Holiday baking traditions: Brandied Mince Tarts

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What’s the quintessential English Christmas dessert?

Ah, so many to choose from… Plum pudding? Trifle?

Sugarplums, dancing in your head and right onto the dessert buffet?

In doing research for our new Holiday Baking Traditions recipe series, I looked everywhere online for English Christmas desserts. And discovered a treasure trove of recipes for “pudding” – plum, or Christmas, apparently much the same thing.

This glistening, dark-brown, bowl-shaped confection features dried fruits, including prunes and raisins; the ubiquitous but often unwelcome mixed peel; and, the deal-breaker for most of us Americans: suet.

Mention pudding made with suet – beef fat – and the average American will give you the wrinkled nose, the furrowed brow, the “beef fat belongs on my barbecue, not in my dessert” look.

But think about it; if your mom or grandma made pie crust (or fried doughnuts) using lard (pig fat), there’s not a whole lot of difference. Cornbread baked in bacon grease is another tasty way we’ve traditionally used animal fat in baking.

So why the resistance to suet?

Maybe it’s just the unfamiliarity factor. Who knows, Brits might have the same reaction to lard.

“Pig fat? In my treacle tart? EWWWWWWWW.” (Or the equivalent British exclamation of disgust.)

At any rate, I decided to bypass plum pudding in favor of what appears to be the #2 English Christmas dessert: brandied mince tarts.

“Mincemeat? You mean that icky meat and fruit stuff that people put in pie and then it’s the last pie left on the table at Thanksgiving, and no one’s touched it?”

No, not THAT mincemeat. British Christmas mince is FRUIT mince. Made from raisins and currants, apples and nuts, sweetened with brown sugar and taken over the top with a generous splash of brandy, fruit mince is nicely spicy, full-flavored, and the perfect filling for tiny, two-bite tarts.

The following recipe, with a bit of Americanizing, comes from Sue Dyer, an Australian with British roots. Sue and I have never met; and we probably never will. But we’ve been email pals for awhile. So I asked Sue what she thought about Christmas pudding. Here’s what she said:

“My mum used to make suet pudding when I was a kid and I wouldn’t eat it.”

She then went on to describe her Christmas plans:

“Baking will be mince pies (using my own fruit mince recipe – I’ll send you a copy if you like), shortbread, chocolate truffles, and gingerbread men. I put them on plates that I don’t want back and dress them up with tinsel, etc. It’s interesting how, in these days of rampant consumerism, people’s eyes light up when you give them something home-baked… ”

I told Sue yes, I’d love the mince recipe, and she sent it to me with this note:

“You need a good, rich shortcrust pastry, and you can make them with or without lids. I make them like tarts with a piece of star shaped pastry on top. More fruit (best bit), less pastry. Use good French brandy for the best flavour. Scrumptious.”

Scrumptious indeed.

Sue added, “I’ve only used this recipe for mince pie at Christmas. I guess you could heat it and use it as a sauce with ice cream. I find it hard not to just eat spoonfuls of it when I’m making it. And of course it has to be tested when it’s maturing in the fridge. Frequently.”

She’s right. I made the fruit mince in August, made two batches of tarts (yes, it makes quite a lot), and am still, 3 months later, sampling the remaining mince in the fridge.

Frequently.

Want to try something new this year? And change your mind about mincemeat in the process?

Brandied Mince Tarts, here we come!

First, some preliminary tasks. Grate the rind from 1 small orange. I made the mistake of using a large orange the first time I made this; the mince was unpleasantly citrus-y.

Grate the rind from 1 small-to-medium lemon. A Microplane grater-zester works extremely well – and you never worry about grating your knuckles.

Next, ready your fruit. We’ll be using two kinds of raisins, plus Zante currants.

Golden raisins, Thompson raisins, Flame raisins, sultanas, currants… what’s the difference?

