Yep, it's that time of the year again. Time for all Australians to battle too much pudding and tell ourselves that eating mince tarts in 40-degree heat is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
Mince tarts (or pies, if you will) vary wildly in quality, from playdough-textured hockey pucks to after-dinner treats demanding the good port and Bing Crosby.
Pudding, brandy custard at the ready, remains integral to the Big Day, punctuating the end of a long and boozy lunch.
Panforte should also be on hand for anyone driving. There are few better pick-me-ups than coffee and a slice of Siena's most famous fruit and nut cake.
We're here to help you navigate the Christmas dessert minefield with this widely available selection.
The tasting panel
- Nicholas Hill Former Sepia sous chef and pudding wrangler at The Ledbury, London, now captain of British-Italian steakhouse The Milan Cricket Club, Sydney.
- Lorraine Godsmark Former Rockpool pastry chef, and baker of Sydney's most loved fruit mince tarts at Lorraine's Patisserie.
- Callan Boys National food and drink writer for Good Food.
Fruit mince pies pictured from left: Walkers, Aldi, Coles, Woolworth's and David Jones. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Fruit mince tarts
Woolworths Shortcrust Fruit Mince Pies, 360g, $4
"Crunchy" isn't a word often associated with mince tarts, but it certainly applies here. Despite a best-before date of June 2021, the pastry tastes stale, says Godsmark.
Aldi Cake Stall Fruit Mince Pies, 360g, $1.89
"They taste artificial and almost soapy," says Godsmark regarding Aldi's budget tart brand. "No wonder so many people don't like mince pies."
Walkers Luxury Fruit Mince Pies, 372g, $10
"They do need more spice, but the filling is still vibrant," Godsmark says. "I can taste a bit of orange coming through while other flavours develop in your mouth."
Coles Finest Traditional Fruit Mince Pies, 370g, $5.50
Good Food Taste Test Award: Bronze
Made in the United Kingdom, Coles' luxe tarts have a pleasing, juicy filling of brandy-soaked fruit mince. "The filling is nice and unctuous," says Godsmark.
David Jones Classic Fruit Mince Tarts, 390g, $11.95
"There's a strong whack of apple," says Hill, noting DJ's mince tarts are made in Australia with local ingredients. Godsmark finds the pastry tastes undercooked. "But these would be nicer warmed up."
From left: Pud For All Seasons; Aldi; Pudding Lane. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Pud For All Seasons Traditional Plum Pudding, 800g, $28.95
Based in Castlemaine, Victoria, Pud offers a large selection of puddings. "It's pretty cakey and not too dense," says Hill."I like this because you could get stuck in without it defeating you after two bites."
Aldi Specially Selected Vintage Christmas Pudding, 700g, $15
Good Food Taste Test Award: Bronze
"It certainly smells like Christmas," says Godsmark. "And it's vacuum-sealed, which is always a good idea. Overall, nicely textured with a buttery flavour." Made in the Hunter Valley, it will have matured for 12 months by Christmas Day.
Pudding Lane Classic Christmas Pudding, 1kg, $48
Good Food Taste Test Award: Bronze
A heavy beast made in Newcastle and ready to woo the most hardened pudding eater. "It's quite dense, with a flavour that keeps keeping on," says Godsmark. "It's boozy, but you need that alcohol to cut the pleasing richness."
Puddings from Woolworths (left) and Coles. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Woolworths Matured Christmas Pudding, 700g, $7
A perfectly fine pudding you can also use in different ways, says Hill. "I made a custard tart last year with a similar Woolies pud. Press the cake into a ring mould to make a base, pour brandy custard over the top then bake, slice and serve."
Coles Finest Luxury Christmas Pudding, 900g, $11.50
Decorated with syrupy cherries and almonds, Coles' brandy-infused pud looks the part and is sweet with fruit – although a crumbly texture lets it down a bit, says Hill.
From left: Simon Johnson; Masoni and Corsini panforte. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Simon Johnson Fig and Walnut Panforte,100g, $10.35
"This tastes like it would be good as a cheese condiment," says Hill. Godsmark says the Italian-made sweet needs something to give it more life because it tastes a bit flat.
Masoni Panforte Di Siena IGP, 250g, $15
That "IGP" in the name stands for "indicazione geografica protetta", indicating a proper Tuscan panforte that can only be made in Siena. There's a big hit of honey and spice, but the panel finds the flavours remain one-dimensional.
Corsini Panforte, 400g, $18
"This has the best texture," says Godsmark. "It's not as hard as the others, but the flavour is bland. It doesn't build to anything." She says the best panfortes are handmade, rich and inviting with long, complex flavours.
Panforte from Aldi (left) and Trentham Tucker. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Aldi Specially Selected Panforte Traditional, 250g, $7.99
"This would be all right with a super strong espresso," says Hill. According to its box, Aldi's panforte is baked in Italy "with a reverence to ancient rules", but the product is overly sweet and lacks balance, say the judges.
Trentham Tucker Siena Panforte Cake Traditional, 200g, $12.95
The only panforte tasted made in Australia, specifically Melbourne, but it would be good to see more than 40 per cent local ingredients used. "This one is the nicest because of the quality of the nuts," says Godsmark.
A flaming pudding is mesmerising. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
The only thing with wider variance than mince pie quality at Christmas is pudding heating options. You will see instructions ranging from microwave on high for 60 seconds to place pudding on an inverted saucer and simmer for two hours in a cast iron pot, half-filled with water, while playing the Cheers theme on a kazoo.
Godsmark advises to always simmer if you don't want soggy, sad pud, and to pay attention to the packet instructions. "Heating times are going to differ depending on your pudding's shape, weight and density," she says. "The best way to know if a pudding is warmed through is by sticking a knife in the middle for 30 seconds and seeing if it comes out hot."
Meanwhile, Melbourne-based baking legend Phillippa Grogan likes to top Chrissie pudding with plenty of softly whipped cream and caramel brandy sauce or custard scented with a splash of Cointreau or orange. She finds it more difficult to get excited about traditional British hard sauce, a sweetened brandy-spiked butter. "It's too intense on a hot summer's day."
But for Grogan, who runs Phillippa's Bakery, nothing says "Christmas spirit" like the sight of blue flames licking around a pud on December 25. She heats one-quarter of a cup of brandy in a small copper saucepan until it's warm but not boiling, carefully sets it alight with a match and immediately pours the booze over the just-steamed pudding. "For kids, it's mesmerising."
As for leftovers, Grogan enjoys a piece of warmed pudding with a slice of cold cheddar, in a similar vein to fruity, spice-rich Eccles cake and Lancashire cheese, or crumbled into slightly softened vanilla ice-cream.
Good Food Taste Test Awards
Look out for the Good Food awards logos on winning products in supermarkets and grocery stores – your guide to the best available.
Gold Score 4.5/5
Silver Score 4/5
Bronze Score 3.5/5