There are probably as many different recipes for traditional American mincemeat as there are for barbecue sauces -- with everyone having his or her favorite.

In the Stephens family, there appear to have been several variations. The original recipe comes from notes made by my grandmother, Edith Mayfield Stephens, although I also found some notes on how to make mincemeat from my great aunt, Olive Mayfield Deacy. The recipe that follows is somewhat of a synthesis, derived principally from my grandmother Stephens's notes and my father's recollections of how his family made mincemeat.

Admittedly, this recipe is somewhat of a major production, but the results are well worth it. It is now a near-annual ritual for me and my good friend (and great cook) Lee Dennison, one that we both look forward to with a combination of enthusiasm and dread -- since more and more of Lee's relatives and friends now expect to be included on her "Christmas mincemeat" list.

A final word: in researching mincemeat on the Internet, I have not found a recipe that even approaches the complexity -- and quality -- of this one. The few recipes I have found that use meat call for hamburger rather than stewing beef, whereas the use of hamburger in our family would have been grounds for drawing and quartering.

In other words, there are no shortcuts. But if you have the time and patience, you will be well rewarded.

Stephens Family's Mincemeat

(Makes 10 to 11 jars)

A one-quart jar will make a 10-inch, two-crust mincemeat pie (see recipe that follows).

You will definitely need a meat grinder or a standing mixer with a meat-grinding attachment.

4 pounds trimmed lean beef, such as lean chuck or stewing beef, cut into 3-inch chunks

About 61/2 pounds tart green apples

1 pound beef kidney suet*

1 pound candied citron or citrus zest

3 pounds raisins

3 pounds currants

1 quart (4 cups) meat liquor (leftover from stewing the beef)

2 pounds granulated sugar

1 cup light corn syrup

1 quart (4 cups) apple cider

Freshly squeezed juice from 2 lemons

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 tablespoon ground mace

1 tablespoon ground allspice

4 tablespoons ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon ground cloves

2 whole nutmegs, grated

2 cups strongly brewed coffee

10 to 11 one-quart canning jars with lids

Pat the beef dry. Place the beef in a pot, add enough water to cover and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer gently until the beef is tender but still firm when pierced with a fork, about 40 minutes. Transfer the beef to a plate; reserve the cooking liquid.

Meanwhile, core and quarter the apples but do not peel. Weigh the apples again; you need 6 pounds of cored apples. Set aside.

Pull the membrane off the suet and discard. Remove and discard any portions of suet that are not almost completely white. Break or cut the suet into chunks that will easily fit the meat grinder. Set aside.

Have ready a standing mixer with the meat grinder attachment or a food grinder fitted with the medium-fine blade. Working in batches, process the apples, suet, candied citron and beef. Place the ground ingredients in a large pot.

To the pot add raisins, currants, 4 cups of the reserved beef-cooking liquid, sugar, corn syrup, cider, lemon juice, salt, pepper, ginger, mace, allspice, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and coffee and stir to combine. Place the pot over medium-high heat and slowly bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally. Immediately reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring every 5 minutes and scraping the bottom of the pot to prevent burning, for 1 hour.

Using proper canning techniques, ladle the mincemeat into sterile quart jars to about 1/8 inch from the top. Using a table knife, tap down the mincemeat to ensure there are no air pockets. Seal the jars and process in a hot water bath according to manufacturer's directions.

* Note: Suet is the soft, crumbly fat found around the kidneys and loins. Suet is not interchangeable with regular "beef fat." It is available at some butcher shops and specialty stores.

Per 1/4-cup serving: 591 calories, 10 gm protein, 99 gm carbohydrates, 18 gm fat, 34 mg cholesterol, 9 gm saturated fat, 235 mg sodium, 7 gm dietary fiber

The Stephens Family's Recipe for Mincemeat Pie

One quart-size jar of mincemeat will make a 10-inch, two-crust pie. Lee and I recommend that you put the jarred mincemeat in a medium sauce pan, add to it a total of 1 cup of liquid, either 1/2 to 3/4 cup apple cider plus 1/4 cup brandy or 1 cup of good bourbon. Place over medium heat and warm the mixture gently, stirring it occasionally. (It should be the consistency of a thick soup.)

Place your favorite crust in the pie plate, fill the crust with the mincemeat mixture and cover with a top crust. Make a few slashes in the top crust for steam to escape. Bake the pie at 375 degrees for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 325 degrees and bake for about 1 hour more, until the crust is a medium golden brown. Set aside to cool slightly prior to slicing.

-- Keith Stephens