I make mince pies on December 22nd every year, almost without fail. It’s a silly personal tradition dating back to 1981, when I was doing all the Christmas preparations for my family as usual but I was also going off in the evening to meet school friends for a spot of pre-Christmas under-age drinking in the Tiger’s Head. (I guess you know exactly where I mean, @Chislehurst?). That winter was a snowy one, (remember those?) and huge amounts of fresh snow were falling that day over several centimetres that had been lying there frozen for at least a week. My dad said I was mad to go out but it was on that night that I was asked out on my first ever date by the boy who would become OH. That first date was 34 years ago tomorrow.
So anyway mince pies are my annual foray into shortcrust pastry making and, because I use cheap old tins, they always stick, no matter how good the pastry. I was aways taught “Never grease with pastry,” in cookery lessons at school and it’s been a load of rubbish ever since. I’ve spent so much time every year chipping away at the sad excuse for mince pies that refuse to relinquish their grip on my bun tin that this year I finally hd enough, relented and bought silicon bun tins.
I made this batch from Nigella’s Star Mince Pie recipe in her Domestic Goddess book first. Pastry was always touch and go with me until I stumbled upon her method that requires you to freeze the flour and fat before whizzing it in a food processor and adding orange juice as the liquid. Nigella recommends Trex but I have never really been happy using hydrogenated vegetable oils and I have recently taken to using lard. (I heard a thing on the radio recently about how lard is the new IN THING. Funny how these things come back into fashion after being out in the wilderness for decades.)
Here was my very pleasing first batch:
I’ll say this, though: the silicone does give the pies a slightly soggy bottom, so perhaps I need to bake them for an extra minute our two next time or perforate the bun tin.
So lard works. But it’s not suitable for the vegetarians among my guests. The question is, what does one use to create a tender, flaky pastry without using animal fat or hydrogenated vegetable oils? As you’ll have seen from previous posts this week, I’ve been toying with the idea of using coconut oil, as in the Date and Marmalade Christmas Cake. Thus it was, dear Reader, that I came over all experimental this afternoon.
I did a bit of research and came up with this website by Paula Brook Green and her coconut oil pastry recipe. This recipe is vegetarian but not vegan as it uses eggs to enrich the pastry.
I fought shy this time of using the Nigella method with the coconut oil, and giving all the ingredients a blast in the freezer, mainly because the recipe talks about coconut oil being harder to manipulate than butter, but logically, since it’s made in a food processor anyway, this shouldn’t really be a problem.
Instead I whizzed the coconut oil and the flour in the Magimix and then added the egg yolks, vanilla extract and water, and pulsed the mixture until it came together. The thing to watch with this method is that the fine breadcrumbs don’t actually meld together into a ball like ordinary shortcrust pastry made with butter and shortening would, and I added rather too much water in my attempt to get it to do this. I realised in time, however, and emptied the breadcrumbs out onto my floured work surface to knead them together.
Again I was wary of overworking pastry that cannot get too cold, so I left the pasty out of the fridge wrapped in clingfilm for a while before use to let it rest. In hindsight, I should have used less water and actually refrigerated the pastry ball before rolling it out, as it looked rather sweaty and turned out a little too brittle and not flaky enough for my liking.
A tip here is to roll out the coconut oil pastry on a sheet of cling film that you’ve placed on top of your work surface. Even though my granite is cold, and therefore ideal for pastry making, I felt that the perspiring pastry would have taken up too much flour and been ruined. A silicone rolling pin made this job a lot easier too.
The clingfilm was invaluable in helping me free the delicate cutouts from the rolled-out pastry, as you can see above, and I’ll use this tip again, I’m sure. I can see it being very useful next time I make a suet crust for a steak and kidney pudding.
Anyway, here are the finished vegetarian mincepies, which used Waitose cranberry mincemeat:
I think they too were a little undercooked and the pastry was not as crumbly or flaky as I had hoped. Next time, I’ll try and use Nigella’s freezer method and maybe not add as much water, and see whether that makes the pastry shorter. I’d also not be frightened of resting the pastry in the fridge before rolling it out.
