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In the last issue of On the Burner, our estimable dining critic Dave Lowry, with discernible delight, gave us his list of Christmas misses in the gastronomy game. I bat about .600 on his list: thumbs down on green-bean casserole and ribbon candy, for instance, but mincemeat pie is a misunderstood dish in the USA, to be sure. What he's thinking about is surely what I faced growing up, a large pie full of raisins and other dark mysteries. My grandmother made it. My mother made it. Both used the filling from the store, the sort that had to be rehydrated. Mom mixed it 50:50 with applesauce, "so it's not so strong". Nothing thrilling, move along now, nothing to eat here.
And then it was a gray, cold and very windy November day late in the last century. I was in Cardiff, Wales, visiting an old friend and we were Christmas shopping downtown. An ancient church, St. John the Baptist, in the pedestrian precinct had a small sign. "Teas Coffee" was the taciturn announcement.
"Shall we? We could warm up a little," I asked my pal. Always the agreeable hostess, she led the way to the church vestibule, which seemed even chillier than outside. But we followed signs to the vestry, which was warm and warmly lit. It smelled delicious, just what church ladies' food should smell like. Yes, tea, and coffee for Judith. Then, "What's that?" I said, pointing to some small tarts. Less than two inches across, they held a dark filling that sat under a star-shaped pastry crust top (see below). She seemed puzzled that I asked. "They're mince pies," she explained wonderingly. "I thought you had them in the States."
It turns out that what we'd call mini is the usual size over there. The filling-to-crust ratio balances the spicing, making it almost like an extremely moist cookie. I was hooked. I know we had something else to eat that day, and I promise you the tea was neither in a plastic nor a paper cup, but it was the little mince pies that stuck with me.
I acknowledge that I like things like gingerbread and cookies with raisins in them, so it's really not been much of a leap. I use muffin tins, and a round cookie cutter for the bottom crust. Some times I've made mincemeat with apples and pears as well as raisins, some years I've used commercial, depending on the seasonal chaos. I bought some star cookie cutters to find one just the right size to go on top.
And they fly off the table, to my surprise. At one meal, served with wineglasses of lemon mousse, to forestall the anti-mince complaints, there were sixteen pies and seven diners. The plate of pies returned to the kitchen with a pair of crumbs on it.
As for the Sweeney Todd reference, the amount of meat or meat-related stuff in most commercial American mincemeat is miniscule, enough, certainly, to cause a vegetarian to decline, but don't go taking a bite thinking you'll get hamburger. It's just one of those names that go way back in tradition. Far enough back that it's still served in a 16th Century church's vestry, which is now, according to the church's website called the Tea sPOT.