How and When to Make Mincemeat Pie Filling

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ILLUSTRATION: CRAIG SPONSELLER
A 20 quarter kettle, canning jars, apples, raisins, meat, and wine vinegar are among the equipment and ingredients you'll need for mincemeat pie filling.

Nothing says “holiday” like mince pies…especially if
you make the mincemeat pie filling yourself. Here is how to stage one of those satisfying annual cooking orgies
for which a good, old-fashioned country kitchen was just
naturally designed
.


Do you like to serve your family winter desserts packed
with protein, iron, and vitamins? Did your good organic
gardening result in gleaming glasses of wholesome jellies,
mounds of firm, crisp apples, and gallons of cider? Does
your cellar hold home-dried raisins and jars of watermelon
preserves, dried or preserved peaches, pears, cherries, or
orange peel? Well, today’s the day…a mincemeat day!

No, I don’t mean that stale, medicinal-tasting
mixture from the supermarket…I’m talking about luscious,
juicy, home-grown mincemeat that will make moist cakes,
rich cookies, and delectable pies all through the cold,
stay-in-and-bake days of winter.

One requirement for a mincemeat day is a nip in the air and
lots of dry leaves in varying shades of red, gold, and
brown. With them should be wind–not a
Christmas-loaded-with-snow wind but a frisky, cold,
leaf-dancing wind–and overhead, gray skies. A little
rain won’t hurt, though it isn’t absolutely necessary… but
gray, definitely: dull gray and windy, with apples.

That’s
the second “must”: The apples have to be in–in from
the orchard, in from the garage, in from the
cellar–fragrant, tart, and firm. A health-packed
harvest.

At our house there also has to be at least one fat
venison neck. Other cuts may be used in order to have
enough meat to mince, but the neck is the favored part. I
understand people in other areas of the country make
mincemeat out of good homegrown lamb or beef,
but–having always lived in the south-eastern Oregon
mountains–I haven’t tried this. You can probably
adapt a windy, leafy, gray day to any kind of makings you
have, but if your family hunts… fresh venison.

Then there must be jars, lots of them, hot and gleaming.
The book says that half an hour in a dishwasher easily
equals half an hour in Grandma’s copper boiler when it
comes to sterilizing glasses, so if you have buttons, push
them. If not–and if you’ve misplaced that caldron of
Grandma’s–try boiling the containers in a large
roasting pan and storing them in a warm oven until the
mincemeat is done.

Jars, meat, apples, and the right day:
these are the basics. Start early and, while the salted
meat is boiling in a big kettle, peel all those firm ruddy
apples.The clamp-on peeler I ordered from a catalog last year
works and looks very much like the old-timer I used to
borrow from my pioneer-family neighbors. With this gadget I
can easily do all my fruit while the venison is cooking to
just tender.

As the apples are pared and cut, put them in ice-cold
salted water and hold them until the meat is chopped (or
ground, but not too fine…you should have about five
quarts). Then chop the apples, or grind them
coarsely–you’ll need about ten quarts of minced
fruit–and combine the two ingredients in the kettle
along with the deer-or-whatever broth. (Don’t forget: Into
the compost heap with all those peelings!)

The rest is
fancy work, and highly individual. My mother’s letter, sent
to me years ago in lieu of a formal recipe, says, “Add two
or three pounds of brown sugar, one full cup of wine
vinegar (or something…my mom is a good teetotaler) and
maybe two pounds of seedless raisins, dried currants, dried
mixed fruits. (One pound of each is fine, and omit anything
you don’t like.)

“Also add a glass of watermelon preserves (if you’ve never
heard of ’em, inquire of someone over forty, or use more
mixed fruit), a glass of dark jelly, half a pound of ground
suet (you know, the beef fat that people put in bird
feeders), about half a gallon of apple cider and some
cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and vanilla. (Start with one
teaspoon each, and don’t get carried away until you’ve
cooked and tasted the stuff.) Simmer everything over low
heat for several hours, stirring and tasting until the
mixture is dark and syrupy. Ladle it into hot jars and seal
them.”

That’s all there is to it…except for those long happy
hours in a warm, fragrant kitchen…stirring, reading a
little, tasting, and admiring the gray, blustery day
outside. You know, a mincemeat day.