14 December 2009

Meet an ingredient

Do you know what this is, poppets?


It's suet. Real suet. Verily and forsooth, proper suet. Which is to say, it is the hard fat from around the kidneys of a cow, and the stuff you need to make steamed and boiled puddings as well as mincemeat in the old style.

I will pause a moment while you all get your "ewwww raw cow fat!" exclamations out of your systems.

All done? Feeling better? Then let's move on.

Suet is valuable in boiled and steamed puddings because it melts at a higher temperature than other fats. The practical result is that a suet pudding is mostly set by the time the suet does melt, and has a lighter texture than you'd get if you used, say, butter. I am told that steamed puddings made with butter are sludgy disasters, and I don't much feel like experimenting to find out.

Suet does not taste beefy at all, though it does give a richness of flavour that you don't get with, say, vegetable shortening.

In the UK you can get a substance called 'vegetarian suet,' which is a hard vegetable shortening. There are some specialty markets in the US that also sell it if you care to seek it out. Plain Crisco (or similar product) won't do, however, as it's too soft.

The suet above also turned out to be much easier for me to get than the vegetarian substitute would have been. If I ask at the meat counter in my local supermarket on Thursdays, I can usually get it. It is also cheap; I think they rang it up at 90 cents/lb.

I wanted suet to make mincemeat. I have a deep and abiding love of mince pies that derives from port-soaked Christmas dinners in St Andrews, but I can't just walk into the bakery department at any of the supermarkets around here and get a mince pie. Sometimes I can get icky mass-produced mincemeat in jars, but that's the closest it gets. If I want to celebrate the Yuletide with mince pies, I have to make them myself.

After years of mucking about with mince recipes, I've settled down with Delia Smith's recipe because it makes just about the right amount for my purposes, and the baking-it-ahead-of-time method is really pretty genius. In place of the Bramley apples I use Granny Smiths -- they're not quite the same thing because they don't fluff up the way Bramleys do, but they're all right -- and I put an extra spoonful or two of brandy over the top when I put the finished product into jars.

The usual thinking is that mince, like fruitcake, black bun, and similar goods, is best made several weeks or even months ahead, so by conventional standards I was a bit late in only making mince this weekend, but better late than no mince pies.

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