Holiday baking traditions: Brandied Mince Tarts

What’s the quintessential English Christmas dessert?

Ah, so many to choose from… Plum pudding? Trifle?

Sugarplums, dancing in your head and right onto the dessert buffet?

In doing research for our new Holiday Baking Traditions recipe series, I looked everywhere online for English Christmas desserts. And discovered a treasure trove of recipes for “pudding” – plum, or Christmas, apparently much the same thing.

This glistening, dark-brown, bowl-shaped confection features dried fruits, including prunes and raisins; the ubiquitous but often unwelcome mixed peel; and, the deal-breaker for most of us Americans: suet.

Mention pudding made with suet – beef fat – and the average American will give you the wrinkled nose, the furrowed brow, the “beef fat belongs on my barbecue, not in my dessert” look.

But think about it; if your mom or grandma made pie crust (or fried doughnuts) using lard (pig fat), there’s not a whole lot of difference. Cornbread baked in bacon grease is another tasty way we’ve traditionally used animal fat in baking.

So why the resistance to suet?

Maybe it’s just the unfamiliarity factor. Who knows, Brits might have the same reaction to lard.

“Pig fat? In my treacle tart? EWWWWWWWW.” (Or the equivalent British exclamation of disgust.)

At any rate, I decided to bypass plum pudding in favor of what appears to be the #2 English Christmas dessert: brandied mince tarts.

“Mincemeat? You mean that icky meat and fruit stuff that people put in pie and then it’s the last pie left on the table at Thanksgiving, and no one’s touched it?”

No, not THAT mincemeat. British Christmas mince is FRUIT mince. Made from raisins and currants, apples and nuts, sweetened with brown sugar and taken over the top with a generous splash of brandy, fruit mince is nicely spicy, full-flavored, and the perfect filling for tiny, two-bite tarts.

The following recipe, with a bit of Americanizing, comes from Sue Dyer, an Australian with British roots. Sue and I have never met; and we probably never will. But we’ve been email pals for awhile. So I asked Sue what she thought about Christmas pudding. Here’s what she said:

“My mum used to make suet pudding when I was a kid and I wouldn’t eat it.”

She then went on to describe her Christmas plans:

“Baking will be mince pies (using my own fruit mince recipe – I’ll send you a copy if you like), shortbread, chocolate truffles, and gingerbread men. I put them on plates that I don’t want back and dress them up with tinsel, etc. It’s interesting how, in these days of rampant consumerism, people’s eyes light up when you give them something home-baked… ”

I told Sue yes, I’d love the mince recipe, and she sent it to me with this note:

“You need a good, rich shortcrust pastry, and you can make them with or without lids. I make them like tarts with a piece of star shaped pastry on top. More fruit (best bit), less pastry. Use good French brandy for the best flavour. Scrumptious.”

Scrumptious indeed.

Sue added, “I’ve only used this recipe for mince pie at Christmas. I guess you could heat it and use it as a sauce with ice cream. I find it hard not to just eat spoonfuls of it when I’m making it. And of course it has to be tested when it’s maturing in the fridge. Frequently.”

She’s right. I made the fruit mince in August, made two batches of tarts (yes, it makes quite a lot), and am still, 3 months later, sampling the remaining mince in the fridge.

Frequently.

Want to try something new this year? And change your mind about mincemeat in the process?

Brandied Mince Tarts, here we come!

First, some preliminary tasks. Grate the rind from 1 small orange. I made the mistake of using a large orange the first time I made this; the mince was unpleasantly citrus-y.

Grate the rind from 1 small-to-medium lemon. A Microplane grater-zester works extremely well – and you never worry about grating your knuckles.

Next, ready your fruit. We’ll be using two kinds of raisins, plus Zante currants.

Golden raisins, Thompson raisins, Flame raisins, sultanas, currants… what’s the difference?

Raisins are sun-dried grapes, and different types of raisins come from different grape varieties. Two of the most popular seedless raisins in the U.S. are Thompson (above, left); and Flame, typically larger and moister than Thompson. Golden raisins (a.k.a. sultanas; above, center) are Thompson raisins that have been chemically treated, then flame-dried to attain their light-gold color.

Tiny Zante currants (above, right; usually shortened to just “currants”) come from Black Corinth grapes.

Mixed candied peel is orange and lemon peel, and citron.

Ah, the mysterious and much-maligned citron! What is it?

Citron is a Mediterranean fruit. Looking rather like a very large (up to 10 pounds), misshapen lime, it’s prized not for its juice, but rather for its thick rind, which is diced or sliced, then pickled, candied, brewed into tea, or turned into jam.

