Micole Khemarrica (khromat) wrote,
Micole Khemarrica

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At the crossroads of sweet and savory...

Time for some Culinary Insanity! :D

Mincemeat is one of those odd Christmas traditions that dates back to the middle ages and while the general ingredients have changed little over the centuries, the proportions have. During the English Renaissance, the list of ingredients still had meat in it (mutton, to be precise) as well as suet, dried fruit, candied peel, various spices and finished with a fortified alcohol. Sugar was treated as a spice, not a main ingredient, so the final product was very much on the savory side of the scale.

Over the intervening generations, the meat was first supplemented with and then supplanted by apples; The list of spices may have changed, but sugar rapidly moved out of that group to become a major component. Modern mincemeat is firmly inside the sweet end of the flavor scale.

I have in my possession a recipe for mincemeat dating to 1604 from a collection of recipes of Elinor Fettiplace, which has the humorous annotation by the modern transcriber that --unlike the mincemeat she was used to serving-- the Renaissance version made "little savory pies, completely unsuitable for tea time." (She also noted that her confusion was in the fact that the ingredients listed were the same as what she's used to, but the proportions are different, so I have to assume that --unlike the U.S.-- the U.K. still has people who make mincemeat with meat in it.) I also have the venerable 1974 version of The Joy Of Cooking, which includes a rather substantial recipe for mincemeat in its canning section. This year, I noticed an article in the SF Chronicle from a foodie who just rediscovered the wonders of mincemeat by adapting a recipe found in a comfort book dated 1999. Intrigued as I have been about the evolution of culinary traditions, I've wanted to make mincemeat from various time periods to compare them; I made The Joy Of Cooking version once many years ago, but somehow the jars got lost over the maturing period and I never did get a chance to taste them. This time, I decided since I have three recipes, I should scale them all to make the same amount of mincemeat which should be small enough to handle in a reasonable manner. (The JoC version was enormous and filled a case of quart containers!).

I have tagged each of them by the year of origin or earliest known date of it being printed... so, the Fettiplace manuscript version is tagged 1604, the JoC version is tagged 1931 (from information gathered about the original author), and the modern one is tagged 1999/2009 (after all, the article writer did mention they adapted it.) I transcribed each recipe into my multi-purpose Food Cost spreadsheet to scale them each to make 2 pies. Now to get ingredients....

Beef Suet is one of those odd beasties .... it was extremely common in an earlier era, when most people lived on farms and butchered their own livestock, and those who didn't live on farms still had easy access to it because it was commonly used in making candles. (Suet is also called Tallow, and it's the hardest fat found on beef -- the layer of fat surrounding the kidneys.) Today in the land of supermarkets, you'll not only not see suet, but most of the butchers behind the counter would be confused if you asked for it. Supermarkets get their meat already packaged in 'primals' from the big meat packing suppliers, ready to be sliced down to 'retail form'. So I had to look for a small independent meat market, preferably one who butchered their meat on premises. Luckily, those still exist .... I found one tucked away in the maze of surface streets of San Jose's Willow Glen district and bought all they had (which included two whole pieces freshly trimmed as I waited... and two bags of large cut chunks). Mutton is still an impossible find (the Willow Glen butcher offered to let me know when his farmer clients came in with lamb to slaughter, which I thanked him for) but lamb is pretty easy to get, and I already had a boneless leg sitting in my Deep Freezer waiting to be used. The 1931 version wanted an Ox Heart or lean beef... I opted for small bison roast just to be interesting (bison is naturally leaner than beef).

While no specifics were given for the apples, I prefer heirloom cooking apples and my favorite local farmer's market carries Braeburns. Candied peel is another staple common to all three, but there was a problem. In 1604, the *only* orange available was the Seville Orange, also called the Sour Orange. The dried peels of this orange are the main flavoring agent for Curaçao and other bitter orange liquers and was the definitive flavor of Orange Marmalade before the modern preference of sweet oranges replaced it. Sour Oranges are *impossible* to find in California, leading me to consider getting the import permit and try growing my own plant just to be able to do some of my Renaissance recipes. In the meantime, I have mincemeat to make and the only guaranteed Seville Orange peel I can find is in imported Scotch-style Marmalade. Since I needed candied peels, it wasn't too far a stretch to melt the marmalade, strain out the peels, and let them dry out. The later two recipes don't have that historical limitation, so modern candied peel would work... only, the 1999/2009 one wanted you to hand-make the candied peel. Not that I have any argument about the reasoning, and I have plenty of candied lemon zest already in the house (when we helped a friend denude a lemon tree) so I just needed to candy some orange zest. For the 1931 recipe, I used bought candied citron (another item you just cannot find in its raw form) and candied orange and lemon peel (which actually uses the pith of the fruit, which is why they are thick) along with the sour cherries which was unique to that recipe.

For the same reason as the candied zest, the 1999/2009 recipe wanted fresh-ground spices, which taste different from bought-ground spices. As it was unlikely that pre-ground spices were available in 1604, and because the cinnamon used in 1604 is not what we buy as 'cinnamon' in supermarkets, I picked up some Mexican "canela" cinnamon sticks (also called Sweet Cinnamon or Ceylon Cinnamon) for grinding down to powder. The common cinnamon found in stores is actually Cassia, a close relative but has a different flavor. Nutmeg is still Nutmeg, and Ginger is still Ginger... although finding dried *chunk* ginger to hand grind is difficult at best, so pre-ground is necessary (I note the 1999/2009 recipe didn't specify "freshly ground" on the ginger, presumably because they couldn't find dried whole ginger either.) Allspice berries are easy to find, and Mace only can be found pre-ground.

Ingredients gathered, measured, minced and mixed, each of the recipes sat overnight before being cooked. As each of the recipes wanted a different cooking method, I used a crockpot as well as the oven and stove.... 1604 in the crock-pot, 1931 in a stockpot, and 1999/2009 baked.

Finally, it was time for the canning..... which was when I discovered that there was a flaw in my calculations. Not a disastrous error, more an amusing one: I tried to scale each recipe to equal 2 pies but only the 1999/2009 actually had a finished volume measurement. While I scaled the 1604 recipe up, I had to scale the 1931 recipe down -- and as the recipe said "this is enough filling for about 20 pies", it was a big number scaled down. It's also the recipe with the most ingredients, which is why I (at first) didn't think the smaller amount of suet and apples was off compared to the other recipes... but now, as I pour the mincemeat into quart jars for canning, it turns out the 'scaled' recipe was smaller than expected. Perhaps pies in 1931 were smaller, perhaps it was overcooked and shrank, but it didn't have the same output volume as the other two -- in fact, it was exactly half as much. Oh, well. I've noted it on my spreadsheet in case I do this again in the future. :)

Now, mincemeat needs time to meld... 'mature', like so many other great culinary concoctions. After checking the seals and labeling each, I have stashed the assorted jars in a corner of our bar, in plain view. I've also marked my calendar when I can crack the seals to make pies. This time I won't forget them! :)

So, likely this Christmas, I'll have some 'tasters' ready for local folks to try!
Tags: culinary

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