The best mince pies

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Yahoo! LifeStyles: Sainsbury's byYou

These mince pies with their boozy mascarpone filling and their caramelised, crunchy almond topping are seriously good.  Although the recipe has many parts I think of it as a collection of mini recipes, some of which can be given as presents in their own right, some of which can be bought instead of making and which when combined together do give you an exceedingly good result.  Set aside an hour for making the mincemeat and a day or two later a morning or afternoon for baking so that you can have fun and don't feel hurried.

Each of the parts is simple to make. The mincemeat makes a great homemade present to give to friends packed away in a Kilner jar with a cool label, but for this recipe you can always cheat and buy it ready made.  Or buy the pastry instead; the almond topping stops you having to fiddle around making tops to the pies.  The mascarpone filling is not only incredibly good in the pies but goes brilliantly with the Christmas pud if you run out of time to make brandy butter.  Finally, if you do feel like making all or some of the recipes below feel content in the knowledge that once the mince pies are made they can be frozen for up to three months in the freezer.  So make lots and either give them away as presents or hoard them carefully for your family!

Makes 14-16 largish mince pies

For the mincemeat

500g Bramley apples, cored and chopped small

200g shredded suet

460g raisins

340g sultanas

200g currants

350g soft brown sugar

Zest and juice of 2 oranges and 2 lemons

3 tsp mixed ground spice

1 tsp ground cinnamon

3 tbsp dark rum

For the pastry

250g plain flour preferably oo grade

50 g icing sugar

100 g chilled butter

100 g chilled lard

2 chilled egg yolks

For the mascarpone

250g mascarpone cheese

3 tbsp vanilla sugar or plain caster sugar

3 tbsp rum

Zest and juice of half an orange

For the almond topping

80g unsalted butter

80g soft brown sugar

4 tsp honey

1 vanilla pod

Zest and juice of half an orange

200g flaked almonds

Mix together all the mincemeat ingredients except the rum.  Cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave overnight to allow the flavours to develop.  The next day warm the mixture in a low oven (130C) for 3 hours.  Remove and stir the mincemeat as it cools and, when it is quite cold, stir in the rum.

For the pastry, sift together the flour and icing sugar, cut the fat into small pieces into the flour and mix together (as fast as possible) until you have the consistency of breadcrumbs.  Add the egg yolks and continue mixing until the pastry comes together, adding a little of the egg white to loosen if necessary.  Roll into a ball, cover with cling film, flatten a little and put in the fridge for an hour.

Meanwhile whip the mascarpone with the sugar, rum, orange zest and juice.

For the topping, melt the butter, sugar and honey together in a small saucepan with the vanilla pod, the orange zest and juice.   Allow to stand for 20 minutes before scraping out the seeds of the vanilla pod into the sauce.  Stir in the almonds and warm gently just before using.

Roll out the pastry about 3mm thick and cut out rounds with a  9-10cm cutter .  Press the rounds into a muffin mould tray and half fill with the mincemeat.  Top with a generous teaspoonful of the mascarpone and finally a teaspoon of the almond topping.  Bake in a pre-heated oven (170C) for about 20 minutes until the almonds are golden and the pastry is crisp.

The perfect Christmas

What is daunting about Christmas is the sheer quantity of different dishes there are to prepare if you want the whole Christmas lunch.  Sausages wrapped in bacon, rum butter, roast potatoes, stuffing, mince pies; unless there are pairs of helping hands anyone who accomplishes the whole lot AND manages to wrap the presents deserves a medal.  With so much going on cooking can become hurried and when this happens even the most experienced chef is vulnerable to making mistakes.  So here are a few fail-proof tips for getting the best possible results on Christmas Day.

1.       Write a countdown to Christmas lunch.  It seems absurd and over the top but once you have a list of everything you need to do on Christmas Day it takes out all the stress.  Begin with putting the plum pudding water onto boil and itemise when the turkey or beef goes in, when the sausages go in, when you need to start steaming the pudding and everything else in between.  Then set a kitchen timer to ping whenever it is time to put the next thing on, off or in.  This will ensure you can carry on drinking and having a fine time on Christmas morning without burning anything or leaving anything out.

2.       Crispy, fluffy roast potatoes take time but not much effort.  Par-boil spuds until they are just tender.  Drain and cover the pan and shake like mad to fluff up the outside of the potatoes.  In the meantime heat at least 200g of duck fat in a large oven tray in a 200C oven.  When it is really sizzling hot, add the potatoes and cook for 30 minutes, basting in the hot fat after 15 minutes and seasoning with lots of salt and pepper.  Drain most of the fat (which you can re-use) and continue to roast until the potatoes are golden and crispy, about 30 minutes longer.

3.       Stuffing is best if there is masses.  Find two delicious sounding recipes and make double the amount of each.  You can never ever have enough and it is a brilliant ingredient to add to leftovers and makes unbeatable Bubble and Squeak.

4.       If you are frightened by pastry, buy it instead but do insist on buying all butter.  To ensure a deliciously light homemade pastry make sure all the water, eggs and butter are all as cold as possible when you start.  Handle the dough as little as you can; I always make my pastry in a food processor so that I am not overworking it, which would make it heavy.  Allow the pastry to rest in the fridge once you have made it; using half butter, half lard works wonders with the pastry's flavour.  Those are my top tips for a deliciously crisp and crumbly short crust, which only takes a short time to make.