I’m going out on a limb here but I think my family makes the best mince pies. Courtesy of my Mum’s incredible homemade mincemeat recipe, I have been lucky enough to eat these little blobs of rich pastry delights for as long as I can remember. Only down side is I can’t eat second-rate shop bought ones because of it. But that’s not really a problem because each year we churn out hundreds (yes, hundreds), of our pies for a month of unadulterated indulgence.
Family traditions matter to me and, until five years ago, our annual mince pie experience involved my Mum, sister and me camping out in the kitchen for hours on end with the Christmas Carols CD playing on loop whilst the mince pie mountain emerged. I only ever got involved in making the pies, not in the mincemeat creation. That was always Mum’s territory. But five years ago she suffered a massive stroke that diminished her in a nano second from someone with bundles of energy to a lady severely disabled, with speech that made no sense and needing high-end nursing care in a home.
One (rather minuscule in the scheme of things) problem with her stroke was that we got to November and I realised there was no mincemeat ready to make pies! I know it sounds insane to be perplexed by a lack of mincemeat when someone is in critical recovery post-stroke. But bizarrely, keeping that tradition going was more important that year than any before or since. It meant finding a bit of normality in the madness and sadness. It meant recruiting my boys to continue the tradition with me, in her absence, as she couldn’t leave hospital at that stage. I had to make those mince pies because I had to know that life goes on; that you find a new norm when you are affected by something so shattering.
Fast forward five years and today I once again made the mincemeat for our 2015 batch of pies. This morning, Mum joined me in her wheelchair and enjoyed every minute of stirring the mixture and bossing me around. It’s amazing how much you can communicate even when you can’t speak coherently. With her finger wagging and pointing to the sink I was not going to be allowed to get away with leaving the dried fruit unwashed. We celebrated as she correctly measured out the sugar. A HUGE milestone – the previous four years would have seen her tipping the lot in without reference to weights and measures. More firsts this year: pointing out the ingredients needed and noting we had the wrong type of almond; removing one piece of apple from the mix to ensure the exact measure needed and, as a beautiful finale, an emphatic ‘thank-you’ at the end of the morning.
Stroke sucks. And learning to live life after stroke is a journey that has heaps of ups and downs, both for the stroke survivor and those closest to them. But there is one good thing that has come out of it for me. I see my Mum and her celebration of the most simple things and I am reminded that any second your life can be changed, in an instant. Spending time with her and being taken right back to basics is a great leveller; a reminder not to take life too seriously. It reminds me that human contact – a hug, a kiss, simply holding hands – holds far more power than anything material ever will.
The mincemeat is made. The tradition continued. The bowl of fruity delight will now marinade in its mix of lemon and brandy ready for baking in the next few weeks. Today, I want to pass on our family mincemeat recipe to you in the hope that you, too, will be encouraged to start your own family tradition. Mince pie recipe to follow…
1lb beef suet (Atora shredded suet is perfect)
1lb cooking apples
8oz mixed peel
2 tablespoons dried shredded almonds
12oz demerera sugar
1 teaspoon mixed spice
Grated rind and juice of 1 lemon
1/4 pint brandy (rum or whiskey also fine but I prefer it with brandy)
- Peel, core and chop apples coarsely.
- Mix suet, apple, mixed peel and raisins together.
- Pass through a mincer (if you haven’t got one, you’ll need something simple like this).
- Add minced ingredients to a large bowl and add the remaining ingredients.
- Mix well.
- Pack into clean, dry preserving jars. I keep mine in a Tupperware tub in the fridge – it lasts throughout Christmas as the alcohol gives it its keeping qualities. If you do this, just take it out and let it reach room temperature, then give it a good stir before using.