Old-Fashioned MincemeatPaul Brians

December 7, 1996A food processor makes this recipe a snap. The result is far more flavorful than the canned product: rich, really fruity and not overwhelmingly sweet. Vegetarians can omit the beef and substitute butter for the suet; the result is distinctly different, but good. But then you’re honor bound to call the end product “mince pie” and not “mincemeat pie.”

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb stewing beef, boiled until thoroughly cooked (20 minutes or so), drained and ground. Or you can roast or braise the meat. Browning it gives it a richer flavor.
  • 5 large, firm, rich-flavored apples.
  • 1 cup (5 oz) ground suet (firm beef fat—many butchers give it away, but you often need to arrange to get it in advance).
  • 3 cups raisins
  • 2 cups pineapple juice (this is the one ingredient that probably wasn’t around in the 19th century, but it does add to the flavor).
  • 2 cups canned beef broth, or beef concentrate diluted with the cooking water from the stewing beef.
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup cider vinegar
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons allspice (freshly ground is best)
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves (ditto)
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2-4 peeled oranges, chopped and seeded, or substitute a half-dozen tangerines for a milder flavor.
  • 1 lemon, pulp and grated zest (the yellow part of the rind) only
  • 1/4-1/2 cup marmalade
  • a little rum or brandy (optional)

Instructions

Grind or chop all the solid ingredients and mix everything together. Boil the filling, stirring occasionally, until it reduces to a fairly thick consistency. Cool and test a spoonful to see whether it needs more sugar. Keep in mind that it will thicken more when it is cool. I like to get it to the point where little volcanic spurts of liquid are erupting through a fairly solid mass; but be careful that the bottom doesn’t get scorched. You can pour in a little dark rum or brandy or whatever to give it an extra punch.

Because this has meat in it, I have never been able to confirm with an expert what a safe canning time would be, but it freezes extremely well. This recipe makes enough filling for two large pies or three smaller ones. Don’t overfill and you will avoid drips and burning in the oven.

To bake pies, pour the filling into your favorite pie crust, cover with a top crust or lattice. Seal and flute the edges. Make sure there is some sort of slit or steam hole in the top.

Bake at 425 degrees for 40-50 minutes until the juices begin to bubble up out of the holes in the top and the crust is browned. A glass pie plate will let you check how well the bottom has browned.

Serve at room temperature or slightly warmed, with whipped cream or straight. Again, because it contains meat, the pie should not sit out for days at a time. Refrigerated portions can be rewarmed in a conventional oven, but microwaving will toughen the crust.



Paul Brians’ Fruitcake December 7, 1996 As featured in the Wall Street Journal, December 22, 2007. Reporter Susan Warren later wrote me to say “We did get your sample and we had great fun in our bureau with a taste test of several fruitcakes. I am pleased to tell you that your fruitcake was the universal favorite!”

Tired of jokes about your fruitcake? My recipe has converted a lot of skeptics. The secret lies in avoiding those disgusting glacéed cherries, citron, etc. that are packaged for use in fruitcakes. This isn’t exactly health food, but it’s probably considerably closer to what our ancestors enjoyed than the modern stuff.

Ingredients for Paul Brians famous fruit cake

The Fruit:

Amounts can vary wildly. If you want a dense, fruit-rich cake, you’ll need two or three pounds of fruit. Other people like a more cakey texture and can use much less. It’s all up to you. But use good dried fruits, not glacéed ones. If you must use “organic” stuff from your health food mart, go ahead; but try to avoid discolored and over-dry fruit. Don’t put anything in your cake that isn’t tasty eaten separately. My favorites: dried apples, pears, pineapple, date bits, sliced apricot logs (go easy on the apricot–it can overwhelm everything else), golden raisins, and cranberries. Look for packaged fruit bits to save yourself trouble, but read the label: some are mostly raisins. I find ordinary raisins boring, but you may like them. I add mango strips and papaya bits for color and extra-rich flavor. At a local market (Central Market in Poulsbo) I can get a dried tropical fruit mix that provides my base. It has dried kiwi fruit in it, which doesn’t add a lot of flavor, but absorbs the alcohol nicely. Avoid dried bananas.

