from homemade mincemeat she had prepared several months in advance.
These seasonal confections then proceeded to appear on the table each and every mealtime, during tea breaks, whenever we had company over and any other time people were sat sitting and might be persuaded to have a smackerel of something, until everyone was thoroughly sick of the sight of them. Towards the end of March, the sight of the poor, battered-looking stragglers, that had been taken in and out their box so many times that their pastry shells were all dented and crumbly, was particularly sad.
The derivation of the word mincemeat, which today contains no minced meat, is Medieval, from a time shortly after Marco Polo had returned from the East, and every cook worth his salt was finding new ways to disguise and preserve rotten provisions with the spices he popularized. Adding cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves to ground meat, dried fruits, candied peel and chopped nuts before soaking the whole lot in high octane liquor must have been a hit at the time, which probably speaks more to the concurrent lack of fresh meat than to whether this was, in fact, a delicious preparation. Either way, it caught the imagination of a nation, and though the ground meat has largely been dropped, the tradition of using these spices to perfume pie filling continues strongly.
Another reason mincemeat was such a hit way back when is because once made, it can be expected to keep, unrefrigerated for as long as 2 years – something my mother bore in mind, as she often made hers over the first weekend of the New Year giving it ample time to “improve” over the next 12 months. Throughout the year, she would occasionally rouse it from its slumbers, turning it over and adding a touch more brown sugar or booze as she deemed necessary. Suffice it to say that by the time Easter came around, and the last mince pies were served, their mincemeat contents was nearing its second birthday, and was so highly perfumed that to inhale deeply close to a warmed mincer was to risk singed nose hairs.
Following my mother’s established tradition, I was well prepared, having put together my mincemeat last January, and fed it occasionally throughout 2011, so that it was rich and boozy by the time the Holidays arrived. Unfortunately, the energetic screams of our firstborn put paid to any intentions I may have had of making batches of personal mince pies before Christmas, so I had plenty of mincemeat leftover to ring in the New Year with. Inspired by a desire to produce something that people would actually eat before the next Christian festival hove into view, I quickly prepared this mincemeat stuffed quince. You could quite equally pair it with a vanilla custard/creme anglaise or, as I prefer, a whisky-laced whipped cream, but I lost my dander somewhere along the way and just shook some powdered sugar over it to evoke the wintry season instead.
I could have used apples in this recipe, but opted for quince largely because it’s one of those fruits that was, coincidentally, first popularized in the UK during Elizabethan times and has, rather sadly, since fallen out of favor. Brought originally from Asia and sometimes known by the moniker “love apple”, quince isn’t dissimilar in taste and texture to the apple — to which it is botanically related and which would make a fine substitute here — but when you’ve got the strains of “Good King Wencelas” with its frosty and feudal lyrics echoing in your mind, quince just feels right. [For more on quince, check out our friend Rachel Eats.]
Oven-baked quince are really, really good: rich, almost custardy in flavor and not overly sweet. A perfect dessert for the Holiday period, providing enough time is taken between courses. It’s probably not worth making a batch of mincemeat just for this purpose, but they are they dead easy and quick to pull together, and will be eaten in no time, allowing you and your family to leave Yuletide flavors safely behind you before the end of January.
- 1 quantity of Delia Smith’s homemade mincemeat (you’ll have plenty leftover)
- 4 large quince (or good baking apples)
- 2oz melted unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons coarse brown sugar (optional)
- powdered sugar for dusting
- Prepare mincemeat according to directions and store in a cool, dark place. Bring to room temperature.
- Pre-heat oven to 350F/175C
- Cut quince or apple in two pieces. The bottom should be about two-thirds of the fruit, with the top being the other third, where the stork is.
- With a paring knife core and empty most of quince or apple flesh, leaving half an inch (1cm) wall around the outside on both top and bottom pieces. Leave skin on.
- Fill cavity in bottom with mincemeat and pile high.
- Top with lid and brush fruit lightly all over with melted butter, and sprinkle with brown sugar (latter is optional).
- Place in oven and bake for 40-50 minutes until quince/apple is nicely browned and wilting but not collapsed.
- Allow to cool for 5 or 10 minutes before serving dusted with powdered sugar, and with your choice of seasonal sauce/whipped cream/ice cream.