How to make mince pies...with a little help from Alexa

If it really is the most wonderful time of the year, we’re pretty sure mince pies have something to do with that. Short, crumbly pastry, a dusting of powdered sugar, the sweet festive spiced hit of fruity gloop breaking through the cracked shell. Ugh - mind passing a napkin? These mince pies are a messy business. 

But if you haven’t baked your own, you haven’t experienced them at their finest. Thankfully, Alexa is on-hand to help. Paired with the new BBC Good Food skill, Amazon devices like the Echo Show can serve up step-by-step recipes at your beck and call. As seasoned mince pie makers though - we’re here to ask and answer the question - is it any good?

“Alexa, show me mince pie recipes”

Alexa: “Okay, for mince pie, here are a few recipes.”

Good start! But what’s on screen? 

1. Unbelievably easy mince pies. 2. Cottage pie. 3. No-fuss shepherd’s pie. 4. Little mince pie cakes. 5. Mince pies (by Paul Hollywood). 6. Chunky mince pie slices. 7. Mince pie baklava. 8. Mince pie martini. 9. Multi mince. 10. Mince pie trees.

Not bad going! Only three out of the top ten recipes involved actual meat, and a good few gave us fun variations on a theme. Recipes are paired with a nice, big, high-res picture as well as the name of the chef behind the - in this case - pie. 

There’s also a star rating, and that dictates the order recipes are displayed in, so even if it did put a cottage pie recipe in at number two, at least it’s a very highly rated cottage pie. Finally, rough cooking time is displayed alongside the star rating.

We only listed the top ten, but our search for mince pies pulled no less than 23 results, with number 22 being a recipe for vegan mince pies. Firstly - that’s pretty niche, well done Alexa. Secondly - no butter or suet? Can’t be… we’re going to have to try these out.

But unable to tell Alexa to open the recipe, we’re forced to use our finger as opposed to our voice.

*Taps vegan mince pies*

Bam - the hi-res picture goes big-screen along with all the recipe information. In the bottom half of the screen are the ingredients which you can scroll through, below which is the method. It’s exactly like a cooking magazine or browsing a recipe in a website - mega intuitive and beautifully displayed.

If all you want is a smart display that showcases recipes in the kitchen therefore - Amazon and the Good Food skill have basically nailed it already. When the screen goes to sleep, it wakes up where it left off and all the ingredients and method are really well laid out and easy to scroll through.

The real challenge is whether the combination of smart screen and Alexa will make for a good voice assistant experience while we bake.

“Alexa, start recipe”

Alexa: “Okay, I’ll read the instructions one step at a time. At any time, you can ask me to move to the next step”

“Heat oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4. Tip all the mincemeat ingredients into a casserole dish or roasting tray”

TechRadar: “ALEXA STOP”

She gets ahead of herself does our Alexa. 

Despite helpfully giving you some quick tips before she starts, the steps-within-steps are whizzed through pretty quickly, with no pause between.

For this recipe, the voice instructions for “step one” takes around a minute, but covers the entire cooking process of the dried fruit mincemeat mixture, which takes almost an hour.

While the pacing may be a little bit speedy though, voice interaction is excellent. “Stop”, “Go to step one”, “Go back a step”, “Show me the ingredients”, “Read the ingredients” - all these interactions did exactly what we hoped they would which was repeatedly delightful.

This is instantly a marked improvement over Recipedia, the service BBC Good Food is replacing as the default cooking skill on Echo smart displays. When reviewing the Echo Show (2018), despite pulling up some cracking recipes, Recipedia made us hate the world by glitching so very hard when we tried its voice interaction.

The Recipedia app looked good, but voice interaction left a lot to be desired

The Recipedia app looked good, but voice interaction left a lot to be desired

What’s more, Recipedia would reliably close down the recipe and go to the home screen after the Echo Show was idle for a few minutes, requiring we reopen it and laboriously trudge through its clunky voice interface to get to the step we left it at.

The BBC Good food app, in stark contrast, keeps the recipe exactly where you left it, even after half an hour of screen off time. 

Hmm… this could actually be usable.

So - Alexa mince pies, any good?

*Chomp, chomp*... Yup - TechRadar approved - 8/10.

The BBC Good Food website is one of the UK’s best recipe finders, so it really doesn’t come as a huge surprise. Recipes come from top chefs and magazine submissions, and they’re curated, so priority is given to quality over quantity. When accessing it through a browser, you can read user comments too. These supplement the recipes with top tips and recipe modifications, so there’s also a really rich community element to it too for anyone hopping between smart screen and their smartphone or computer.

All this only compounds what we figured out five minutes into our baking experience - the BBC Good Food service for the Echo Show is a much more polished option than Recipedia was, with recipe quality in line with UI and voice interaction. 

Add to that, localisation for British audiences delivers all the measurements in grams, not cups, and it definitely feels like non-American Echo Show owners are less of an afterthought than they once were.

Better still, talking to Alexa mid-bake was really fun and helpful, especially when handling pastry with floury hands.

As for our little mince pies? They came out tasting great - despite the fact we used the wrong sized baking tray, so ended up making ickle pies. Sure, a couple of times, we were forced to tap the smart screen rather than talk to it, but that quibble aside, it's a serious improvement that ended up in a tasty bake; excellent job BBC Good Food and Amazon, this definitely won’t be the last time we cook with Alexa. 

Basil Kronfli

Basil Kronfli is the Head of content at Make Honey and freelance technology journalist. He is an experienced writer and producer and is skilled in video production, and runs the technology YouTube channel TechEdit.