A little fresh-grated lemon or orange peel is a nice thing to add.

Chop everything up into suitably-sized bits with a heavy, sharp knife and place it in your biggest bowl. I aim for 1/4″–larger chunks mean the cake won’t hold together well when sliced. A canning kettle will do. Dip the knife occasionally in very hot water if it gets harder to use.

The Soak:

Pour a cup or two of your favorite liquor or sweet dessert wine over the fruit bits, toss them, and let them sit for a few hours (or days) to absorb the liquid. Don’t try to submerge them in liquid: just moisten them. This softens the fruit and creates thousands of tiny little sponges that will spread the flavor through your cake much more efficiently than mere soaking after the cake is done. Again, don’t cheap out and use wine that’s gone bad or is unpleasant-tasting; but don’t waste a fine burgundy on your fruitcake either. A dessert wine too sweet for sophisticated palates may do just fine in a fruitcake. Most of the time I use Myers’s dark rum. If you are avoiding alcohol, apple juice is a good substitute.

The Nuts:

Walnuts are fine. In a dark fruitcake the nuts mainly add crunch: the spices overwhelm subtler-flavored nuts. But make sure they are fresh. Walnuts turn rancid if not refrigerated. Personally I use pecans because I love them and they look pretty. I splurged on macadamia nuts one year but it was a waste of money because you couldn’t detect their buttery flavor in the end result; though I’ve made a great Hawaiian fruitcake with fresh coconut, macadamia nuts, and dried pineapple. Don’t put the nuts in the marinating fruits: they’ll lose their crunch. Don’t like nuts? Leave ’em out. I like nuts, so I use a lot: a pound or more. I buy halves and don’t chop them because I like big pieces, but it’s all a matter of taste.

The Pans:

You’ll want to prepare your pan or pans ahead of time. Fruitcake cooks a long time and is very sticky, so getting it to come out of the pans cleanly is a trick. You can use loaf pans, ring molds, or whatever you like; but you’ll need to line them. Even “nonstick” coatings will be defeated by fruitcake. You can use baking parchment if you have it; but I sometimes use a cheap substitute: greased pieces of paper cut from brown paper bags. Don’t use waxed paper; it dissolves and shreds. If you’re concerned about dyes, you can avoid the printed portions of ordinary shopping bags. Grease the pans, line them with paper (cut in as few pieces as possible, but without wrinkles), then grease the paper and flour it.

The Batter:

This is essentially a classic pound cake with added spices. You can use any recipe you like, but here’s mine. If you’re avoiding butter, forget it. Substituting margarine or shortening will ruin the recipe. What makes my fruitcakes taste special is that I always begin with fresh whole spices (bought in bulk, so I can get just the amount I need), ground in a small coffee mill just before adding them to the recipe. This releases many volatile oils and perfumes which are long gone in commercial ground spices. I use a mill I bought just for spices; if you use your coffee mill be prepared for spiced coffee for a while afterward.

Break nutmegs up a bit with a hammer or large knife before grinding them. Cloves and nutmeg are moist, so you may want to grind them with a little of the sugar. Soft “Mexican” cinnamon sticks grind nicely. Hard cassia sticks sold as cinnamon are horrible to grind and are not nearly as flavorful. Penzey’s makes a cinnamon mix that is amazing.

There is no such thing as “whole” mace. Because fresh-ground spices are so pungent you will not need to increase the amounts below; just roughly measure the spices before grinding. Substitute preground spices if you must, but it won’t be the same.

