Category Archives: Christmas

Hot Toddy

A hot toddy make with The GlenlivetToddy, or hot toddy, is a Scots drink of whisky, sugar, and hot water.

I’ve read that the name refers to Tod’s Well, an ancient spring that once gave Edinburgh its water.[1]  In other words it is yet another instance of the charming tradition of referring to whisky as water.[2]

Ancestral wisdom tells us that taking a mug of toddy in bed before sleep will cure many ailments.

The traditional toddy recipe I have calls for equal parts whisky and water.  Modern recipes are more likely 2 parts whisky to 3 parts or more of water.  They also typically use citrus and spices.  Though not traditional, the citrus is important, as the sweet, boozy cocktail absolutely requires acidity to remain balanced.

I debated for some time whether it was sinful to use single malt Scotch in a drink like this.  Blended Scotch is the norm, but I think you choose your whisky for a toddy the same way you choose your whisky on any other night.  Is it a Tuesday?  Then Famous Grouse is just fine.  Is it a long, dark January night, with no chance of friends calling?  Maybe something a bit peaty.

Here is a “recipe”.  I absolutely refuse to give any quantities.

A Hot Toddy


  • water
  • dark brown sugar
  • lemon slice
  • clove
  • fine Scotch whisky.  If it is before December, consider a Speyside Scotch.  If it is below -15°C, you might consider something from the islands.  Below -25°C and that island should be Islay.
  • orange slice


  1. Combine the water, dark brown sugar, lemon slices, and clove in a heavy pot.  Simmer gently for 15 minutes.
  2. Pour a shot of whisky into a warmed mug.  Pour the water-sugar-spice mixture over top to desired strength.  Garnish with orange.


Notes.  Important Notes.

  1. Do you remember that scene in Good Will Hunting when the boys go to a Harvard bar and Will calls out that douche-bag for plagiarizing something to impress a girl?  Well, the same thing just happened to me, sort of.  To prepare for writing this post I thought I’d have a cursory glance at the Wikipedia “Hot Toddy” page to make sure I wasn’t missing some salient piece of information on the drink.  I started reading, and I got to a long passage that I recognized.  Whoever wrote the Wikipedia page on hot toddies ripped a large section of text from The Scots Kitchen by F. Marian MacNeill without referencing it at all.  The only difference between what just happened to me and what happened in Good Will Hunting is that the plagiarist wasn’t around for me to castigate, and there weren’t any girls around to admire me.
  2. I can’t remember if I’ve written this before on Button Soup, but “whisky” is an Anglicization of the Celtic words for “water of life”.


Bonus Post! Our House in Gingerbread

Raw gingerbread, ready for the oven.The last two posts have included the two most important recipes for making gingerbread houses: gingerbread and royal icing.

This season is only the second time I’ve made a gingerbread house, the first being in 2010 when Lisa and I made a gingerbread church with stained glass windows.  Thanks to the nimble index fingers of Pinterest, that has become one of the most popular posts on this site.

This year I made another house in the same style, only instead of a church, I modeled the building after the one that Lisa and I live in, in McKernan.

The structure is made from these gingerbread cookies, which are bound with this royal icing.

The shingles are sliced almonds, also affixed with royal icing.

The windows are “stained glass” made by the method described in this post.  Being a residence and not a church the windows are small and don’t have as warm and bright a glow. Oh well.

A gingerbread house, modeled after the house I live in

A gingerbread hosue

Gingerbread Cookies

gingerbread_dough.JPGThere are several kinds of gingerbread cookies, from the soft, chewy type with large cracks in the surface, to the very smooth, brittle sort used to build houses and men.  This post is about the latter.

Below is a very simple gingerbread recipe that I wanted to post on Button Soup for the sake of completeness, as I use it to build my gingerbread houses.  I like to cut the excess dough into other traditional shapes, like men, Christmas trees, and dinosaurs.

Tips and Tricks

  • The key to getting this dough to hold its shape during baking is to roll it quite thin, about 1/8″, and to chill it thoroughly before baking.
  • This is one of the very few instances that I prefer blackstrap or baking molasses to the fancy sort.  I really like the minerality and acidity of the cheaper stuff.
  • Lightly oil the inside of the bowl in which you will measure out the molasses.  This way the molasses with slide out and you won’t have to wash any sticky residue out later.

Homemade gingerbread cookies cooling on a wire rack


Gingerbread Cookies


  • 4 oz unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 4 oz white sugar
  • 6.5 oz blackstrap molasses
  • 3 oz water
  • 18 oz all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp ginger powder
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt


  1. Cream butter and white sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes, periodically scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
  2. Add the molasses and water and beat until combined.
  3. Combine remaining ingredients and slowly add to the butter and sugar mixture while stirring on the lowest speed.
  4. Continue mixing on lowest speed until dough comes together and starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl.
  5. Cover dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 15 minutes.
  6. Roll out to 1/8″ thickness (about 4 mm) and cut into desired shapes.
  7. Put on a bake sheet with silicon lining and refrigerate 15 minutes.
  8. Bake in a 350°F oven for ten minutes.
  9. Remove to a wire rack to cool.