Finally – let’s begin. Put the following into the work bowl of a food processor:

1 cup raisins, Thompson or Flame
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup Zante currants
2 medium Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and sliced or coarsely chopped
1/4 cup mixed candied peel
grated rind of 1 small orange
grated rind of 1 small-to-medium lemon

Process until finely minced, but not puréed.

What if you don’t have a food processor? Then you’ll be doing a LOT of fine chopping by hand – or in small batches in a blender.

Add the following:

3/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons English mixed spice, or a combination of 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/2 teaspoon each nutmeg and allspice
1/8 teaspoon salt

Process until JUST combined.

Add 2/3 cup slivered almonds. Process briefly, just to break up the almonds.

Transfer the mixture to a bowl. Add a scant 1/2 cup golden raisins, and 1/3 cup currants.

Add 2 1/2 tablespoons melted butter.


Next, the brandy part of these brandied tarts. Choose a decent bottle of brandy, French preferred. It doesn’t have to be expensive; the bottle above cost just under $10.

Add 1/4 cup brandy.

Stir to combine thoroughly.

Store airtight in the refrigerator, until ready to use; stir it occasionally, to redistribute the juice. Mince will keep for several months in the refrigerator, tightly covered. Or freeze it, for long-term storage.

Next, we’ll make the tart dough. This is most easily done with the help of a food processor, though it’s also simple to make it by hand.

Put the following in the bowl of your food processor:

2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour or Perfect Pastry Blend
heaping 1/2 teaspoon salt*
1/2 cup butter, cut into pats

*Reduce the salt to a level 1/2 teaspoon if you use salted butter.

Process until the mixture is evenly crumbly.

Unlike a typical American pie crust, this “short crust” shouldn’t have any large pieces of butter remaining; the mixture should look like breadcrumbs.

Drizzle in 2 tablespoons ice water.

Process; the dough should start coming together. Add an additional tablespoon of water…

…and process again. It should have come together nicely.

Remove the dough from the processor, and squeeze it together.

Divide the dough in half, and shape each piece into a flattened ball, or wheel.

Roll the edges to smooth them out; they should look like big hockey pucks. Wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 30 minutes, or overnight.

When you’re ready to prepare the tarts, remove the dough from the refrigerator. If it’s been chilling for longer than 30 minutes, let it warm for 15 minutes or so, until it’s “rollable.”

Start preheating your oven to 400°F.

Work with one piece of dough at a time. Place it on a well-floured work surface; our silicone rolling mat works well here.

Roll the dough into a 10″ circle, about 1/8” thick.

Select your pan(s). For mini tarts, a mini muffin pan works well. For slightly larger tarts, use a standard muffin pan.

I’ve chosen to make mini tarts, using a mini muffin pan. Now, how big should the dough circles be for a mini muffin pan?

Measure the bottom diameter of one of the muffin cups; that’s your starting point. For a mini muffin pan, add 1″. For a standard muffin pan, add 1 1/2″ (so that the dough will come 3/4″ up the sides of the cup).

Example: If one of the cups in your mini muffin pan measures 1 1/4″ across the bottom, you’ll want to cut 2 1/4″ rounds of dough.

Cut rounds of dough – 24 for a mini muffin pan, 12 for a standard muffin pan. A 2 1/4″ biscuit cutter works well for the mini tarts. Save any scraps for the stars that’ll go on top.

If you’re making small (rather than mini) tarts, a 3 3/4″ English muffin ring is close enough.

Roll out the second piece of dough, and cut rounds. Again, save the scraps.

Nestle the dough circles gently into the muffin cups. Don’t stretch them.

Wherever the dough folds, snip through the fold…

…and lap one side over the other, pressing to seal.

Prick the bottom of each tart several times with a fork, to prevent them puffing as they bake.

Spoon about 2 teaspoons fruit mince atop each of the mini tart crusts; a level teaspoon cookie scoop works well.

If you’re using a standard muffin pan, spoon about 4 generous teaspoons filling into the tarts; a slightly heaped tablespoon cookie scoop works well.

Cut stars from the dough scraps: 1 1/4″ stars for the mini tarts, 2″ stars for the small tarts.

Now, what to do with any leftover dough? Cut more stars…

…and sprinkle stars and scraps with cinnamon-sugar. Bake in a 400°F oven until lightly browned and crisp. Yummy!

OK, back to our original stars.

Spritz the stars with water, and center one star atop each tart.

Sprinkle heavily with Baker’s Special sugar or castor (superfine) sugar, if desired.

Enough fussing! These are ready for the oven.