For a first attempt, though, I am pleased. It’s good to be able to experiment with something completely unknown from time to time.
Do they taste of coconut? Only very slightly but I like coconut so this is not a problem for me. I understand that if you use refined coconut oil, this removes the coconut taste completely.
All in all a satisfying afternoon’s work, I’d say.
The first days of January are so miserable, aren’t they, when everyone goes back to work with the prospect of only miserable, cold days until March? We take the Christmas decorations down, the tree goes out and the lights go off. So I embrace this French tradition of celebrating Epiphany and the arrival of the three wise men with a huge amount of enthusiasm. A Galette des Rois is held on the afternoon of the nearest Sunday to 6th January. People in France even have Galettes des Rois in their workplaces, such is, I believe, the need for something cheerful at this time of year.
A Galette consists traditionally of a crown-shaped pastry case with almondy, buttery frangipane filling but shops in France also make them in other varieties including pear and chocolate. Today’s recipe was Nigella Lawson’s from How to be a Domestic Goddess, but I think I prefer her recipe from Feast, which I have made previously and, as it includes eggs, is richer and more luscious. Galette des Rois is consumed with Champagne, so it’s even more welcome in my house.
Inside the Galette is hidden a ceramic fève or bean, which can often be a cartoon character. Ours today was a little figure of Michel de L’ Hospital. The youngest person present then sits under the table and decides the order in which the slices of Galette should be handed around. Crazy guys, the French.
The person whose slice contains the fève is king or queen for the day and has to wear the crown. This afternoon it was the Boywonder, who had just arrived home from work in his shop of shiny things. I think it’s jolly way of starting the new year and marking the end of the Christmas festivities as long as you don’t have to make an emergency dentist’s appointment, that is.
We first met Caro in her Christmas Round Robin letter two years ago. In that time, life has changed for her and here she writes to update the friends she hasn’t seen much during that time:
My dear friends,
Goodness, the two years since I last wrote to you all have flown by! So much has happened in the meantime. Some of you will be only too aware of my completely amicable separation from dear, dear Justin. Far from being heartbroken, as some of you have mistakenly suggested, I think it entirely fitting that he can now hone his magnificent aesthetic talents on his new little wife without fear of legal action. And, of course, any work he carries out on Celestina will be a massive improvement so it’s a definite win/win there.
The bride and groom!
It was time for a break. Our marriage had run its course and I’m so enjoying being a free agent once more. I’m meeting such interesting people at my exclusive high-power dating soirées. I often wish the bell wouldn’t ring for the next powerful, sensitive, elegant man to take his seat. Who knew that there were so many eligible high-powered single men out there! It’s all really quite exhilarating and such fun! Thank goodness that I have taken care of myself and kept up with all the latest beauty trends! Just a little shot of a laser here -although they do say that hair down there is de rigeur again – and a little spritz of silicone there and I’m box fresh again, ripe and ready for my next Prince Charming. Not, of course, that I actually need a man in my life.
Life here is so much more picturesque and comforting than the oppressive minimalism of The Village and some really nice people are starting to move here. Everyone is so widely-travelled and has such refreshing ideas.There’s even a captivating three times life-size statute of Enver Hoxha, now covered festively in baubles on Market Street! One can pick up such a range of exotic antiques and merchandise (no doubt illegally imported) from the colorful local market. It really is such fun to browse on Sundays and listen to the really rather Dickensian cries of the market vendors. True, it is a little – grubby – at times but I’m sure that once we nice people achieve a critical mass, we can really get a community spirit going and resolve any little difficulties with litter or graffiti or dog mess on the pavements.
Our friend Mr. Hoxha, with added bling!
True, it was a wrench to leave the family home into which I had invested so much time and effort – not to mention hard-earned cash – over the years, but I like to refer to this part of town as fashionably shabby chic. The new house is so convenient for public transport, if one needs it, and the wonderful thing about living without encumbrance is that one can fully express one’s own aesthetic taste.