  • 2 cups butter (I prefer unsalted)
  • 2 cups sugar (Don’t reduce the sugar! If you want health food, eat rice cakes.)
  • 9 large eggs
  • 4 cups cake flour (I now use gluten-free flour, and it works fine)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon cloves
  • 1 tablespoon allspice
  • 1 tablespoon nutmeg
  • 1/2 tablespoon mace

Cream the butter together with the sugar. Then beat in the eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly until it’s light and fluffy. Add cream of tartar as you beat the eggs. In a classic pound cake the eggs are separated and the whites beaten to lighten the dough, but we want a dense texture here. The eggs will provide just enough leavening: no baking powder needed.

Sift the flour together with the salt and ground spices. Sprinkle some of the flour mixture over the soaking fruit and toss it. The idea is keep the fruit from sticking together. If you’ve been too generous with your soaking liquid, you may have to add more flour.

Add the spiced flour into the wet mixture a cup at a time, beating it only long enough to produce a smooth, fairly thick batter. Try to resist licking the batter if you’re concerned about salmonella–but you’ll find it hard.

Stir the batter into the fruit, then add the nuts. Use a wooden spoon or just plunge in with your hands and reminisce about what fun it was to make mud pies when you were little. Or you can wear disposible plastic gloves. Mix it all up. You will have a mixture that is mostly fruits and nuts with just enough batter to hold it together.

Assembling and Baking:

Place the dough in the lined pans, pressing down to fill in the corners. You can fill the pans almost to the brim because the cake will rise only slightly. Place the pans in the lower third of a 275 degree oven for 1 1/2 to 3 hours, until a knife or testing straw comes out clean. Timing is extremely variable. Small cakes will cook quicker, larger cakes take longer. Test each cake separately, and take it out as soon as your tester comes out clean. You don’t want to dry out the cake. If it starts to burn before the inside is done, cover the top with foil. You can’t bake a fruitcake in a hurry.

Beautifully baked fruit cake, by candle light.

When the cakes are done, let them cool on racks for an hour or so before trying to remove them from the pans. Use a knife to loosen any stuck spots. Sprinkle them all over with your liquor or juice to get the outsides good and moist. Traditionalists will wrap cakes with soaked linen, but I find that enclosing them in plastic bags works as well and is cheaper and more efficient. Let them mature in the refrigerator or other cool space for at least a couple of weeks to blend the flavors. Months is better; but who thinks about making fruitcake in August? If they seem to be getting dry, sprinkle on more liquid, but don’t make them sodden. The sugar and alcohol will retard spoilage; but once you start serving this cake you’re unlikely to discover how long it might have lasted. It’s too irresistible.


Grandma Brookover’s Christmas Pudding

from Paul Brians

December 7, 1996

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup butter, softened (2 sticks, 1/2 lb.)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp ground cloves
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
  • 2 cups carrots, grated
  • 2 cups potatoes, grated
  • Hard Sauce:
  • 1/4 lb butter (not margarine)
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 Tbl rum (preferably Myerís dark)

Directions:

Prepare mold by greasing, lining with waxed paper to aid in unmolding. Use a large pudding mold, or a 3 lb coffee can, or a 4 quart pot, or several smaller containers. At any rate, the containers must be sealed tightly during cooking, whether with lids, or foil.

Cream the sugar, butter, and flour together. Add the salt, baking soda, baking powder, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Beat in well. Stir in the raisins, nuts, grated carrots and potatoes. A food processor is great for grating the vegetables.

Pour the pudding into the mold(s). In a large kettle with about 2-3 inches of boiling water in it, place the pudding container. Let the water return to a boil, lower the heat to the lowest point at which the water will still boil (not just simmer). Cover the kettle tightly and steam about 2 hours, or until the pudding assumes a fairly solid shape. Two or more small molds will take less time than one large one. Don’t worry about overcooking: as long as the kettle doesn’t boil dry, you’re safe.

Serve with hard sauce, made by creaming together the listed ingredients. Can be reheated by steaming, or wrapping and reheating in microwave or conventional oven.

Doubled, the recipe fits into a 5-lb coffee can to be cooked for 3 1/2 hours; but you may find it more convenient to divide such a large batch into two molds and cook them separately to save time.