Raisins are sun-dried grapes, and different types of raisins come from different grape varieties. Two of the most popular seedless raisins in the U.S. are Thompson (above, left); and Flame, typically larger and moister than Thompson. Golden raisins (a.k.a. sultanas; above, center) are Thompson raisins that have been chemically treated, then flame-dried to attain their light-gold color.

Tiny Zante currants (above, right; usually shortened to just “currants”) come from Black Corinth grapes.

Mixed candied peel is orange and lemon peel, and citron.

Ah, the mysterious and much-maligned citron! What is it?

Citron is a Mediterranean fruit. Looking rather like a very large (up to 10 pounds), misshapen lime, it’s prized not for its juice, but rather for its thick rind, which is diced or sliced, then pickled, candied, brewed into tea, or turned into jam.

Finally – let’s begin. Put the following into the work bowl of a food processor:

1 cup raisins, Thompson or Flame
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup Zante currants
2 medium Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and sliced or coarsely chopped
1/4 cup mixed candied peel
grated rind of 1 small orange
grated rind of 1 small-to-medium lemon

Process until finely minced, but not puréed.

What if you don’t have a food processor? Then you’ll be doing a LOT of fine chopping by hand – or in small batches in a blender.

Add the following:

3/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons English mixed spice, or a combination of 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/2 teaspoon each nutmeg and allspice
1/8 teaspoon salt

Process until JUST combined.

Add 2/3 cup slivered almonds. Process briefly, just to break up the almonds.

Transfer the mixture to a bowl. Add a scant 1/2 cup golden raisins, and 1/3 cup currants.

Add 2 1/2 tablespoons melted butter.


Next, the brandy part of these brandied tarts. Choose a decent bottle of brandy, French preferred. It doesn’t have to be expensive; the bottle above cost just under $10.

Add 1/4 cup brandy.

Stir to combine thoroughly.

Store airtight in the refrigerator, until ready to use; stir it occasionally, to redistribute the juice. Mince will keep for several months in the refrigerator, tightly covered. Or freeze it, for long-term storage.

Next, we’ll make the tart dough. This is most easily done with the help of a food processor, though it’s also simple to make it by hand.

Put the following in the bowl of your food processor:

2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour or Perfect Pastry Blend
heaping 1/2 teaspoon salt*
1/2 cup butter, cut into pats

*Reduce the salt to a level 1/2 teaspoon if you use salted butter.

Process until the mixture is evenly crumbly.

Unlike a typical American pie crust, this “short crust” shouldn’t have any large pieces of butter remaining; the mixture should look like breadcrumbs.

Drizzle in 2 tablespoons ice water.

Process; the dough should start coming together. Add an additional tablespoon of water…

…and process again. It should have come together nicely.

Remove the dough from the processor, and squeeze it together.

Divide the dough in half, and shape each piece into a flattened ball, or wheel.

Roll the edges to smooth them out; they should look like big hockey pucks. Wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 30 minutes, or overnight.

When you’re ready to prepare the tarts, remove the dough from the refrigerator. If it’s been chilling for longer than 30 minutes, let it warm for 15 minutes or so, until it’s “rollable.”

Start preheating your oven to 400°F.

Work with one piece of dough at a time. Place it on a well-floured work surface; our silicone rolling mat works well here.

Roll the dough into a 10″ circle, about 1/8” thick.

Select your pan(s). For mini tarts, a mini muffin pan works well. For slightly larger tarts, use a standard muffin pan.

I’ve chosen to make mini tarts, using a mini muffin pan. Now, how big should the dough circles be for a mini muffin pan?

Measure the bottom diameter of one of the muffin cups; that’s your starting point. For a mini muffin pan, add 1″. For a standard muffin pan, add 1 1/2″ (so that the dough will come 3/4″ up the sides of the cup).

Example: If one of the cups in your mini muffin pan measures 1 1/4″ across the bottom, you’ll want to cut 2 1/4″ rounds of dough.

Cut rounds of dough – 24 for a mini muffin pan, 12 for a standard muffin pan. A 2 1/4″ biscuit cutter works well for the mini tarts. Save any scraps for the stars that’ll go on top.

