Christmas is coming and How to Eat is chewing over a mince pie.
But hot or cold? Brandy butter or cream? And does it matter which hand you eat it with?
Mince pies: don’t mess about with them. Photograph: Magdalena Bujak/Alamy Stock Photo
In 1733, the Gentleman’s Magazine carried a short reflection on mince pies – née Christmas pyes – that, among other observations, noted how puritanical Quakers swerved them on the basis that they are an “invention of the Scarlet Whore of Babylon, an Hodge-Podge of Superstition, Popery, the Devil and all his Works”.
Sounds exciting, right?
But, in 2018, the mince pie, lacks that transgressive edge.
We may buy a staggering 370m every Christmas but we also throw a shameful 74m away, indicative of how innocuous they now are.
Any tingle of forgive-me-father-for-I-have-wolfed-four excitement has gone.
Mince pies are mundane. We take them for granted.
Part of the problem is that most shop-bought mince pies are clumsily spiced, collapsing air-pockets of disappointment.
But this is a treat of diminishing returns for other reasons, too.
We routinely abuse the mince pie. We fail to treat it with reverence.
Which is why it is best to read on and learn how best to eat one of Britain’s favourite dishes.
An ambitious hobbyist, turned accomplished baker, turned cookbook author steps into her crafting niche by creating a decadent holiday castle.
Christine McConnell, expert baker and architecture-savvy aesthete, completes a massive, intricate gingerbread house. Putting in nearly 270 hours of work spread over 20 days, as well as pounds and pounds of icing, McConnell forms an edible chef d’ oeuvre without a single cardboard support in sight.
Fine-tuned with impeccable detail and realistic, epochal design, the creation towers over typical gingerbread houses with its castle-sized proportions and dark, romantic feel.
All of the ingredients required for the artistic creation include “simple stuff you can find at any grocery store,” McConnell shares. “This project was a huge undertaking for me.
I usually try to limit projects to two weeks, but I got so excited about this that I ended up getting a little carried away.”
“I love architecture,” she continues, “always have. When I was ten years old, I had a dream about a weird house and when I woke up, I had to build it out of cardboard and whatever else I could find, so I guess I’ve been fiddling with this sort of thing for a while.
”Photographs of her edible creations are frequently complimented by the artist wearing her own glamorous fashion designs and deft photo-editing. The artist’s claim to fame bridges many talents, but she’s best known for fashioning astonishing baked goods.
Take a closer look at the gingerbread castle and small accessories, like a chocolate-peppermint reindeer cake and tiny porcupine brownies, which give the composition a new degree of artistry.
McConnell recently released a book of creepy-cute treats accompanied by recipes, entitled Deceptive Desserts.
Christine McConnell shares her recipe for creating your own gingerbread castle in Food.com’s feature of her.
Use all cherries if you wish, but the tartness of the blueberries seems to amplify the flavour of the cherries.
The cornflour becomes invisible, but effectively thickens the juices. Serves 6.
For the pastry: plain flour 230g; butter 140g; icing sugar 50g; eggs 1 large yolk, plus another beaten to seal and glaze the pie.
For the filling: cherries 800g; blueberries 200g; cornflour 2 tbsp; lemon 1; caster sugar 100g (plus a little extra).
You will also need a wide-rimmed metal pie plate or tart tin measuring approximately 26cm in diameter (including rim).
Make the pastry: put the flour into the bowl of a food processor, add the butter cut into pieces and process until the ingredients resemble fine, fresh breadcrumbs.
Mix in the icing sugar and the egg yolk. Transfer the mixture to a bowl, then bring the dough together with your hands to form a smooth ball.
Wrap the dough in parchment or cling film and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Stone the cherries, put them in a mixing bowl then add the blueberries and the cornflour. Finely grate the lemon, add it to the cherries, then cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice. Sprinkle the juice over the fruit and add the sugar.
Tumble the fruit, cornflour, juice, zest and sugar together and set aside.