If you insist on flaming your pudding, do so at your own risk. English flamed puddings are generally denser and less porous than this, which is like a heavy cake. Pouring brandy or other alcohol over this pudding does not result in a nice flame, but in a sodden, unignitable, inedible mess.



Apple Pie

When we first began coming to Bainbridge Island there was a farm on Miller Road that in the fall sold fresh-pressed cider from heritage apple varieties and something called “a pie in a bag.” This was simply a paper bag filled with assorted tasty varieties, and the idea was to make a pie from them in which all those flavors would be mixed together, resulting in a really delicious pie.

We tried it, and it worked.

The farm is gone, but every autumn I make another mixed-apple pie, and it gets raves; so I thought I’d share some tips on how I go about this. When we lived in Pullman, we would go to the WSU Tukey Orchard stand where we could sample all sorts of rare and newly developed varieties, but today almost every grocery store offers an interesting variety beyond the bland Red Delicious and the super-tart Granny Smith.

Currently I’m using a slightly adapted version of Mark Bittman’s traditional apple pie recipe from my favorite cookbook: How to Cook Everything.

Filling recipe

  • ½ cup light brown sugar
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • pinch salt
  • 5 or 6 good-tasting apples
  • 3 tablespoons tapioca

Directions

First, the crust. You already know whether you can make a nice flaky crust. I use Julia Child’s recipe, which involves half butter and half lard, made in a food processor.

If you’ve never mastered this art, don’t despair. You can buy an OK pre-made crust in the frozen-food department of your grocery store. Unfortunately these are only bottom crusts, and trying to flatten one into a top crust is a hassle. So you can make streusel topping. Or you can bag the whole pie idea and make an apple crisp. The filling will taste the same.

Gluten-free tips

I happen to be one of the unfortunate 1% who is actually gluten-intolerant, not just a gluten-free wannabe, so I use gluten-free baking mix. Some of these are rather gritty in texture because the brown rice that makes up the bulk of most mixes is not ground finely enough. If you’re ambitious enough to make your own mix, pay the extra for a bag of Authentic Foods superfine brown rice flour. It has an excellent texture. Authentic Foods also makes a piecrust mix which I haven’t tried. They don’t make any claims to it being superfine, but it might be worth a try if you can find it— most likely in your local health-food store. Ordering their products by mail costs a fortune: they’re not only pricey, but the shipping fees are huge.

Traditional piecrust recipes call for you to allow the crust mixture to “relax” in the refrigerator because the initial kneading develops the wheat gluten and makes the dough chewy. Using frozen butter and refrigerated lard I found that this wasn’t really necessary, but guess what—you can skip this step altogether if you’re baking gluten free because—no gluten!

However, the downside of GF dough is that it is really crumbly: it doesn’t want to hang together and form nice flakes. So I add a teaspoon of xanthan gum to the crust mixture. Xanthan gum is used in all sorts of GF baked goods to make them chewy but it’s pricey (buy it in bulk when you can) and this is a lot; however, I find using this much makes my crust hold together better.

If it’s not a medical necessity, use regular wheat flour. It tastes much better and may actually be more nutritious.

Another crust tip

Adding the correct amount of water to piecrust mix is one of the trickiest things in the process. Too little, and the crust won’t hang together properly. Too much, and it will be a soggy mess that bakes up into a hard, tough crust. Buy the cheapest vodka you can find and substitute it for half or more of the water. It will evaporate in the baking and make your crust lighter and flakier.

The filling

Now to the good stuff. Use apples that taste good.

Period.

What you like and what others like won’t necessarily match. Pay attention to flavor, not crunch. This filling is meant to be soft and any apple baked long enough will do. I often choose five different varieties, one apple apiece.

Core, peel, and slice the apples. I prefer thin slices, ¼ to 1/8 inch thick. That way the filling collapses to give a nice, solid texture without apple-free voids. You can also pack more apples into a pie when they are thinly sliced.

