We were at dinner the other evening – sitting happily all squashed up on our banquette at Harry’s Bar, watching the world go by and sipping on bellinis – and we began talking about traditions: what do you do you do at Christmas? What do you eat? How do you cook it? And what of stockings, and carols and cinnamon buns? There were a good few nationalities gathered around the table so it made for some colourful tales. That is the magical charm of Christmas, I think – that way it has of being at once both nostalgic and predictable, universal yet so very deeply personal.
For us Christmas is laying the table with the fine lace tablecloth, and weighing the tree down with tinsel. It’s the nativity scene which we set up year on year in our front hall – with its fading antique figurines and the myriad of papier maché animals that we carefully arrange around the crib. It’s rushing to the Rialto market on Christmas Eve morning to stock up on ingredients, and the kitchy Christmas songs that we play (loudly) on my mother’s old stereo.
This year, we have dear friends from America staying with us – and one of the more precious things about guests at Christmas is the excuse to share in their family traditions as well as our own. So Jo and Andrew made us pitchers of eggnog (chilled, ambrosial and topped with a pinch of cinnamon), and we played Trivial Pursuit into the early hours of the morning. And round about the second round of sports questions (to which I had no answers), I couldn’t help but think to myself how very lucky I am to have found such good friends, and to be a part of such a loving family. Christmas – with all its nostalgia and talk of tradition – has a way of making us take pause to appreciate all that really matters.
Food, of course plays a starring role in our Christmas celebrations: panettone by the kilogram; pandoro drenched in icing sugar (or, as it turns out, even more exquisite when dipped in eggnog); rich pudding-like hot chocolate; sticky torrone, and Mostarda di Cremona (glimmering glacé fruits in a peppery mustard seed syrup which we like to eat with our turkey) are Christmas to me. And I can’t bring myself to imagine a world in which they would ever not be. Yet, there is a certain irony that while food and the cooking of it is – as you know – one of my greatest pleasures in life, Christmas is the one day of the year that I eat but don’t cook.
Tonight, Christmas Eve, which here in Italy is perhaps the most important of all the celebrations, we will go to friends for dinner. We will eat in their palazzo and they will cook the traditional sea bass and some kind of pasta with white truffles. As they do every year. There will be more panettone and it will be doused in zabaglione cream. Then, full and happy, we will walk through the frosty streets of Venice to celebrate midnight mass. I look forward to it, and above all, I look forward to sharing it with those who are most dear to me.
Tomorrow morning at first dawn, when we wake up, there will be stockings and breakfast tea in the English way. And my mother will set about the business of roasting the turkey and the two kinds of stuffing, cooking the brussel sprouts and and flambéing her very fine homemade Christmas pudding – while the rest of us look on in awe and delight. As we do every year. Somehow, it seems only fitting then for me to share a recipe of my mother’s with you this Christmas – the recipe for her mince pies. I don’t know where she might have first sourced it from way-back-when – a dogeared copy of a Delia Smith cookbook would be my best guess. But to me it is and always will be hers – because she would bake to it when I was a child and now that I am a grown-up I would not dream of baking mince pies to any other recipe or in any other way.
I wish you all the warmest and happiest of Christmases – filled with mince pies, panettone and pudding, and all those good things which make Christmas so very special. May it bring you health, happiness and all the time in the world with those that you love. Buon Natale! Xx
The key to a good mince pie, of course lies almost entirely in the filling. My mother begins making mincemeat as early as September, then stores it in jars – and with a flurry of brandy and candied peel marks the beginning of the Christmas season. The making of the ‘mincemeat’ is as much tradition for us, as decorating the tree or the first slice of panettone. Essentially a mixture of dried fruits, spices, sugar, almonds, brandy and rum the longer the mixture has to rest, the more it grows in rich flavour. Then at Christmas, we spoon a little filling into pastry cases to make tarts – I use ready-made pastry for sake of speed and ease, but of course if you have a preferred pastry recipe of your own, use that. Then top with a pastry star for a festive touch and drench in icing sugar, while the pies are still warm from the oven.
Prep Time: 30 mins
Cook Time: 20 mins
Makes 20-24 tarts
FOR THE MINCEMEAT
90g apples (cored and chopped, but not peeled)
45g grated frozen butter
50g chopped candied peel
70g muscovado sugar
grated zest and juice on 1 orange
10g almonds, cut into slivers
3/4 tsp ground mixed spice
a generous pinch of ground cinnamon
a generous pinch of ground nutmeg
1 tbsp brandy
1 tbsp rum
FOR THE PIES
340g shortcrust pastry
To make the mincemeat, combine all the ingredients except the brandy and the rum in a large mixing bowl and stir them together thoroughly. Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and leave the mixture in a cool place to rest overnight so that the flavours can develop fully. Preheat the oven to 110 degrees centigrade, cover the bowl loosely with tin foil and place in the oven for 3 hrs then take it out. The mincemeat will be swimming in fat, give it a good stir and leave it to cool, stirring every now and then so that all the ingredients soak up the fat. When the mincemeat it cold, stir in the brandy and the rum. Pack in a sterilised jar and store for up to a year.
To make the pies, preheat the oven to 190 degrees centigrade. Divide the pastry in half; roll one half out thinly and use it to line the tartlet tins. Fill each tartlet tin with enough mincemeat to come about three-quarters of the way to the pastry. Roll the remaining pastry and use a star shaped cookie cutter to make stars. Gently, but firmly press the stars on top of the mincemeat. Crack the egg into a small bowl and beat with a fork, then glaze the top of the pies. Bake for 20 mins, until the pastry becomes golden brown. Cool the pies on a wire rack and sprinkle with icing sugar.