If you’re making small (rather than mini) tarts, a 3 3/4″ English muffin ring is close enough.

Roll out the second piece of dough, and cut rounds. Again, save the scraps.

Nestle the dough circles gently into the muffin cups. Don’t stretch them.

Wherever the dough folds, snip through the fold…

…and lap one side over the other, pressing to seal.

Prick the bottom of each tart several times with a fork, to prevent them puffing as they bake.

Spoon about 2 teaspoons fruit mince atop each of the mini tart crusts; a level teaspoon cookie scoop works well.

If you’re using a standard muffin pan, spoon about 4 generous teaspoons filling into the tarts; a slightly heaped tablespoon cookie scoop works well.

Cut stars from the dough scraps: 1 1/4″ stars for the mini tarts, 2″ stars for the small tarts.

Now, what to do with any leftover dough? Cut more stars…

…and sprinkle stars and scraps with cinnamon-sugar. Bake in a 400°F oven until lightly browned and crisp. Yummy!

OK, back to our original stars.

Spritz the stars with water, and center one star atop each tart.

Sprinkle heavily with Baker’s Special sugar or castor (superfine) sugar, if desired.

Enough fussing! These are ready for the oven.

Bake the mini tarts for about 20 to 22 minutes, until they’re golden brown. The larger tarts should bake for about 28 to 30 minutes, again until they’re golden brown.

What’s going on with the picture? I was experimenting with baking the stars separately. Not necessary.

Also, I was using a 20-cup mini muffin pan, instead of a 24-cup; since this recipe makes 2 dozen mini tarts, it’s best to choose a 24-cup mini-muffin pan.

Remove the tarts from the oven.

Serve warm, with brandy butter or heavy cream; or at room temperature.

Here they are: 1 3/4” mini tarts, and 2 3/4” small tarts.

Tender, buttery, crumbly crust; sweet, aromatic fruit filling. And you thought you didn’t like mince(meat)!

Read, rate, and review (please) our recipe for Christmas Brandied Mince Tarts.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel was born in Wisconsin, grew up in New England, and graduated from Brown University. She was a journalist in Massachusetts and Maine before joining the King Arthur Flour Company in 1990, where she's been ever since. Author or co-author of three King Arthur ...

comments

  1. vibeguy

    Stop. Making. Me. Lick. The. Screen.

    I love mincemeat. Condensed in cookies, homemade in pies and tarts, BRING IT.

    A great use for leftovers? Mincemeat fool. Combine one part (by volume) mincemeat with two parts heavily-brandied whipped cream (sweetened to taste). Don’t blend thoroughly – the idea is to leave streaks and bits. I serve this in stemmed cocktail glasses with butter cookies, but you could really put on the dog and serve it in meringue nests or make a pavlova.

    I’m with you, VB…. Actually, I’m going to use some in a “swirl” bread next week, in place of raisins or cinnamon. Although, due to sampling, not sure how much is left… :) PJH

    Reply
  2. vibeguy

    Wow, the bread sounds genius. Maybe a little Clearjel or Instant Clearjel to give it a texture like the cinnamon filling? Could also be interesting to shape the roll and then bake in a Bundt type pan…now you’re giving me dangerous notions.

    My partner, who looks like he’d eat *anything*, is soooo mincemeat-phobic that he won’t even touch the delicious cookies. To which I say, “More for me!”

    Blogs = baking inspiration leading to baking innovation?! Let us know how your variation works out! Irene @ KAF

    Reply
  3. The Pie Guy

    Lately there has been a lot of talk about mini pies. I wondering what inspired you to do mini pies. Is there a pie club where all the bakers meet.

    Are mini pies taking over the cupcake?
    http://www.everythingpies.com

    Mini pies help with portion control when there are so many baked treats to choose from! Irene @ KAF

    Reply
  4. Sandra

    Stir mincemeat (to taste) into your favourite vanilla ice cream mix and freeze as usual. (You do realise you will have to make another batch, don’t you?) It’s also nice spread onto shortbread base and topped with a sponge layer and baked as a tray bake. Or, use in a fruit cake, see below, delicious!