Bittman calls for half white sugar and half brown. I prefer all light brown. Suit your own taste, but don’t skimp a lot on the sugar or your pie may not hold together.

Spices

I’m a cinnamon fanatic. A bottle of cinnamon that’s been sitting in your spice cabinet for years has lost all the volatile oils that give a good cinnamon its magic. The good stuff is true cinnamon—otherwise known as Ceylon cinnamon. The hard sticks sold for putting in cider are usually Cassia cinnamon, which is much less complex in flavor. Penzey’s sells several kinds of cinnamon, including their own mix, which is wonderful. Always use Ceylon cinnamon if you can find it.

But my preference is to grind my own spices. They are much fuller-flavored when freshly ground. You don’t need a mortar and pestle. I use a cheap electric coffee mill that is devoted entirely to this task, but wipe it out carefully after grinding spices— or if you like spiced coffee you can use it as is.

A popular line of Mexican spices used to sell true cinnamon sticks quite reasonably, but they’ve changed to cassia in recent years. The two are easy to tell apart: if the sticks are like hard curled pieces of wood, they’re cassia. If they consist of soft shreds you can crumble with your fingers, they’re true cinnamon. You can find true cinnamon sticks in specialty stores and buy just enough to use for a half-year or so. Grind it to a very fine powdery texture.

Nutmeg is even more important to use freshly grated. A cheap grater will do fine. If you need to grind a large quantity of nutmeg (like for a large batch of fruitcake batter), you can slice it with a heavy knife and put it in the electric mill with some flour or sugar from the recipe. Nutmeg is moist and will not become powdery by itself.

Why salt? Salt is a flavor enhancer. You don’t want the pie to actually taste salty, but it enlivens the other flavors.

Bittman adds a tablespoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice. That’s a matter of taste. Some apple varieties are more tart than others, and some people like an edgier taste than others. Suit yourself.

Thickening

Cornstarch or flour often makes for a runny or gooey filling. I use tapioca for all fruit pies. I made the mistake of going overboard with a recent blackberry pie that came out with a texture sort of like chewing gum. Bittman calls for 2 tablespoons of tapioca. I find 3 works better for me. This is the regular cheap little tapioca pellets that come in a box to make tapioca pudding: not pearls or tapioca flour.

Mix everything thoroughly so the spice mixture coats the apples and the various varieties and mixed together. Topping it off Most fruit pie recipes call for you to dot the filling with butter before applying the top crust. I usually forget, but it does make for a nicer finish.

You can brush the top crust with egg or milk to give it a nice smooth brown finish, and sprinkle it with white sugar if you like that look.

Baking the pie

Bittman calls for baking the pie at 450˚ for 10 minutes and at 350˚ for 40-50 minutes. I don’t know why, but my pies always take much longer. The challenge is to get the top nicely browned and the bottom thoroughly cooked without burning any part of the pie. With standard recipes, the bottom crust often comes out underbaked or raw.

Things that will cause bottom crusts to bake too slowly:

1) ingredients too cold

2) mixture too moist

3) flour not ideal

Baking a fruit pie on a sheet to catch drips is a good idea if you hate cleaning the oven, but it will slow down the process of baking the bottom crust. Using a black cast-iron griddle to catch the drips should speed things up.

A metal pie plate, especially a black one, will brown the crust faster, but I always use a Pyrex one. It takes longer, but I can see how the bottom crust is doing. It will never be as dark as the top, but it should show some color. To my taste, as long as nothing is burning the pie isn’t overdone.

The usual instruction to cook until the filling liquid bubbles up through the slits in the topic crust (you did slit it, didn’t you?) for me results in an underbaked pie. I always have to leave it in longer. The pie will hold together better if you let it cool until it’s just slightly warm. This can take a few hours.

My father always had a slice of Velveeta cheese on top of his hot apple pie, and for a lot of people this dish is not complete without vanilla ice cream; but first sample the pie by itself to savor its true deliciosity.

Paul Brians

Bainbridge Island, WA

First posted October 22, 2016.