Place an empty baking sheet in the oven, then preheat to 200C/gas mark 6. Cut the pastry in half. Roll out one half to fit the base of the pie plate, then lower on to the pie plate, leaving any overhanging pastry in place.
Spoon the filling into the dish, leaving a bare rim of pastry around the edge. Brush the rim with a little beaten egg.
Roll out the remaining pastry and place it over the top of the tart, pressing firmly around the rim to seal. Trim the pastry.
Brush the surface with beaten egg, pierce a small hole in the middle to let out any steam, then sprinkle the pie lightly with caster sugar.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, on the heated baking sheet, until golden.
If you’re someone who can’t wait to plan Christmas every year, it’s never too early to start preparing the Caribbean holiday treat known as black cake.
To make this dessert, islanders soak dried fruit in rum and cherry brandy for up to a year before baking.
After British colonists introduced plum pudding (which is more like cake than it sounds) to Caribbean islands, locals adapted the recipe with available ingredients.
Black cake may be a far cry from the original pudding or its cousin, fruitcake, but it does include a combination of cherries, raisins, prunes, currants, and dates.
Where traditional fruitcake makers leave the pieces of soaked fruit intact, black cake bakers pulverize them into a sweet paste.
The finished product is a rich, smooth cake that may be iced, but more often stands alone.
Regional flavors punctuate the uniquely Caribbean confection. A combination of extracts, called “mixed essence,” adds notes of vanilla, almond, and pear (though on Trinidad, home of Angostura, recipes may use bitters and vanilla).
A homemade burnt-sugar syrup called “browning” contributes a caramel flavor. And the rum-soaked fruit offers a bit of bittersweetness.
The New York Times describes the resulting cake as “darker, deeper and altogether more absorbing” than its fruitcake relatives.
Families across the islands and their relatives in the United States—especially in New York—reserve baking and eating black cake for Christmas.
Whoever’s making black cake bakes only a few, so giving one is a deeply affectionate gesture. Someone devoted months of preparation and more than four hours of baking to each cake, along with lots of love, liquor, and expensive fruit.
Digging in should make you feel like a slice of the sweet itself—warm and more full of rum than you appear.Need to KnowSome Caribbean and West Indian establishments sell black cakes during the holiday season.
If you’d like to try your hand at making black cake, but don’t have year-old, booze-soaked fruit at home, fret not—many recipes say three days of soaking works just fine.
Photo: The combination of a well matured and baked dark fruit cake accompanied by slices of crumbly piquant cheese is a rare treat not to be missed.
The poor fruitcake has gotten a bad rap over the past few decades, and not just a cellophane wrap.
People misunderstand its booze-infused density and dank fruitiness, chalking up the decision to give such a gift as nothing more than a misguided antiquated ritual.
But Yorkshire natives will not be dissuaded from enjoying the holiday loaf and, furthermore, from topping the succulent slice with a thick layer of piquant cheese.
In England, a Christmas cake refers to the dried fruit–speckled, rum-soaked round that many other cultures simply call fruitcake. Ideally, the cake is made ahead of time—up to two months—allowing the ingredients to mellow and blend as they receive a regular dowsing of alcohol.
But how did cheese come to accompany the holiday treat?
According to food historian Peter Brears, the creative combo comes from the Victorian era, specifically in Wensleydale, Yorkshire.
Wensleydale is also home to an eponymous cow’s milk (formerly sheep’s milk) cheese that, at the time, was made only during the summer and reached maturity right around the Christmas season.
Folks found that the sharp and crumbly cheese—either perched atop or eaten alongside the cake—paired perfectly with the moist, rich baked good, and a tradition was born.
The Christmas custom has remained mostly a delight confined to Yorkshire, but has become very popular across the border in Scotland
He was one of the most admired actors in the history of the movies.
Marilyn Monroe called him “the sexiest man” she had ever seen. And if you watch his early, incredible performances in “On the Waterfront” (1954), “Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), “The Wild One” (1953), “The Men” (1950), and my favorite Brando film “Guys and Dolls” (1955), you can see an almost-perfectly proportioned, sleek-looking, brilliant actor.
