How to make Lemon Mince Pies from the 1830s

Handwritten lemon mince pie recipe

Have you ever wanted to cook from an old recipe book? Just to find out what something from the past could taste like? A good way to start using old recipes is to look at old recipes for traditional Christmas food. Often older recipes taste more delicious than modern adaptations. Give this lemon mincemeat recipe a go.

Where does the recipe come from?

I own a beautiful, handwritten manuscript cookbook donated to me by a (lovely) follower on Instagram. On page 99 this recipe for Lemon Mince Pies appears.

What is a manuscript cookbook?

is a (usually) handwritten private or personal collection of recipes. They are useful because they allow us to see what people actually ate. Cookery books are more what other people expect us to eat. Recipes copied down and collected are much more likely to be the food that real people ate.

If you want to know more about them, I recommend this website as a good start.

Here’s the recipe as it appears in my 1830s manuscript cookbook:

A pound of currants, a pound of suet and three lemons, squeeze out the juice, then boil the lemons in water and change the water to take off the bitterness, when they are boiled quite tender rub them through a sieve, then mix juice and all together with near three quarters of a pound of sugar, when you make your pies put in orange and citron and a few almonds.

Adapting an old recipe

I have changed the quantities to grams to make measuring easy. But this is a recipe that needs little adaptation. I’ve replaced citron. Citron (Citrus medica) is a large fragrant citrus fruit with a thick rind often candied. I’ve replaced it with the more easily available candied orange.

If you can make your own candied orange it is delicious and not hard to make but otherwise shop bought is fine.

I made the recipe below:

  • 3 lemons
  • 500 grams of currants
  • 500 grams of suet (normal or vegetarian)
  • 420 grams of sugar
  • Candied orange (or candied citron) 1 tablespoon
  • A few almonds (2 tsp)

Method

Squeeze the lemons for juice. Put the lemon halves into a saucepan and fill with water. Bring to the boil. Drain. Fill with water again and boil the lemon skins until butter soft. Drain.

Either finely chop or blend the peel with a blender. Put in a saucepan together with the currants, suet, candied orange (or citron) and the almonds. Heat gently until the suet is completely melted. Keep an eye on it and stir frequently.

Either use immediately for mince pies filling or put into sterilised jars hot and keep for later. The filling will last six months but I have heard that it keeps for many years.

How does it feel to make it?

I heated the mincemeat up. The basement began to smell deliciously of Christmas. As I filled the sterilized jars I could hear the stories being read out. Tales of paralyzed fear, blood on shoes and door slamming shut filled the kitchen as I screwed on the lids to the full jars.

The lids popped beautifully after I had displayed them on our dresser as if on cue, when pauses came in the stories.

Why does the mincemeat look different?

They did look beautifully old-fashioned. Suet isn’t melted in modern mincemeat. If you look carefully in a modern jar you can see white flakes of suet. In these older recipes the suet plays a part in conserving the mincemeat so it is mixed throughout. That is why the older version looks different.

How does it taste?

This is the recipe I have used every year for the Town House’s fundraiser for the last 3 years. 96 mince pies are made for a discerning audience. None remain. Praise all round.