Sugar Plums

Sugar plums, rank and file on a drying traySugar plums are one of those items that are common in Christmas carols and stories and yet are basically unknown to modern revelers. (Other examples: wassail, yule, and figgy pudding. Furthermore, I’ve never seen mistletoe before, and I just saw real holly for the first time a few weeks ago, at the farmers’ market. I got excited, grabbed the leaves, and stabbed myself.)

My dictionary defines a sugar plum as a small ball of candy, and nothing more. There are not necessarily any plums in sugar plums.  The word “plum” is associated with dried fruit, and good modern dictionaries still give one of the many meanings of “plum” as “a raisin.”  The most common manifestation of sugar plums is in fact dried fruit and nuts, chopped up, sweetened, bound with honey, and rolled into little balls.  While Edmonton isn’t awash with the fleshy fruits that lend themselves to drying, like apricots and figs, there are certainly lots of sour cherries and plums to be had. Even if you can’t find any from within the city, in the late fall the farmers’ markets are always full of dried fruit and nuts from BC.

The ratio at the core of my sugar plum recipe is two parts dried fruit to one part roasted nuts.  You can use whatever dried fruit you have on hand, but I suggest finding a relatively neutral fruit, like prunes, to use as a base, to which you can add a smaller amount of tart fruit, like cranberries or Evans cherries.  Sugar plums really benefit from a bit of acidity.

I run the fruit and nuts through a food processor, but you could just as easily chop them by hand.

As far as sweetening goes, it’s best to use a combination of honey and sugar.  Honey is required to bind the fruit and nuts together, but using too much will make the sugar plums soft and sticky.  I use half honey and half icing sugar.  Icing sugar is ground very fine, so it dissolves and incorporates with the fruit even though there is very little moisture in the mix.

Some ground spice is welcome, but I’m careful not to overdo it.  I add a quarter teaspoon for every two pounds of fruit/nut mix.

Sugar plums can be rolled in coarse sugar, but I find them plenty sweet as they are.

It’s good to make these a few days before you intend to serve them.  Immediately after being rolled they’re quite sticky, but over time the surface dries out and becomes smooth and firm.


Sugar Plums

Master Ratio: 2:1 dried fruit to roasted nuts, by weight


  • 8 oz prunes
  • 2 oz dried cranberries
  • 2 oz dried apricots
  • 6 oz roasted walnuts
  • 1/4 cup icing sugar
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • a bit less than 1/4 tsp freshly ground cinnamon


  1. Put the dried fruit and roasted nuts in a food processor and blitz until they’re broken into small pieces.  The mixture should still be loose, not pasty.
  2. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl.  Add the remaining ingredients and knead with a stiff spatula until everything binds together.
  3. Divide the mixture into 1 tbsp portions and shape each portion into a ball about an inch across.  The little portion scoops with wiper blades work great for this.  Also, I find that having slightly damp hands prevents the fruit mixture from sticking to your fingers and helps develop a nice, smooth, cohesive exterior.
  4. Let the sugar plums stand overnight.  The surface will dry so that the candies are less sticky and easier to handle.

Yield: 30 to 35 lil’ sugar plums


Some jarred nog, agingHow to Incorporate the Eggs.  There are several different ways to put the “egg” into “eggnog.”  For a few years I used this method:

  • whisk egg yolks with some sugar until pale and foamy
  • whisk egg whites with some sugar until soft peaks form
  • fold the two egg foams together and stir into milk and cream
  • add rum and nutmeg

The problem with this method, first of all, is that if it sits for even five minutes, the eggy foams separate from the milk and cream. I wouldn’t mind a bit of head on the nog, but the foams make up about 90% of the volume.  Even during the brief moments in which all the ingredients are properly incorporated, the light and airy texture of the nog doesn’t seem appropriately robust and nourishing.

Out of sheer curiosity I tried cooking out a mixture of milk, cream, and yolks, à la crème anglaise.  It was a bit thick, even once thinned with rum, but before repeating the process with a lower yolk content I decided that the cooked-egg taste is also inappropriate to the ideal nog.

I’ve finally settled on just adding whole eggs with the milk and cream, and blitzing thoroughly with a stick blender.  The white make a nice little foam on top.  Sometimes it will separate a bit if it sits in the fridge, but you can just blend it again before serving.

Rum Content.  The recipe below uses one part rum for three parts dairy.  To some drinkers it will seem out of balance, but to me nog can pull off wonky booziness that would be completely inappropriate in most drinks.  Egg nog should warm you up.

Aging.  Another important piece of information I came across was that properly boozed nog can be made well, well before consumption, and aged in the fridge.  Michael Ruhlman has successfully aged eggnog for two years, if you can believe it.  I’ve been making mine about one month in advance.  The drink mellows and blends somewhat, but doesn’t develop any of the funky flavours of true, long-aged nog.  It makes preparation for parties easier.

If you intend on aging your nog I’d recommend doubling the quantity of rum in the recipe below.

Foam.  Very much a matter of personal taste, but I usually like a bit of eggy foam on top of my nog.  I like the flavour of the egg whites, and it creates textural contrast.

