TODAY is stir-up Sunday, traditionally the day you should make your Christmas puddings, inviting family, friends and neighbours into your warm kitchen to help stir the mixture before cooking. Everyone should take a turn and make a wish while doing so. As I am not making Christmas pudding this year, I thought I'd use the day to make my own mincemeat for mince pies, as this mixture also needs plenty of strong arms to stir it well.

Mince pies have been eaten as a special treat around the Christmas festival for centuries. During the strict Protestant regime of Oliver Cromwell, they were banned completely for their associations with the idolatrous celebrations. Originally, they were oval shaped to represent the crib of baby Jesus with the top layer signifying the swaddling clothes. Families vied with one another to present the most unusual designs for their mince pies, the most elaborate proving the mark of a very good pastry chef.

Enclosing a sweet or savoury filling in pastry dates back to Roman times, and almost every country has some type of traditional bake. Different types of pastry, from filo to flaky, puff, shortcrust or a hot water crust, have been used in pie-making in different countries. Savoury meat pies were the most commonly eaten in centuries past: the introduction of dried fruit and spices with finely minced meat descends from eastern countries, where these combinations of flavours were always more common.

Mincemeat is so-called because once upon a time, it did actually contain shredded meat along with the other ingredients we know and love today. Eventually this was substituted for shredded suet, to provide the fat content, but meat was omitted. Suet is readily available and used a great deal in traditional Christmas recipes. It is also possible to buy a vegetarian variety.

If you have never made you own Christmas mincemeat, your will never revert to the shop-bought variety once you have tasted a mince pie made with it. Fruitier and spicier than anything available commercially, it can be made well in advance to store away for other recipes. There isn't enough room here to include the recipe for mincemeat too, but there are many recipes online and it is not too late to make it. For beginners, I recommend Delia Smith’s recipe which is a good, traditional one. Using a tin plate to make a pie has been the traditional for generations. Pyrex plates are a more recent alternative to the popular blue enamel-wear used widely during my lifetime.

A newly baked homemade mince pies is a very different food experience one that comes from a cardboard packet, is a very different food experience. Serving along with a glass of warm mulled wine is an excellent way to enjoy these wee crumbly tarts.

Apple and mincemeat tart with brandy butter

(Serves 8)

This irresistible version of a single mince pie would make a great pudding for Christmas Day.

500g shortcrust pastry

400g Bramley cooking apples, weighed when peeled and cored

1 large lemon, juice and finely grated zest

1 rounded tbsp soft light brown sugar

4 heaped tbsp ready-made mincemeat – but homemade is best, of course

Small amount of butter for greasing the plate

Small amount of milk for brushing the pastry

Caster sugar for dredging the pastry


1. Preheat oven to Gas Mark 6, 200°C.

2. Peel and core apples, cut into quarters then cut each quarter in half, lengthways. Slice each piece of apple through the narrow side, into neat, thin slices.

3. Place the sliced apples in a saucepan, together with the lemon juice, zest and soft brown sugar.

4. Heat very gently until just beginning to soften. The apple pieces should remain firm. Do not allow the apple to soften until pulp. Turn off the heat.

5. Add the mincemeat and stir gently to combine. Leave the mixture to cool down completely.

6. Take one third of the pastry and shape into a ball, then roll out a circle large enough to fit the base of 9cm pie plate, with a little overlapping the edge.

7. Place the apple mixture on top of the pastry base, allowing it to fill the plate right up to within 2cm of the rim.

8. Take the remaining piece of pastry, shape into a ball and roll out into a circle, large enough to cover the whole plate and the apple filling.

9. Brush the visible edge of the pastry base with milk. Lift the pastry top over the apples. Press the edge of the pastry lightly together and using a sharp knife, cut the uneven edges off, using the edge of the plate as your marker.

10. Using your thumb and forefinger, gently press the two edges of pastry together and make regular indentations all the way around the rim of the plate.

11. Make a hole in the top to allow steam to escape, and decorate with the pastry trimmings.

12. Finally, brush the whole surface of the pie with milk, using a pastry brush and sprinkle all over with caster sugar.

13. Place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to chill before baking.

14. Place the pie plate on top of a hot baking sheet in the centre of the oven. Bake for 15 minutes then turn down oven to gas mark 4, 200°C for a further 20-25 minutes until the pie is crisp and golden.

15. Allow to cool a little before serving with chilled brandy butter, whipped double cream, or custard.

Brandy Butter

This can also be served as a traditional accompaniment to Christmas pudding.

(Serves 8)

100g fresh unsalted Scottish butter

100g soft light brown sugar, sieved

1 small squeeze of lemon juice

2 or 3 tbsps good-quality brandy


1. Be sure to have the butter at room temperature and easy to work with.

2. Cut into small pieces and place in a mixing bowl, together with the sieved brown sugar and the lemon juice.

3. Using the back of a wooden spoon, work the butter and sugar together until it is as light and creamy as possible, with no visible lumps remaining.

4. Continue to work the brandy into the butter mixture, a little at a time.

5. Once completed, spoon into a serving dish, cover with cling film and chill before serving with the warm tart.