But even in these very early days of his movie career, the great Marlon liked his chow.
Actor Richard Erdman, a fellow actor in “The Men” (Brando’s first film), says Marlon’s diet at the time consisted of “junk food, take out, and peanut butter”, which he consumed by the jarful.
By the mid-fifties, Marlon had become renowned for eating boxes of Mallomars and Cinnamon Buns, and washing his sweet treats down with a quart of milk.
Close friend, Carlo Fiore, said Marlon would go on extreme crash diets in the fifties and sixties, but then would lose his willpower.
He would subsequently gorge on huge breakfasts consisting of corn flakes, sausages, eggs, bananas and cream, and a huge stack of pancakes drenched in maple syrup. (One of Brando’s nicknames for himself was “Branflakes”.)
Carlos Fiore would be dispatched by Brando’s directors to fetch him out of local coffee shops.
The late Karl Malden, a close friend, said that during the shooting of “One Eyed Jacks” (1961) Brando would eat “two steaks, potatoes, two apple pies a la mode, and a quart of milk” for dinner.
This diet necessitated the constant altering of his costumes during filming.
Because of this, at his birthday party that year, the crew gave Marlon a belt as his present with the card, “Hope it fits”.
His birthday cake was labelled “Don’t feed the director” (Brando was the director of “One Eyed Jacks”).
The word “pizza” is thought to have come from the Latin word pinsa, meaning flatbread (although there is much debate about the origin of the word). A legend suggests that Roman soldiers gained a taste for Jewish Matzoth while stationed in Roman occupied Palestine and developed a similar food after returning home.
However a recent archeological discovery has found a preserved Bronze Age pizza in the Veneto region.
By the Middle Ages these early pizzas started to take on a more modern look and taste. The peasantry of the time used what few ingredients they could get their hands on to produce the modern pizza dough and topped it with olive oil and herbs.
The introduction of the Indian Water Buffalo gave pizza another dimension with the production of mozzarella cheese. Even today, the use of fresh mozzarella di buffalo in Italian pizza cannot be substituted.
While other cheeses have made their way onto pizza (usually in conjunction with fresh mozzarella), no Italian Pizzeria would ever use the dried shredded type used on so many American pizzas.
The introduction of tomatoes to Italian cuisine in the 18th and early 19th centuries finally gave us the true modern Italian pizza. Even though tomatoes reached Italy by the 1530s it was widely thought that they were poisonous and were grown only for decoration.
However the innovative (and probably starving) peasants of Naples started using the supposedly deadly fruit in many of their foods, including their early pizzas.
Since that fateful day the world of Italian cuisine would never be the same, however it took some time for the rest of society to accept this crude peasant food.
Once members of the local aristocracy tried pizza they couldn’t get enough of it, which by this time was being sold on the streets of Naples for every meal. As pizza popularity increased, street vendors gave way to actual shops where people could order a custom pizza with many different toppings.
By 1830 the “Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba” of Naples had become the first true pizzeria and this venerable institution is still producing masterpieces.
The popular pizza Margherita owes its name to Italy’s Queen Margherita who in 1889 visited the Pizzeria Brandi in Naples.
The Pizzaioli (pizza maker) on duty that day, Rafaele Esposito created a pizza for the Queen that contained the three colors of the new Italian flag.
The red of tomato, white of the mozzarella and fresh green basil was a hit with the Queen and the rest of the world. Neapolitan style pizza had now spread throughout Italy and each region started designing their own versions based on the Italian culinary rule of fresh, local ingredients.
From onion peels to kiwi seeds or even bits of chocolate, it seems any canvas is sufficient for Turkish artist Hasan Kale (previously) as long as it meets the requirement of being incredibly tiny.
Hasan delights in the challenge of depicting landscapes of his native Istanbul in the most infinitesimal of brush strokes, a feat that requires the use of a magnifying glass to appreciate the details of each piece.
While the longevity of each object he paints is questionable, the steadiness of his hand is impressive to witness.
