John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

Cook with Kirk: mince pies

Back in August 2006, I made mince pies for the "Pie-Off". I repeated this on Sunday; not very seasonal, I admit, but it gave me a chance to use up some of my supplies. This time around, I documented the process with photos.

Last time, I made enough pastry for 31 pies, but I was a bit cramped for space in the mixing bowl. This time, I made the pastry in two separate batches, which definitely worked better. As well as space, it also let me multitask: I started on the second batch while the first batch was chilling in the fridge, and put the second batch in the fridge while the first set of pies were in the oven. In fact, I might have been better off making all the pastry the night before, since it took a long time. I've only done photos for the first batch, since the process was pretty much the same both times.

I modified the pastry recipe slightly from last time. I recently bought Delia's "Complete How to Cook" book, and on page 103 she says: "Generally speaking, the amount of fat in shortcrust is half the amount of flour". I had two partially used blocks of butter, so I used one for each batch of pastry, along with double the mass in plain white flour. So, the first batch was 170g butter + 340g flour, and the second batch was 210g butter + 420g flour. (I used a "pinch" of salt in each batch, but that's a bit tricky to quantify.)

So, step 1 was to weigh the flour. 340g looks like this:

Weighing the flour

Then I needed to sift it. According to the packet, this isn't necessary, but it's probably prudent (especially since the flour has gone past its date). Quoting again from the blessed Delia (p104): "Believe it or not, air is the most important ingredient in pastry. So, rule number one is to sift the flour into the bowl, holding the sieve as high up as possible, so that the flour gets a really good airing before you begin."

Sifting the flour

If you look closely at the bottom left corner of that photo, the white bit on the edge of the worktop isn't a camera flash or a reflection of the flour. It's actually a "halo" of flour that drifted a bit while I was sifting it, so it missed the bowl underneath. I didn't actually lift the sieve "as high up as possible"; I could have lifted it up above head-height, but I'd probably have then wound up covered in flour. (Mind you, that might make an interesting party game, a bit like the limbo in reverse: how high can you go before you miss the bowl?)

This really comes down to the idea of guidelines vs rules. I know that there are some people who are very creative, and just chuck ingredients in rather than weighing them or following a recipe. However, given that I'm not very good at this yet, I'm trying to take a more scientific approach, i.e. follow the recipe as closely as I can, then vary bits of it to see what happens. (For instance, when I bake bread I weigh the salt/sugar/butter exactly, then I can see what happens to the bread if I adjust a particular quantity.)

Anyway, most of the flour wound up in the bowl, so I moved on to the next step: butter.


I'd already weighed the butter at the start (so that I knew how much flour I'd need), so I just needed to chop it up into cubes, roughly 1cm on each edge.

Butter cubes

Next came the really tedious part: mixing the butter into the flour.

Mixing butter and flour

(As a side note, this was quite tricky to photograph, since I didn't have an accomplice. I had to hold the camera with my left hand, fingers splayed on either side of the lens, then press the button in the top right corner.)

I took each cube of butter in turn, and mixed it with the flour, lifting it up again to get a bit of air in. The recipes all say that this should be done as quickly as possible, but it took me about 40 minutes per batch (vs 50 minutes for one large batch last time). I think I did a better job this time, since I avoided any white patches of "unbuttered" flour, but I'm definitely coming round to the idea that food processors are useful. (As I understand it, the main objections to "processed" food are that it's not fresh and it contains bizarre ingredients, rather than the fact that it's been done by machine.)

Once I'd finished, the flour looked like this:

Butter enriched flour

In this case, it's better to look at the reflection in the toaster, since that shows the yellow-y colour a bit more clearly than the direct view of the "butter enriched" flour.