Justin has his midlife crisis minimalist glass box bachelor pad with his midlife crisis glass box new wife and I can indulge my more opulent side. Incidentally, if you’ve seen Justin recently, you’ll have observed that despite his topped-up tan, firmed skin and newly non-existent eye bags, he has a bit of a bald spot appearing just at the top of his head! What a sight when he sits in his new Aston! Hilaire, no?
And now that Monty has gone to live with his master – well, Celestina has plenty of time on her hands to look after him – and I no longer have to labrador-proof the house, candles and cushions and gauzy curtains are the order of the day. I have made my new home into quite a haven of tranquility! I’ve put a gorgeous blue nude up in my kitchen and the opulent red velvet chaises longues and chandeliers in the drawing room simply ooze fin de siecle chic. Columbia was even reminded of her favourite novel, Nana. I do so love Zola. Do pop in when you’re passing. Please.
Our news? Well it’s been a year of mixed blessings, but blessings they all will be in the longer term, I am sure. Columbia graduated last year and has moved to Idaho with her boyfriend, Seth, who has the most delightfully refreshing old-fashioned manner about him. On the whole I think joining that special church of which it is prudent not to speak ill will help her find her true self and I’m especially pleased that they are now allowed to marry in their churches here. Teaching the little ones in the church is such a worthwhile use of her Oxford degree, don’t you think, and I’m sure the international management consultants will all still be beating a path to her door in a few years’ time. Justin is inclined to disparage Columbia’s new way of life but then he was always small-minded. I mean, it’s done wonders for Tom Cruise’s power and influence in the world, hasn’t it?
Banqquo is now in the Lower Sixth. Of course we insisted that he did the Asian Five A levels and I believe that his resits, when he takes them in the summer, will bear out our choice. He will, in time, grow to accept that his parents’ advice is all for his own good. He’s going to be a surgeon like his father. Sadly his orchestral commitments started to encroach on his serious study time and he stopped playing the oboe in the spring. He’s had to let his sporting interests take a back seat for the time being, too. He’s working ever harder, closeted away in his room until late. He often has his friends Blade and Vesuvio around for study dates and they’re holed up there, beavering away for hours, emerging only for ice-cream. Such nice boys, they are. And what a refreshing look! As a mother, I am concerned that their poor skinny ankles will become frozen now that the frosty nights are here but I have learned not to make a fuss. Fashion is fashion, after all.
Iolanthe is in year 9, of course. She is a proper teenager these days and spends lots of time shopping with her friends at weekends. She has so many friends, I hardly see her! It seems no time at all since she started at St. Cosmo’s and naturally she’s covered herself in glory. Thank goodness she has slowed down a little. I think her subconscious must have told her that she was over-reaching herself. All children pass through different phases of intellectual growth, don’t they? She is, thankfully, still playing the viola and very much in demand in all sorts of ensembles.
The children will be spending Christmas with their father in Jasper again. They all adore their skiing but I only ever went along to keep everyone else happy so I’m relieved not have to go anymore. The cold really takes its toll on one’s skin and many are the times that I have ruined a manicure whilst unfastening my ski boots. Besides, Jasper just isn’t the place to go these days. Times change, don’t they?
Luckily I have so many friends with fabulous holiday homes in the most fashionable places. I’ve been to South Africa and Menorca, and I’m beyond excited to be jetting off to a vegan meditation retreat in Nepal in the New Year!
And work? Well, it turns out that I achieved Partnership at exactly the right time because, if the truth be told, all of the glitterati who came here with Arab Spring have settled down and no longer need my professional assistance. The Russians seem to have decided that London is far too dull and moved on, some to prison, admittedly, – did you see that article recently about the bursting top-end property bubble in London? – so my client base does seems to have shrunk a little since I last wrote. What we need is another People’s Revolution somewhere and more despots to flee to London with their ill-gotten cash! Yes, there’s the Syrian crisis of course, but the people leaving there in droves are not really the sort to come to me for advice are they?
