By James Moore for Oneforthetable.com
There is something very special about visiting London during the holidays. The streets and stores are beautifully decorated, and no matter where you stroll, there's Christmas in the air, whether it's the rows of fresh wreaths hung in Edwardian doorways, the gold holly and red berry garland that decorates Regent Street, the twinkle lights illuminating the posh shops on Jermyn Street, the musical decorations inspired by the Rolling Stones on Carnaby Street, the Santa Land and Christmas Market in Hyde Park, the enormous fully decorated tree in Trafalgar Square, or the giant red ornaments at Covent Garden.
A trip to London over the holidays would not be complete without a visit to one of my favorite stores, Fortnum & Mason. With its signature mint green exterior and gold corner moldings, it is a wonderful example of London architecture, not to mention a perfect stage for theatrical holiday decorating. Founded in 1707 and still located at its original Piccadilly address, Fortnum's is a unique and truly beautiful store, renowned as purveyors of fine foods, home dÃ©cor, candies, teas, wine and more. Visitors are greeted by some of the most elaborate and magical Christmas-themed window displays in London, a tradition since the late 1800s. Upon entering the store, everything on display says Christmas, and despite the large crowds and long lines at the checkout registers, there's a noticeable feeling of good cheer.
One of Fortnum & Mason's biggest selling items is its signature mince pies, one of Britain's most popular Christmas desserts. Mince pie seems to have fallen out of favor in the U.S., although it was once the quintessential American pie -- much more popular than apple or cherry. In the 19th century Americans ate mince pies all through the year for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I must admit, it wasn't until I started visiting London around the holidays that I acquired a taste for these precious pastries, which I had always associated with meat (or venison) and suet (the hard fat found around the loins and kidneys of beef or mutton).
Modern mince is made with a combination of apples, raisins, currants and spices that are slowly simmered and finished with a good dose of brandy. I decided to recreate this British classic using the butter/cream cheese pastry often associated with pecan tassies. The filling is an updated version from "America's Test Kitchen," which is quite similar to a traditional English recipe that I found in "Mrs. Beeton's Cookery Book and Household Guide," published in 1889!
Most pies have a top crust, but you can also find the mini pies topped with star-shaped pastry, which I think make them even more festive. Make these a few days in advance so that the mince flavors have time to develop. Serve them with a hot cup of Fortnum & Mason Christmas blend tea.
Modern Mini Mince Tartlets
Makes 24 tarlets.
3 Granny Smith apples, large (about 1 1/2 pounds), peeled, cored and cut into 1/4-inch dice
3 McIntosh apples (or Macoun, Royal Gala, Empire or Cortland), large (about 1 1/2 pounds), peeled, cored and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 cup dark raisins
1 cup sultanas (golden raisins)
1 cup currants
1/4 cup dried cranberries or dried cherries
1 cup packed dark brown sugar (7 ounces)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
10 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons)
1/4 cup diced candied orange peel, (homemade or available online)
Grated zest and juice from 1 orange
Grated zest and juice from 1 lemon
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups apple cider, plus more as needed
1/3 cup rum or brandy
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (12 1/2 ounces), plus more for dusting work surface
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), cut into 1/4-inch pieces
5 tablespoons cream cheese, cold
1 egg white, beaten, for glazing pastry stars
1 tablespoon sugar or turbinado for sprinkling over crust
For the filling:
1. Place all ingredients except 1/2 cup cider and rum in a large, heavy saucepan set over medium-low heat. Bring to boil and simmer gently, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching, until mixture thickens and darkens in color, about 2 1/2 to 3 hours, adding more cider as necessary to prevent scorching.
2. Continue cooking, stirring every minute or two, until mixture has jam-like consistency, about 20 minutes. Stir in remaining 1/2 cup apple cider and rum and cook until liquid in pan is thick and syrupy, about 10 minutes; cool mixture. (Mince filling can be refrigerated for several days to improve flavor.)
For the crust:
1. Process flour, sugar and salt in food processor until combined. Add butter pieces and cream cheese and process until mixture is the size of small peas about 20 pulses. Then process until mixture just comes together, about 15-20 seconds.
2. Place the dough on a piece of plastic wrap and press together to form large, even mass. Divide dough into 3 sections and refrigerate the remaining section. Pinch off 24 pieces of dough (12 from each section) and roll them into balls in the palm of your hand (about 1-inch balls). Place them on a plate and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
3. Remove remaining section from refrigerator and place on lightly floured surface. Roll out with floured rolling pin to 1/8 inch thick (make sure dough doesn't stick to surface). Cut into 1-inch star shapes or 1 1/4-inch rounds. Arrange on small tray or plate and place in freezer.
4. Preheat oven to 375 F and adjust rack to middle position. Lightly grease a 24 mini muffin tin with butter.
5. Remove balls from the refrigerator and flatten each one with your fingers. Press them gently into the muffin cups so that the edge of each comes 1/8 inch above the rim. Make sure not to make a hole or tear the dough. Place tin in the freezer for 15 minutes to chill the dough.
6. Remove stars from freezer. Beat egg white with 1 teaspoon of water and brush each star (or round) with egg wash. Sprinkle with sugar or turbinado sugar.
7. Remove tarts from freezer and fill with mince filling -- about 1 rounded teaspoon each. Top with pastry star (or round).
8. Bake 20-25 minutes until the pastry is a rich golden brown. Cool the tartlets completely in the pan. Run a little butter knife around the edge of each tart, and use the knife to gently lift the tart out of the pan.
9. These are great the day they are baked. You can also store them in an airtight container or freeze them for up 2 weeks.
(James Moore has been a cooking enthusiast since childhood and started his blog, Cook Like James, to share favorite recipes, restaurants and cookbooks with friends and family. One for the Table is Amy Ephron's online magazine that specializes in food, politics, and love. http://www.oneforthetable.com/.)
(c) 2013, ONE FOR THE TABLE. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.
a British yuletide treat, modernized and miniaturized
By James Moore for Oneforthetable.com