Mince pies

In Great Britain, mince pies are seen as a favorite food of Father Christmas. Children leave one or two mince pies on a plate at the foot of the chimney (along with a small glass of brandy, sherry or milk, and a carrot for the reindeer) as a thank you for filling their stockings.

Of course we all know that Santa Claus isn't real, so it was really a snack for the Fathers of the house. In my house we didn't leave Santa a glass of Sherry but a crate of Guinness! The mince pie is a British festive sweet pastry, traditionally consumed during the Christmas and New Year period. Mince pies normally have a pastry top, but versions may also be found without the top in which case they are known as mince tarts.

Mince pies are filled with mincemeat - a preserve typically containing apple, dried fruits such as raisins and sultanas, spices, and either suet or vegetable shortening. Modern mince pies typically do not contain any meat, but because suet is raw beef or mutton fat, mince pies made with suet are not suitable for vegetarians.

The origins of the mince pie lie in the medieval chewet, which was a fried or baked pastry containing chopped liver and other meats mixed with boiled eggs and ginger. Dried fruit and other sweet ingredients would be added to the chewet's filling for variety. (Sounds great, doesn't it?)

By the 16th century mince or "shred" pie was considered a Christmas speciality, although in the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell made the eating of mince pies on Christmas Day illegal. This law was voted fourth "most ridiculous British law" in a 2007 poll.

Do you want to know what were the top three? 3) It is illegal to enter the Houses of Parliament wearing a suit of armour. 2) It could be regarded an act of treason to place a postage stamp bearing the British king or queen's image upside-down. 1) In the UK, a pregnant woman can legally relieve herself anywhere she wants.

Enough of that nonsense, let's make some mince pies.

MINCE PIES Serves 12 - you might want to double the recipe as these are addictive.

INGREDIENTS

For the shortcrust pastry Soft flour, 200g Salt, a pinch Butter, 100g Water, 2-3 tbsp For the mince pies Mincemeat, 540g Orange zest, a large orange Brandy, couple of tbsp Cinnamon, a pinch Milk, 50ml Egg (beaten), 1 Icing sugar, sift on top of mince pies Vegetable oil or butter for greasing tin

METHOD

For the shortcrust pastry:

Make sure your butter is at room temperature to make it easier to work with. Sieve the flour and salt into a large mixing bowl. Cut the butter into small cubes and add to the flour. Using your fingertips, rub the fat into the flour, lifting the mixture up and dropping it back into the bowl - you want to keep the mixture light and airy. Keep going until all the fat is mixed with the flour and has reached a texture that resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Sprinkle a little cold water into the bowl and mix through with a knife. Use your fingers to bring the pastry together: it's ready when and the sides of the bowl are clean and it's formed a solid ball. You shouldn't need to add much more than a tablespoon of water so be careful not to overdo it. Cover the bowl with cling film and leave the pastry to rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

For the mince pies:

Heat the oven to 400F. Mix your jar of mincemeat together with the orange zest, brandy and cinnamon. Lightly grease your patty tins (or small fluted tins) with a small amount of vegetable oil, or any butter. Flour your work surface and roll out the pastry as thinly as possible.

Cut out approximately 12 rounds with a pastry cutter (most pastry cutters have two sides, one with a greater diameter than the other, use the larger side for the base and the smaller for the lids) and place them in the base of your patty-tins (or small fluted tins). Prick all the pie bases with a fork to stop them rising.

Fill each case with about 3 teaspoons of the mincemeat mix - don't overfill your cases or the mixture will leak through the pastry when cooking. Brush the pie edges with a little milk. Stamp out another 12 rounds, using the larger end of your cutter, for the lids and place over the mincemeat mix.

Pinch the pie edges together to seal. Brush over with egg wash and pierce the tops with a fork. Bake in the oven for approx 20 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 1 minute before placing on a wire rack to cool. Serve warm with a light sifting of icing sugar on top.

Tip: You can keep the pies for 2 - 3 days in an airtight container and re-heat them when needed.

AND FINALLY... I think Santa Claus is a woman. I hate to be the one to defy sacred myth, but I believe he's a she.

Think about it. Christmas is a big, organized, warm, fuzzy, nurturing social deal, and I have a tough time believing a guy could possibly pull it all off! For starters, the vast majority of men don't even think about selecting gifts until Christmas Eve. It's as if they are all frozen in some kind of Ebenezerian Time Warp until 3 p.m. on Dec. 24th, when they - with amazing calm - call other errant men and plan for a last-minute shopping spree.

Once at the mall, they always seem surprised to find only Ronco products, socket wrench sets and mood rings left on the shelves. (You might think this would send them into a fit of panic and guilt, but my husband tells me it's an enormous relief because it lessens the 11th-hour decision-making burden.) On this count alone, I'm convinced Santa is a woman.

Surely, if he were a man, everyone in the universe would wake up Christmas morning to find a rotating musical Chia Pet under the tree, still in the bag. Another problem for a he-Santa would be getting there. First of all, there would be no reindeer because they would all be dead, gutted, and strapped on to the rear bumper of the sleigh, amid wide-eyed, desperate claims that buck season had been extended. Blitzen's rack would already be on the way to the taxidermist.

Even if the male Santa did have reindeer, he'd still have transportation problems because he would inevitably get lost in the snow and clouds, and then refuse to stop and ask for directions. Add to this the fact that there would be unavoidable delays in the chimney, where the Bob Vila-like Santa would stop to inspect and repoint bricks in the flue. He would also need to check for carbon monoxide fumes in every gas fireplace, and get under every Christmas tree that is crooked to straighten it to a perfectly upright 90-degree angle.

Other reasons why Santa can't possibly be a man: - Men can't pack a bag. - Men would rather be dead than caught wearing red velvet. - Men would feel their masculinity is threatened, having to be seen with all those elves. - Men don't answer their mail. - Men would refuse to allow their physique to be described, even in jest, as anything remotely resembling a "bowlful of jelly."

Finally, being responsible for Christmas would require a commitment. I can buy the fact that other mythical holiday characters are men. Father Time shows up once a year unshaven and looking ominous. Definite guy. Cupid flies around carrying weapons. Uncle Sam is a politician who likes to point fingers. Any one of these individuals could pass the testosterone screening test. But not St. Nick. Not a chance. CHEF GILLIGAN