Which means I have much more time to spend at home and with the children and we no longer feel so keenly the loss of dear Mrs. P. I have learnt new skills too: I adore cooking and making sure the cleaners do their job properly. I’ve learned to work the washing machine and even opened an Ocado account! Goodness, how useful they are, for the basics, at least. I am a well-rounded, fulfilled woman at last!
So all in all, a good year, with plenty of opportunities for personal development. I do hope this finds you as it leaves me.
We tend only ever to have fruit or yoghurt or ice cream for pudding normally, if at all, and I make pastry about once a year for Christmas mince pies. Whenever I made it to the standard shortcrust formula years ago, with water, it always stuck to the rolling pin or worktop, so I added more flour, which made it dry and vile.
And then I discovered the recipe in How To Be A Domestic Goddess, Nigella Lawson’s book on baking and comfort cooking which, contrary to what some small-minded people might think, one can enjoy and still be a feminist, that employs orange juice to make the pastry tender and malleable and much easier to work with. Pastry made this way was always fab but still stuck to my bun tins, no matter how non-stick they were supposed to be.
All that work for mince pies that had to be prised out of their little compartments with a knife and then crumbled all over the kitchen. All that work for mince pies rendered, in the end, to sad rubble. And then the bun tins would be washed up and forgotten, consigned to the baking cupboard until the following year’s mince pie debacle.
Well, this year I refused to be caught out. I bought silicone bun tins weeks ago, before they were sold out. I love silicone bakeware because stuff NEVER sticks to it.
Then, of course the problem was which size pastry cutter to use with the new bun tins. My first batch made the pies too shallow and the scant teaspoonful of mincemeat still bubbled over and would have stuck to a normal tin. So then I used cocktail mini bun tins. And these came out perfectly. Especially with my accurate and fabulous new oven.
So, the secret to baking turning out well is to use the right equipment for the job.
Here’s a Twitlonger that I wrote this morning, when frantic. This particular one is to Miele as you’ll see, but I’ve become just as frustrated in my dealings with Laurastar and Nespresso in the last few weeks. These are, after all, premium brands and spend huge amounts of money on slick marketing. Which is all very well, but if any aspect of what used to be called in 1990s business school terms as The Value Chain fails, then it takes the lustre off the brand. I’m pleased with the product, of course, but memories of each particular logistical nightmare linger on.
This tarnish can, often, be helped by excellent customer-facing staff who will help sort out the situation. Which is not what happened today. I didn’t write this for self-aggrandisement rather in the hope that companies need feedback in order to improve their service to less vociferous customers, don’t you think?
I am writing to express my dismay with two aspects of your customer service: your delivery contracts and one of the representatives in your “customer support team,” in the hope that this will prompt some action from you to avoid further tarnishing your premium brand.
As background, my 12 year old Neff oven finally died on Monday 16th December. I have been hoping to replace my kitchen but my house has been subject to an insurance claim for two years. Obviously, this is of no concern to you.
I like to cook from scratch rather than buying processed foods – it’s cheaper and that way one always knows what is in one’s food – so you can imagine that, just a week before Christmas this threw me into a panic. So off I popped to John Lewis in Bluewater who ordered your lovely PureLine single built-in oven to be delivered yesterday, Thursday 19th. Unfortunately, there was no-one available from John Lewis to install the oven this side of Christmas but, ringing around, I managed to find a company who had a slot to install it on Thursday afternoon. I was thrilled at how easy this all was, especially when a Miele representative rang me on Wednesday 18th to confirm the 9.30 to 11.30 delivery slot. All was well and I sang carols and drank wine despite having a cold.
Imagine, then, my amusement turning to horror when I was telephoned yesterday just after 7am by the delivery driver who had been scheduled to deliver my oven to tell me that his wife had gone into labour and that my oven would not be arriving. I was grateful for his conscientiousness, of course, and wished him and his wife good luck.