    Ingredients

    4 oz margarine or soft butter, 2 tbsp milk, 4 oz brown sugar, 3 large eggs, 12 oz mincemeat (the sweet kind, not actually meat!), 7 oz self raising flour
    Method

    Mix together with a fork, in a large bowl
    Line an 8 inch round tin with baking paper *
    Put mix in tin and level
    Bake in pre-heated oven for 10 min at 160 c, then at 150 c for about 1 1/4 hours, or until cake is firm in the centre. Cool in tin with a clean damp tea towel over the top
    To line a tin the easy way, take a sheet of baking paper large enough to line in one piece. Screw it up, then open it, repeat. Press into tin. Trim away excess AFTER cake mix is in the tin.
    How easy is that?
    Being a Brit myself (although living in Spain), I shall be making my own mince pies but I’ve no idea why they are called pies in the UK rather than tarts. For the squeamish, it is possible to use vegetable suet, no problem. The British do have lard by the way but mostly only used in roasting potatoes or as a quarter of the fat used in pastry recipes. It is supposed to have a different melting temperature and makes the pastry more flaky.

    Thanks for sharing your recipe with us! – kelsey

    Reply
  5. Sarah

    Yum yum yum.

    But I must disagree about the suet…I was born and raised in Massachusetts, and have never lived outside of New England. Our family enjoys a traditional suet pudding (with hard sauce) at Christmas, and I must say it is not heavy or greasy or suet-y tasting. I also make homemade mincemeat for pies and tarts, using a recipe from a British friend. It calls for minced suet along with the fresh and dried fruits. It is exquisite and my family demands it every winter.

    I think the key to using suet is obtaining the highest grade of BEEF suet, one that is intended for culinary use. Talk to your butcher. Don’t grab the packages of suet off the packaged meat shelf; that is intended for use mainly as bird food, though sometimes you can find good quality suet there. Look for (or ask for) the hard, slightly dry, very lightly colored suet that chips/chops and flakes easily; I believe this is the fat that is above the kidneys. It has almost no odor, and it is not soft. Do not use “suet” that is rancid or soft (greasy!), or that is reddish or discolored or that has bits of muscle fiber or even shreds of the liver or kidneys still on it – this is often starting to decompose even before it gets into the package, and will be disgusting.

    Don’t dismiss suet out of hand – like any other ingredient, it has to be chosen carefully and used properly.

    Reply
  6. julie

    oh thank goodness – i’ve lived here for 28 yrs and i’ve imported it, bought the cross & blackwell jarred kind from the store and despaired that i would never be able to make it myself and FINALLY – a recipe:) i can eat this just with a spoon, converted my american husband to eating it (he also loves my xmas cake) – so i cannot wait to make this – heading to the store now for the fruit……

    Reply
  7. Steph in Maine

    I just logged on to FIND a mince recipe and voila! My 91 year old mother-in-law comments every holiday on how no one makes mince pie anymore and how much she misses it. This year I decided to make one for her, and the mini versions are exactly what I was looking for. I’m going to start them right NOW!

    Reply
  8. Ricardo Neves Gonzalez FMP-FASE - Petrópolis, R.J.- BRAZIL

    Nice tarts. They deserves a try. Well i think it might be delicious with that old Ginger Pear turnover filling recipe u gave us months ago!
    Here in Brazil we prefer to use local ingredients such a mix of Brazil Nuts plus cristalized ginger mixed with sweet potato cream
    i think this combination is perfect, maybe with mashed bananas with another hot liquor like cocoa cream or dark coffee cream.
    Nice post PJ….STILL LOTS OF NEW ONE´S, FOR CHRISTMA´S?
    I´m loving the Christma´s posts sequence!!!!!

