The British often catch more flak than flattery in matters of cuisine, and foods like mincemeat pies can put off many Americans. A sweet pie that contains spiced fruit, brandy and… chopped meat? Hard pass.
But mince pies have evolved since the Middle Ages (including banishing the meat in many cases). And since the English emigrants who settled the United States brought their mincemeat pies with them, the classic Christmas treat has long been traditional for many Americans, too. Although nowhere near as ubiquitous as they are throughout Britain, tasty mince pies can be found in Los Angeles for the holidays if you know where to look.
If you inquire about the ingredients in the small mince pies baked daily during this season at British shop Ye Olde King's Head in Santa Monica, a friendly woman with an English accent will assure you, “No, no, don’t worry, no meat.”
Mince pies in medieval England were indeed filled with meat preserved with fruit and spices. More of a savory dish than a dessert, the early mince pies arose after the Crusades when Middle Eastern recipes and spices were brought back to Europe. Over the ages, a variety of meats including lamb, goose and beef have shown up in mincemeat pie recipes, and the pies have changed shape from oblong to circular to smaller hand pies. As sugar became more affordable, the mince pie became sweeter and the meat was downplayed, left out or included only in the form of suet (hard animal fat). These days, even in Britain, the dessert is often meat-free.
If the meat is optional and the brandy or rum can be left out, then what makes a pie a mince pie? The general theme is a nutmeg-spiced preserve filling of fresh and dried fruit, usually featuring apples, candied citrus peel and zest, currants and raisins (along with additional spices that can include clove, cinnamon and ginger). Ideally the crust is buttery and firm (sometimes achieved with a suet crust), and the pie is served warm.
At Four 'N 20 restaurant and bakery in Sherman Oaks and Valley Village, a lucky few will get to order holiday mince pies this year. Their 9-inch round mince pie ($16.95) includes beef suet that still has small bits of beef attached — a more traditional version of the pie that is difficult to find here — and they can make your pie with brandy or without. Owner David Burkin reports that interest in their mince pies had waned as the older generation who considered them a holiday staple passed away, but in recent years the interest is back on the rise. The bakery unexpectedly sold so many mince pies for Thanksgiving this year, they are limited in the number they can provide for Christmas.
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If you don’t score a pie from Four 'N 20, you can still pre-order 9-inch round mince pies ($14.95) from Du-par’s locations or 8-inch round mince pies ($15.49) from Marie Callender’s locations with a day’s notice. Apples are the star in both of these options, which are meat- and booze-free, though at Marie Callendar's you can order a rum sauce version of the filling on the side to add to your pie.
In addition to the 3-inch round mince pies ($1.95) baked fresh at Ye Olde King's Head, you can also find imported packages of mince pies for sale there, as well as at British goods store The Piccadilly Shop at Buchanan Arms in Burbank and the international goods chain store Cost Plus World Market. These spots carry the very sweet Walker's Luxury Mince Pies made with the brand’s popular shortcrust. (But they can sell out by Christmas, so get yours early — these can keep for months.) Making mince pies from scratch can be labor- and time-intensive, since it generally involves simmering the filling ingredients for hours and ideally adding brandy or rum and letting the boozy mixture marinate for several weeks or more. These specialty grocers also carry jarred mincemeat options, some of which do contain beef, should you want to assemble your own pie without making the filling.