But that left me with a problem. If my oven could not be delivered yesterday, would I be able to find anyone to install it when it was delivered? And then it struck me that a premium brand such as Miele, whom I am paying well over the odds for a new oven, should really have a contract with their delivery company that provided contingency cover in emergencies such as this. Of course, it was not the fault of the original delivery driver that his wife went into labour, well it was but let us not go into that, but surely, SURELY, his employers would have been aware of the situation and provided cover for the route at such a busy and crucial time just before Christmas? It certainly was not MY fault that I was in this pickle, and I was taking all the stress and heartache here.
So I called your Miele Customer Service line and was kept on hold for 15 minutes. Eventually, I terminated my call. I called again after 9am and my call was dealt with 10 minutes later by Heather who, having called around was able to assure me, guarantee me, that my oven would be delivered today, Friday 20th December, in the 9.30 to 11.30 delivery window.
Now I just had to find someone to install the oven. The Kitchen Doctor company was terribly helpful and their manager tried to ring around but all of their installers are at their Christmas parties this afternoon of course, it being the Friday before Christmas. Eventually I called an electrician I knew who was in Germany yesterday, collecting his son from university there. He was going to be tied up with jobs all day today, despite having formally finished work for Christmas on Wednesday, but when I explained my situation he very kindly assured me that he would fit me in. Which was kind, don’t you think? Isn’t it funny how some people are all too willing to put themselves out to help other people?
Now I just needed my oven. And by this morning you hadn’t called to confirm that I would have it. So I called you. And a young man answered. When I explained the situation he said that “I’ll see if I can trace your delivery even though you don’t have your order number.” For which I apologised, even though John Lewis had not given me an order number. Then he kept saying that he hoped the delivery would be made some time today.
But, you see, sometime today is not good enough. Nor is being hopeful. Not just before Christmas when I have cakes and mince pies and ducks and roast potatoes and stuffing and mini toads and all sorts in prospect. And I have to take my elderly, arthritic, demented mother to Bromley to fit her for a new hearing aid at lunchtime. Her old hearing aid stopped working weeks ago and it’s taken until now to jump over the bureaucratic obstacles to obtain a new one for her. I shan’t go into the niceties of tendering for NHS service provision.
My husband is Christmas shopping and my son has a driving lesson at three. And Miele had guaranteed the 9.30 to 11.30 slot. And a kind electrician was standing by waiting for my call. And it is nearly Christmas and I’ve done no baking at all.
“But you have to understand, it’s not our fault that the delivery man’s wife went into labour.” “No,” I explained, “But surely your delivery contract would provide for emergency cover?” Had the delivery man not informed them of his wife’s possible Christmas confinement? If not, why had he felt that way? Was his employer likely to ask him to sacrifice any first-born son in a time of austerity? I didn’t say most of this, of course.
“But you have to understand that I can’t trace your order because I’m not in the sales department. Fingers crossed you’ll get your delivery today.“
No, young man. What YOU have to understand is that you are in the Customer Support department. I am your Customer. I have paid multiples of what a cheap oven would cost for your product and your service and through no fault of mine you are making me run around like a cyan-bottomed dipterous because your delivery company cannot be bothered to make contingency plans at this crucial time of year.
What YOU have to understand is that I have made and unmade and re-made arrangements for installation of my new, vastly expensive, oven, and kind people are doing me favours so that I can actually get on with making Christmas nice for everyone else. I have obligations to my mother to help her with her hearing aid and obligations to my family to try and fit everything in. Something your mother probably does for you, without you realising it.
And I don’t need you to cross your fingers. Just do your job please. And please don’t try and wriggle out of Customer Support and palm it all off onto your Sales Team. Is that how you deal with everyone, young man? Were you chosen for your posh, young voice? Because it certainly wasn’t for your customer service or language skills. My children are quite posh too, actually, but I would be ashamed if they pursued their career in such a slapdash manner. So why don’t you carry on crossing your fingers and I daresay you can slope off to your Christmas party this afternoon.
p.s. My oven arrived shortly after 11.20 and was installed promptly by the lovely Peter, who did my Christmas lights. The delivery driver had received flack all morning from customers on his revised, protracted round. I wonder why.