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Mincemeat: a tradition from the Middle Ages to serve and preserve

Like it or not - and people seem to be firmly divided - you're going to be offered mincemeat pie during the holidays. Mincemeat goes back to the Middle Ages when crusaders carried back exotic spices to Europe from the East.

These spices were used to flavor fruits and to preserve meat that was not cured by either salting or smoking.

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A variety of meats were chopped, mixed with minced fruit and spices, stored in pottery containers, sealed with wax, and kept for future use.

In the ''Dictionary of Gastronomy'' (McGraw-Hill), authors Andre L. Simon and Robin Howe give what is believed to be the first recorded mincemeat recipe. It is dated 1486.

The ingredients listed - ''a hare, a pheasant, two partridges, two pigeons and two conies strongly spice and cooked'' - are ''made craftily into the likeness of a bird's body, the meat stuffed into a pastry shell and feathers placed over all.''

Ironically, mincemeat in Britain today usually contains no meat, while traditional American recipes usually do.

Recipes differ considerably. If you have five cookbooks, you probably have as many different mincemeat recipes. You may be fortunate to have your own grandmother's favorite ''rule'' in the back of a yellowing old Fanny Farmer cookbook.

To those busy entertainers who appreciate it, a real homemade mince pie is a labor of love and a much appreciated host or hostess gift.

Mincemeat mellows and improves in flavor when made a few weeks in advance and refrigerated. It also freezes well - so now is the time to get started. Old-Fashioned Mincemeat 2 pounds stew beef, chopped 1 pound ground or finely chopped suet 1 cup chopped citron 4 pounds cooking apples, peeled, cored, and chopped 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon powdered mace 1 teaspoon powdered cloves 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1 1/2 teaspoons grated nutmeg 1 1/2 pounds sugar 2 pounds raisins 1 1/2 pounds currants 1 cup molasses 1 quart apple cider Juice and zest of three oranges Juice and zest of two lemons 1/2 pound blanched almonds, chopped 1/2 pound walnuts, chopped 1 cup maraschino cherries, chopped

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Combine all ingredients in a large pot. Simmer for about 2 hours. Stir frequently, being careful not to scorch mincemeat.

You may refrigerate mincemeat when cool at this point. Or it may be preserved in the following manner:

Spoon into clean, hot jars leaving 1/2- to 1-inch headroom.

Close jars and process 20 minutes at 10 pounds pressure in a steam-pressure canner.

If processed in this manner, mincemeat will keep indefinitely.

Makes about 10 pints. Prepared Mincemeat Pie 1 jar (1 pound, 12 ounces) prepared mincemeat 1 cup chopped and peeled cooking apples 1 lemon 1 orange 1/2 cup chopped almonds or walnuts Melted butter

Combine prepared mincemeat with apples, juice, and zest of lemon and orange. Add chopped nuts and mix well.

Fill one 9-inch, two-crust pie pastry. Make a few slits in top crust.

Brush pie with a little melted butter and bake for about 45 minutes in 425 degree F. preheated oven.

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