    Reply
  9. aoifeofcheminnoir

    We always had mincemeat pies for holidays, thus I thought everybody did! One year mom discovered the recipe for cookies and a new addition was made to the holiday cookie lineup. If I want a pie this year I’ll have to make it and eat it all by myself…sad:(

    Make it and celebrate the season with some pie-eating friends! Irene @ KAF

    Reply
  10. vibeguy

    Having just rendered both suet and lard at home, I gotta say the suet is much nicer – not nearly as much icky connective tissue as the lard, it’s snow-white, it smells delicious/sweet, not porky/sweaty like the lard and it’s quite firm at room temperature, which gives me hope that a suet/butter pastry will roll out nicely and bake up tender and flaky.

    Reply
  11. MaryEllen

    Oooh, I’ll have to try the mincemeat recipe! Last year I found a British import shop and bought a jar there, which was pretty yummy. I wanted to make individual mince pies last year then had the inspiration to use the turnover set I had ordered. I used the smallest turnover press, froze them, then I could bake a few as needed. Love this blog! Off to buy more raisins……

    Reply
  12. JThreadgold

    This is exactly the fruit mince recipe I use from my mum’s Margaret Fulton (Australia’s answer to Betty Crocker) cookbook from the 70′s, minus the almonds due to a nut allergy. It’s wonderful. They’re nice with a sweeter shortcrust pastry too, with a bit of icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar) and an egg added.

    I tend to make at least five dozen pies so there are plenty to spare for a Mince Pie Frozen Pudding. All you need is vanilla ice cream, some mince pies broken up and stirred through with a splosh of brandy or rum, re-freeze in either a bombe or in a clingfilm lined bowl and you’ve got a quick, easy and impressive Christmas pudding! Good for those times when it’s stinking hot on Christmas Day Down Under or just if you want something different.

    Love your blogs PJ! Thanks.

    Reply
  13. jeahrb

    I always make mince pies this time of year, with solid tops (just the next size down biscuit cutter) snipped with scissors. I use the filling in the jar but next year I might have to try making my own!

    Reply
  14. paperdiva

    How long do you have to let the mince marinate before using?

    You can use it right away, but I think a week at least allows the flavors to meld and mellow… PJH

    Reply
  15. pasta77

    As a Brit, I should point out that we use bun tins rather than muffin – which makes for a thinner tart – a muffin tin will use a LOT more filling, will taste a lot richer, and therefore you’ll be able to eat less tarts in one sitting….
    My Gran makes them with stars on the top and then fills the rest of the top in with white glace icing (just in case they’re not sugary enough…) my Nan makes a large tart/pie with a some apple puree over the top of a good layer of mincemeat to reduce the sweetness.
    I would say it doesn’t need to be Brandy – you could use whisky or rum instead – and nowadays you can get jars of more unusual flavours of mincemeat – so taking some raisins out, and putting some dried cranberries in would also be a great option!
    The other traditional Christmas item in the UK is Christmas cake – a rich dark fruit cake with marzipan and icing.

    Thanks for adding your input here – nice to hear from a true native… PJH

    Reply
  16. Nora

    I don’t drink alcohol but I have always loved the idea of mince pies. I have read suggestions about using various fruit juices and or extracts to replace the brandy. Does anyone have any experience with this? Thanks!

    Nora, it should be just fine to substitute fruit juices; the mince simply won’t keep at as long. I’d advise using it within a week or so. If you don’t mind the flavor of alcohol, you could add 1/4 teaspoon or so of extra-strong butter-rum or similar flavor… Enjoy! PJH

    Reply
  17. argentyne

    Is it possible to get a rough estimate on how much zest you used? “Small” orange is so subjective. There are times when the smallest oranges I can find are still the size of baseballs. Unless I go down to mandarin oranges in which case, they are the size of golf balls.

    But if you tell me a quantity, then I can zest whatever oranges I have/can find, and use that quantity and freeze the rest of the zest!