Bake the mini tarts for about 20 to 22 minutes, until they’re golden brown. The larger tarts should bake for about 28 to 30 minutes, again until they’re golden brown.

What’s going on with the picture? I was experimenting with baking the stars separately. Not necessary.

Also, I was using a 20-cup mini muffin pan, instead of a 24-cup; since this recipe makes 2 dozen mini tarts, it’s best to choose a 24-cup mini-muffin pan.

Remove the tarts from the oven.

Serve warm, with brandy butter or heavy cream; or at room temperature.

Here they are: 1 3/4” mini tarts, and 2 3/4” small tarts.

Tender, buttery, crumbly crust; sweet, aromatic fruit filling. And you thought you didn’t like mince(meat)!

Read, rate, and review (please) our recipe for Christmas Brandied Mince Tarts.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. cherry

    This looks like a great recipe for the tart pastry. Can I use your directions to bake tarts blind and fill them later with a different filling.(instead of mincemeat) Just wondering if the pastry will puff so much that my filling won’t stay put. Grateful for any help.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Cherry, this pastry dough does make quite a nice “short” crust. It melts in your mouth, similar to shortbread. You’re welcome to use this dough to blind bake mini tart shells. Just be sure to dock the dough (prick it with a fork) to let the steam escape. This helps prevent the crust from puffing up while it bakes. You can also consider using our Citrus Scented Tart Dough which is designed to be used in this fashion. It’s also a bit sweet, which is nice in some recipes. Kye@KAF

  2. Anna Robinson

    I made mince tarts last night. I love them. Tastes better than a slice of mince pie. I make my mince around thanksgiving. I just pick up raisins, dried apples, currants, dates, figs, cherries in the dried food section at my local co-op. I use a cheese gratter to add a stick of butter and a good shot of brandy with nuts. Stir together with lemon and orange zest, and juice. I also scrape a vanilla bean. Keeps in the fridge for weeks.

    Reply
  3. Iris

    I have always had this fascination with the movie STATE FAIR 1945 version, when they are making the mincemeat and the judge tasting it! I am going to make this for the holidays or maybe sooner.

    Reply
  4. Irene in TO

    Vegan all-fruit version: use the same volume of boiled cider as brown sugar. Skip sugar and butter.

    No food processor? Shred or grate the apple and just mix the raisins with boiled cider.

    I keep this in a big bowl in the fridge for a few days to let the raisins absorb the cider and brandy. Then I pack it up into one-pie portions into freezer bags.

    My mother always added more chopped apple just before baking. It really freshens up the taste. These pies keep 4-5 days on a cold porch.

    Reply
  5. Leanne

    Waah! Why do I never read recipes properly? For some reason my eyes skipped over “candied peel”. Am hoping that I can find some at the store, else I’ll be taking advantage of your shipping deal right now… I do have plenty of citrus to make my own… hmmm….

    Reply
  6. Philippa

    Do these need to be eaten the same day they’re made or can they be stored for a while either at room temperature or in the fridge? I was thinking of adding them to my Christmas cookie/baking tins I give to coworkers as gifts, but if they should be eaten soon after baking I might make them closer to Christmas instead.

    I’d say they should be consumed within a few days of making; no need to refrigerate, but they’ll start to get stale. PJH

    Reply
  7. Jeannette

    As a Brit, Christmas would not be Christmas without mince pies! They are on sale here from November onwards and there is great competition amongst the supermarkets to bring out the best one to be rated by magazines etc. I make my own mincemeat and although the suet-less mince is pleasant enough it doesn’t have the same keeping qualities as the traditional one made with suet. And of course the brandy or other spirit used also improves its keeping qualities. I will be using mine from last year for this year’s pies, it is still perfectly good.

    Reply
  8. candrews

    This sounds fabulous, but I have an unfortunate allergy to apples. Are there other fruits that would work as well? Any that I should not use?

    Pears would be a great substitute. Anything firm should be just fine. Maybe fresh cranberries, if you increase the sugar to taste? I wouldn’t use grapes, oranges, or anything too juicy… PJH

    Reply
  9. Ann

    I first tasted these about 10 years ago when I visited a friend of mine in Wales and we went Christmas shopping downtown. The church ladies were serving these with tea, and I fell in love.

    Mine look very much like these, the same mini-muffin tims and star tops, although use a wee brush to put on some egg glaze. Did a very large Christmas dinner 2 years ago and put these out along with various-sized wine glasses half-full of lemon mousse; folks could have one or both. More glasses than guests and a little more than two mince tarts per guest. Despite all those folks looking dubious, the tarts absolutely flew off the table. The anti-mince pie folks just have never had the right sort.

    Reply

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