Then I had to turn this into pastry, by sprinkling it with water and rolling it into a ball. So, I turned the tap on, and lobbed a few tablespoons of water into the bowl. I then remembered that the last time I'd used the mixer tap in the sink was for hot water, so even though I'd turned the cold tap on this time, it still produced warm water at first. Oops. Also, I started by chucking in as much water as I expected to need, but then I wound up with other parts of the flour that wouldn't stick together so I had to add more later. It's a bit tricky to squash the pastry into a ball and also sprinkle water (since your hands get all goopy), but I guess there's a knack to it. I'm not sure whether it's easier to do the whole thing in the bowl, or dump it on to foil first. Once I'd finished, it looked like this:

Ball of pastry on foil

So, I shoved that into the fridge for a while. The recipe says that it should be at least 20 minutes; I think I had it in there for about 50 minutes.

While that was chilling, I prepared the baking tray, using kitchen towel and margerine:

Baking tray

I used margerine instead of butter because it's easier to spread (or smear). Anyway, one "greasing" was enough for both batches of pies.

When I took the pastry out of the fridge and unwrapped the foil, a bit of steam came off it, probably because of the hot water. I then rolled it out:

Rolled pastry on worktop

My worktops are made of granite, so I rolled the pastry onto there directly rather than using a separate board. (Apparently this helps to keep it cool.) Obviously it's important to clean the worktop first! The pastry didn't stick together as well as I would have liked, probably due to the water problems; the second batch worked a bit better. Similarly, I couldn't get it too thin because I didn't think it would hold together.

I then used my pastry cutters to cut out big shapes for the pie bases:

Pastry cutters

I have a set of three pastry cutters; the diameters are 7.7cm, 6.6cm, and 5.5cm. I used the largest one for the base, and the medium one for the lid. When I cut each circle, I found that the best technique was to act as if I was flanning someone. (I realise that this won't be a particularly helpful analogy for most people reading this!) In other words, rather than just pushing in and pulling back out, it's better to push in, then twist it round a bit to separate the bit inside from the bit outside. Once I'd done that, I used a knife to peel the pastry off the worktop, and put it into the baking tray.

After I cut out a bunch of bases, I rerolled the flour so that the remaining pastry was all in one big piece. I've heard that this isn't ideal (something to do with gluten), but the alternative was to have lots of little pieces of pastry stuck together.

After the first batch of bases were done, the baking tray looked like this:

Pie bases

I then filled them, using one teaspoon of mincemeat in each one:

Pie filling

After that, I cut out the lids and put them onto the pies, although I didn't take any photos of this step.

Next, I needed to prepare some eggs. The idea is to separate out egg yolks, then brush them over the pastry cases, to give them a nice golden colour. I have a handy gadget to assist with this:

Egg gadget

The idea is that you crack the egg into it, and the yolk stays in the yellow bit of plastic while the white runs down into the mug underneath. In practice, I've found that it never quite works that well:

Egg yolk

The yolk is in the yellow bit, but there's a long bit of white dangling underneath the plastic, so I had to chop it off, i.e. manually separate the yolk and white using cutlery, so I think it might be easier just to crack the egg and fish the yolk out with a spoon. Last time I used three egg yolks, but I had some left over at the end, so this time I used two large eggs. Anyway, I was able to separate out the yolk and white into different mugs:

Egg yolk and white in separate mugs

I put the egg white into the fridge, to use it in an omelette later (i.e. combine with "full eggs"). As for the yolks, I beat them with a fork, so that they split and turned into liquid.

Yolk and fork

I then used a pastry brush to put the yolk onto the lids:

Brushing egg onto pastry

I put as much yolk onto each lid as I could, but I still wound up with quite a bit leftover at the end, so next time I'll just use one large egg (for 24 pies). When I'd finished all the preparation, the pies looked like this, ready to go into the oven:

Mince pies before baking

I put them in for 15 minutes at 180° (fan assisted oven), which seems to be about right. When they came out, they looked like this:

Mince pies after baking

I then left them to cool on a rack, and sprinkled icing sugar over the top. (No photo of that last step, sorry.)

I think they came out quite well; I had more than I needed for my dinner party, so I've been munching on them for the last few days. No complaints from my guests either, so hopefully they weren't just being polite. I used up all the mincemeat, but I had some spare pastry left at the end, so I've put that in the fridge for now, until I can figure out what to do with it.
Tags: food

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