    Thanks! (And thanks for the substitution suggestion for juice instead of alcohol. I don’t drink alcohol, can’t stand the taste, and am looking for desserts to bring to friend’s homes where there are kids. Do you have specific juice suggestions, or would apple, orange, or cranberry work, do you think?

    Sorry, it’s just so subjective, taste-wise… I’d say the best thing you can do is add 2 teaspoons zest (very lightly packed) to start; then add more if you can’t taste it. It’s always good to start out with less, because you can always add more… and the reverse isn’t true. :) PJH

    Reply
  18. Chickadee

    Another mince lover here, but the suet free version is my favorite. Mom and grandma always made it very similarly to this, without the meat. I’ve made it but have trouble getting others to eat it, though most I think have never even tried it.

    An excellent use for leftovers is to use it in place of dates in a standard date bar recipe. Yum!

    Reply
  19. superreader

    Thanks for the great mincemeat recipe, PJ, and thanks to the various commenters who posted suet info! The suggestions for brandy substitutions (and the impacts) are much appreciated. My fave use for mincemeat is a shortbread-type cookie bar, with about half spread into a solid base layer and the rest crumbled over the mincemeat spread between. It’s easy to make GF and the spacing makes for crispy bits that’re a lovely contrast to the soft cookie and moist filling. Sadly that same moist filling makes those disintegrate after about a week, so they have to be eaten quickly or frozen. Tough job, but someone has to do it! LOL

    Reply
  20. Ann

    I first tasted these about 10 years ago when I visited a friend of mine in Wales and we went Christmas shopping downtown. The church ladies were serving these with tea, and I fell in love.

    Mine look very much like these, the same mini-muffin tims and star tops, although use a wee brush to put on some egg glaze. Did a very large Christmas dinner 2 years ago and put these out along with various-sized wine glasses half-full of lemon mousse; folks could have one or both. More glasses than guests and a little more than two mince tarts per guest. Despite all those folks looking dubious, the tarts absolutely flew off the table. The anti-mince pie folks just have never had the right sort.

    Reply
  21. candrews

    This sounds fabulous, but I have an unfortunate allergy to apples. Are there other fruits that would work as well? Any that I should not use?

    Pears would be a great substitute. Anything firm should be just fine. Maybe fresh cranberries, if you increase the sugar to taste? I wouldn’t use grapes, oranges, or anything too juicy… PJH

    Reply
  22. Jeannette

    As a Brit, Christmas would not be Christmas without mince pies! They are on sale here from November onwards and there is great competition amongst the supermarkets to bring out the best one to be rated by magazines etc. I make my own mincemeat and although the suet-less mince is pleasant enough it doesn’t have the same keeping qualities as the traditional one made with suet. And of course the brandy or other spirit used also improves its keeping qualities. I will be using mine from last year for this year’s pies, it is still perfectly good.

    Reply
  23. Philippa

    Do these need to be eaten the same day they’re made or can they be stored for a while either at room temperature or in the fridge? I was thinking of adding them to my Christmas cookie/baking tins I give to coworkers as gifts, but if they should be eaten soon after baking I might make them closer to Christmas instead.

    I’d say they should be consumed within a few days of making; no need to refrigerate, but they’ll start to get stale. PJH

    Reply
  24. Leanne

    Waah! Why do I never read recipes properly? For some reason my eyes skipped over “candied peel”. Am hoping that I can find some at the store, else I’ll be taking advantage of your shipping deal right now… I do have plenty of citrus to make my own… hmmm….

    Reply
  25. Irene in TO

    Vegan all-fruit version: use the same volume of boiled cider as brown sugar. Skip sugar and butter.

    No food processor? Shred or grate the apple and just mix the raisins with boiled cider.

    I keep this in a big bowl in the fridge for a few days to let the raisins absorb the cider and brandy. Then I pack it up into one-pie portions into freezer bags.

    My mother always added more chopped apple just before baking. It really freshens up the taste. These pies keep 4-5 days on a cold porch.

    Reply

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