Monday, August 18, 2008

Mincemeat Pies

Every Christmas I remember, as desert emerged my dad would wax poetic about mincemeant pies. In the first years of my parents' marriage mincemeant made an annual appearance on the Christmas table. Slowly over the years both farmer market suppliers went out of business, and by the time I came along mincemeat pies were a dreamy remembracne. Now the "mincemeat" available doesn't even contain meat, and is therefore totally unacceptable by my father's standards. As a child the idea of a sweet meat pie was bizarre and incomprehensible. Chicken pot pie I could undertand, but meat as dessert? Gross.

As an adult mincemeat retains it mystery, though it has gained intrigue. As my interest in food has developed my desire to uncover cultural food traditions has become insatiable, I set out to discover mincemeat.

My research began, as any lazy researcher begins, with Wikipedia. According to Wikipedia mincemeat is what we Americans more commonly call ground meat. This is definitely not the definition I was looking for. My mincemeat is Pennsylvania Dutch in origin. And so I went to the mattresses: Grandma.

Grandma keeps everything in pristine condition. Luckily for me, this includes her cookbooks. She has a treasure trove of old Pennsylvania Dutch cookbooks all of which include recipes. One of my favorites, aptly titled Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook, calls mincemeat “a Christmas and Thanksgiving necessity.” Maybe my dad wasn’t so far off after all. Having sorted through my grandmother’s various recipes in her —along with my dad’s own recipe—we set out to begin.

We started by boiling a four pound mixture of ground beef, buffalo, pork, and turkey, my former vegetarian self’s stomach turned. All the meat was purchased at a gem of a nearby country store in Lenhartsville, Pennsylvania. The store, Dietrich’s Meats & Country Store, carries only local meat all processed on premises. Products range from the traditional, like head cheese and speck, to the unknown such as smoked pigs head and pickled snouts. The various pickled parts are on display in jars like you might see in a sociopath do with humans in a horror flick. At Dietrich’s it is somehow endearing and genuine; doing it like it used to be done. And recently I found out I’m not the only one who thinks so. Flipping through Cory Kummer’s The Pleasures of Slow Food: Celebrating Authentic Traditions, Flavors, and Recipes, Dietrich’s Meats was given a two page spread as one of eleven featured artisans.

I myself could wax poetic for awhile about Dietrich’s, but I’ll spare you and get back to the task at hand: the mincemeat. When the meat was cooked we drained all but one cup of the liquid, and set that aside. Next the apples needed to be peeled, cored, and chopped. The recipe’s endearing resourcefulness lies in this next step: boiling apple peels and cores in water and simmering for ten minutes, then straining and reserving the liquid. This apple “broth,” if you will, is combined with the meat broth for our four and a half pounds of dried fruit in a large stainless steel stock pot. We picked the dried food that was available and sounded good, ending up with a motley combination of raisins, currants, apricots, dates, cherries, and cranberries.

To the dried fruit and broth mixture we added orange and lemon juice and peal, a little salt, and brown sugar. While the fruit soaked, the meat and suet—here again the former vegetarian’s stomach did flips—were chopped together until well incorporated and added to the dried fruit. Next came a couple pounds chopped apples and spices: mace, pepper, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. The entire mixture brought to a boil and simmered for an hour. When cool ¼ cup Jim Beam was added, and taken down to a cool and dark basement closet. Once a week for six weeks a quarter to half of a cup of bourbon was added along with a good stir. Now that the first six weeks are over the flavors are left to themselves, and by Thanksgiving and Christmas (after three to four months of aging) the mincemeat should be just right.

Now if only it was Christmas...

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