The word tiffin is also used as a name for a lunchbox. Tiffins (or dhabbas) come in all shapes and sizes, but traditionally they are round, with three or four stacking stainless steel compartments firmly sealed with a tight-fitting lid and a side clip to avoid any nasty spillages and a handle for carrying on top.
In India food cooked at home with care and love is considered to deliver not only healthy (and relatively cheap) food but also divine contentment.
Lunch is usually eaten thali-style, with a tantalising selection of regional delicacies that may include any combination of spicy vegetables, dhal, rice, yoghurt, pickles, bread and pudding served on a big steel plate or a banana leaf. The separate compartments in the tiffin lunchbox accommodate thali lunches perfectly.
Tiffin culture is now to be found all over India. Everyone – from women in brightly coloured saris working in the fields to giggling families on long train journeys – carries a tiffin to provide a compact, portable, homemade lunch.
Every weekday without fail something rather extraordinary is to be seen around midday on the chaotic streets of Bombay (or Mumbai). This is the sight of hundreds of stainless steel tiered tiffin boxes or dhabbas piled high on handcarts and bicycles being pushed through the streets by dhoti-wearing, white-capped tiffin wallahs.
Expertly run by the Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers’ Association, armies of these tiffin wallahs provide the invaluable daily service of speedily delivering piping hot home-cooked lunches to more than 200,000 busy office workers.
Many workers live 50 kilometres or more from their workplace, a long commute on a packed train. There is certainly not time for the cook of the house to prepare a full meal before they leave home.
So the lunch-filled tiffin boxes are picked up later in the morning, colour-coded and transported to the station, where they are collected by the tiffin wallahs, whose mission is to deliver each box to its corresponding workplace still hot from the pan – and to return the empty tiffin to the home before the end of the working day.
With the essential core values of punctuality, teamwork, honesty and sincerity providing the backbone to the business, they have a staggering 99.99% success rate.
The tiffin wallahs have become so revered that they are now called on to lecture to big businesses, and have been honoured guests at British royal weddings.
They are considered so trustworthy that workers often place their wages inside the clean tiffin box on its return journey rather than risk carrying money on the commuter train.
In an old hunting lodge on the grounds of an ancient Norman castle in Abergavenny, Wales, a small, extinct dog peers out of a handmade wooden display case.
“Whiskey is the last surviving specimen of a turnspit dog, albeit stuffed,” says Sally Davis, longtime custodian at the lodge.
The Canis vertigus, or turnspit, was an essential part of every large kitchen in Britain in the 16th century.
The small cooking canine was bred to run in a wheel that turned a roasting spit in cavernous kitchen fireplaces.
“They were referred to as the kitchen dog, the cooking dog or the vernepator cur,” says Caira Farrell, librarian. “The very first mention of them is in 1576 in the first book on dogs ever written.”
The turnspit was bred especially to run on a wheel that turned meat so it would cook evenly. And that’s how the turnspit got its other name: vernepator cur, Latin for “the dog that turns the wheel.”
Back in the 16th century, many people preferred to cook meat over an open fire. Open-fire roasting required constant attention from the cook and constant turning of the spit.
“Since medieval times, the British have delighted in eating roast beef, roast pork, roast turkey,” says , author of Amazing Dogs, a Cabinet of Canine Curiosities, the book that first led us to the turnspit dog.
“They sneered at the idea of roasting meat in an oven. For a true Briton, the proper way was to spit roast it in front of an open fire, using a turnspit dog.”
When any meat was to be roasted, one of these dogs was hoisted into a wooden wheel mounted on the wall near the fireplace. The wheel was attached to a chain, which ran down to the spit.
As the dog ran, like a hamster in a cage, the spit turned.
“Turnspit dogs were viewed as kitchen utensils, as pieces of machinery rather than as dogs,” says Bondeson. “The roar of the fire. The clanking of the spit. The patter from the little dog’s feet. The wheels were put up quite high on the wall, far from the fire in order for the dogs not to overheat and faint.”