[Photograph: Crosse & Blackwell]

As a British expat who won't be traveling home for Christmas this year, I'm faced with a sad mince pie shortage. These rich, buttery, hand-held pies are a quintessential seasonal treat, delicious warm from the oven, but almost as good snatched from the tin in the cupboard and enjoyed late at night with a hot toddy. Back home, they're everywhere during this time of year. In North America, they're much harder to find.

The best mince pies are made from scratch (check out our recipe here), but the secret second-best option is to make a batch of pastry and have a giant jar of store-bought mincemeat in the fridge. Mincemeat isn't difficult to make, but it has a lot of ingredients, which can make it expensive to produce in small batches, and it requires at least a day's advance planning to let the ingredients sit. Buying it from the store is an acceptable shortcut during the busy holiday season.

If you're unfamiliar with mince pies or mincemeat, there are two important points that need to be raised. One: mincemeat is not actually meat. Two: it isn't necessarily vegetarian.

The history of mincemeat is tied to the history of sugar and spice. We think of cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg as warm winter spices, but their association with the season may have pragmatic roots. These ingredients came to the British Isles with the Crusaders in the 12th century and became more commonly available as the trade routes opened up from the 15th century onwards. The antimicrobial properties of spice offered a useful way to keep meat through the winter, and may also have disguised the flavor of old meat.

Early recipes for mince pies all feature meat—often beef tongue—minced with citrus peel, vine fruits, sugar and spices, plus beef fat (suet) to ensure a lustrous filling. I've tried a real meat-based mince pie, and it was a rich, satisfying experience, but I suspect the version my local butcher made was sweeter than the original recipe.

Cookbooks in the 19th century offered both meat-based and meat-free recipes for mincemeat, and thus mince pies transitioned from a main course to a dessert. Today, the default expectation is that mincemeat is meatless—but again, not necessarily vegetarian, because it may still contain suet. If you pick up some mincemeat in stores this winter, check the ingredients. If you're catering to vegetarians, make doubly sure there are no animal products in there.

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

You're most likely to find suet in UK mincemeat brands, but at least one North American brand of mincemeat I looked at included beef as an ingredient, in an apparent concession to literal-mindedness. Even British mincemeat is now often made with vegetable suet, which is made from plant oils and rice flour. That's good news for vegetarians, but disappointing to me, because I believe that suet enriches mincemeat like nothing else.

If you're wondering what else should be on the label when shopping for quality mincemeat, the list is long. Vine fruits and apple provide much of the body. Candied fruit is important too—usually lemon and orange peel, but sometimes cherries. Ginger and prunes are welcome additions, too.

The essential trinity of spices is cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, but the ingredient list may just say "spices," which isn't very helpful. I picked up a jar from an import shop that also lists cassia, coriander, fennel, and dill, and it's delicious. I will take this opportunity to confess that while writing this article, I've had a few samples with a spoon. This is not proper behavior.

Store-bought mincemeat can contain alcohol, and if it doesn't, here's my tip: add some. It will kick your mince pies up to the next level. Rum or brandy go especially well with the other ingredients.

You might wonder what mincemeat is good for besides mince pies (and eating with a spoon, which, again, is not proper). In truth, I've never needed to use it for anything else. However, I am reliably informed that you can stir it into a cobbler; add a cup to a muffin recipe; heat it up and spread it on your weekend pancakes or waffles; or use it in place of dates in a date square recipe. You could even serve it on a cheese plate as a very seasonal chutney.

Whatever you do with it, there's no rush; with all that fat and sugar, mincemeat lasts several weeks in the refrigerator. And let's be honest, there's no rule that says you can only have mince pies at Christmas.

About the author: Andrew Wheeler is a freelance writer born in England and based in Toronto. You can find him on Twitter @Wheeler.

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