Monday, March 10, 2014
By Ken Allen
Ancient dishes from yesteryear disappear as tastes change, and many old ones have ties to fall hunting or slaughtering time. Two traditional holiday entries jump to mind -- mincemeat for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
In the 18th, 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, folks made mincemeat for pies, turnovers and filled cookies, often from a deer neck. Sure, they used beef or even bear for this colonial staple, but the traditional choice for our American festivities often came from venison when available.
By the way, flavoring meat with dried fruit and other sweets has a strong tradition in the Old World prior to the 19th century. A professor of a Restoration poetry and literature class told our class that the custom began in an effort to make half-spoiled meat tolerable. I believed.
These days, we see meatless mincemeat in stores, and the concoction tastes like bad fruitcake, often including ingredients like raisins, currants (more tart than raisins), citron, candied orange peel, lemon, grapefruit peel and candied cherries along with powdered cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and God knows what else -- even green tomatoes. Sure, meat recipes for mincemeat specify candied fruits, but meat tames sweets.
My mincemeat recipe comes from an an early 18th-century cookbook, and for several years, I prepared it for holiday pies -- an expensive, annual option unless we compare the price to potato chips at $20 or more a pound. Mincemeat kept for a long, long time and dramatically improved with age, good in that age centuries ago with no refrigeration.
My recipe called for venison from a neck, but bear or beef would do. Our American concoctions probably came from British cookbooks, before they landed on this side of the Atlantic, or at least I'd like to think so. But the vension-neck twist is of U.S. origin.
Gather the following for a holiday treat to wow friends:
2 pounds ground venison (or beef),
3/4 pounds suet,
5 pounds peeled, chopped apples without cores,
3 pounds raisins,
2 pounds currants,
1/2 to 1 pound citron,
21/2 pounds brown sugar,
2 tablespoons cinnamon,
2 tablespoons mace,
1 tablespoon ground cloves,
1 tablespoon salt,
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 quart sherry and 1 pint brandy.
Over a low heat, cook the mincemeat uncovered for 90 minutes or more or until it reaches the right consistency -- not too wet nor too dry. (A large double-boiler ensures it doesn't burn on bottom.) Put in in earthenware crocks to cool, and as the fat rises to the top, this old-fashioned, culinary technique seals the mincemeat.
When making pies or turnovers, folks should take a chapter from the past and make the pie crust from rendered bear fat, allegedly superior for creating perfect, flaky crust -- the pride of colonial America.
Here's another winning recipe from colonial days -- boiled cider pie. At first, I assumed the main ingredient began by bringing sweet cider to a simple boil in the same manner a chef might boil honey before adding it to bread, but no, cooks boiled a gallon of cider down to one cup of syrup.
One recipe calling for this ingredient sounds heavenly for a late fall dessert:
In a bowl, thoroughly beat an egg,
1 cup of sugar,
2 tablespoons of flour,
1 cup of boiled cider,
2-tablespoons of melted butter,
11/2 cups of boiling water.
Pour the mixture into a pie plate, cover the hot liquid with a pie crust and immediately bake in a 400-degree oven. If the cook lets the pie sit too long before cooking, the crust will be soft and slimy. When done right, this pie tastes like a combination of fresh apple custard -- if you get my drift.
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