If you want lots of foam, you could separate the yolks and whites.  Use only the yolks in the recipe below, then right before serving whisk the whites with a pinch of sugar.  In terms of how stiff the whites should be whisked, I think they should be even softer than the classical “soft-peak” stage.  Once they reach soft peaks, the foam doesn’t flow over the surface of the liquid, and when drinking the nog it’s difficult to incorporate both foam and drink into each sip.

Nutmeg.  I used to incorporate the nutmeg at the blending stage, but I found that it always sank to the bottom.  Grating over the drink just before consumption ensures that you get the full aroma of the spice as it happily floats on the surface.  Just my preference.




  • 12 oz whole eggs (6 large eggs)
  • 8 oz granulated sugar
  • 1 very small pinch kosher salt
  • 24 fl oz whole milk
  • 8 fl oz heavy cream
  • 8 fl oz golden or spiced rum, I use Sailor Jerry
  • nutmeg to taste


  1. Combine all ingredients and blend with an immersion blender.
  2. Can be stored in the fridge for a week before serving.
  3. To serve, blend thoroughly to develop of bit of foam.  Ladle into mugs and grate nutmeg on top to taste.

Ukrainian Christmas Eve – Sviata Vechera

I’m not even remotely Ukrainian, but (as I’ve written many times before this) I am fascinated by the food that Ukrainians have brought here to central Alberta.

Yes, perogies.  And yes, sauerkraut, kielbasa, and cabbage rolls.  But the more I read into this cuisine, the more I respect it.  There are so many interesting preserves, and countless recipes of ingenious frugality.

It also seems that every ingredient, dish, and meal comes with superstition and ritual.

Take the traditional Ukrainian Christmas Eve dinner, or Sviata Vechera (literally “Holy Supper”), perhaps the most beloved of all Ukrainian feasts.  Orthodox churches use the Julian calendar, so their Christmas Eve falls on January 6.  There are more traditions associated with this dinner than I could possibly describe.  Here are some of the more common practices:

  • Early in the day the yard and stables are cleaned.
  • The farm animals are given extra fodder (I think because the infant Jesus was placed in a manger).
  • The house is cleaned and whitewashed.
  • Hay is placed on the dinner table (again, recalling the manger…) and covered with a special, embroidered tablecloth.
  • Farm tools and wheat or hay are put under the table.
  • Garlic, a symbol of health and strength, is set at the four corners of the table.
  • The children of the house watch for the first star to appear (a symbol of the star that led the magii to baby Jesus). 
  • The did or didukh, the last sheaf of wheat taken from the fields, serves as a symbol of harvest and gathering.  It is placed under the icon in the dining room.  In eastern Christianity, whether Ukrainian, Greek, Russian, et c., icons are religious pieces of art, usually paintings representing Jesus, Mary, angels, or saints.
  • An elaboroate meal is enjoyed.  Traditionally, all animal products – meat, fat, eggs, and dairy – were forbidden.  These days meat is still forbidden, but dairy is often permitted.
  • Twelve dishes, one for each of the apostles, are shared by the family.  There are a few dishes that are always prepared, but the exact meal will vary from family to family.

This past January 6 I cooked a twelve-course dinner inspired by the traditional Sviata Vechera.  We dispensed with most of the rituals described above.  My version of the dinner was based on traditional dishes, but I adapted the preparations to suit contemporary palates and available ingredients, just as Ukrainian emigrants have done wherever they move in the world.  The meal included lots of wild food, such as cherries, puffball mushrooms, wild rice, horseradish, labrador tea, highbush cranberries, and rosehips.

Here’s a brief description of the dishes we ate that night.  (Better late than never?) Thank you to Valerie and Vanja for playing host, and to Claire for being my sous.


wheat pudding

This is always the first dish of the Holy Supper.  It is a pudding of boiled wheat, sweetend with honey, sometimes with the addition of nuts or poppy seeds.

There are many peculiar traditions associated with the kutia.  Before the meal, the mother and father of the house take a bowl of kutia to the front door and invite the sun, the moon, and various other natural forces including dead ancestors to come in and enjoy the meal with them.

Once everyone is seated at the table, the father of the house raises a spoonful of kutia and greets his family with the words, “Khrystos Razdayetsia,” meaning “Christ is born.”  The family responds, “Slavite Yoho,” or “Let us glorify him.”  After this call and response, everyone enjoys their kutia.

At this point the eldest member of the family might fling a spoonful of kutia at the ceiling.  “The more kernels that stuck to the ceiling, the greater was the good luck expected in the following year.  The number of poppy seeds that stuck indicated the number of new beehives the family would have the following year.”[1]

My version of kutia was made with wheatberries and dried Evans cherries.

braided bread

Kolach is a rich bread (ie. containing sugar, eggs, and fat) that’s braided and curled into a ring.  In fact the name derives from kolo, which means “circle”.  This is a deeply symbolic bit of baking.  Oftentimes three loaves of kolach are stacked on top of each other on the supper table, with a candle stuck into the top loaf.

We ate a simple rye loaf, accompanied by honey and garlic.

sauerkraut soup

This is a soup made from sauerkraut brine.  I discussed this form of soup here.

The acidic brine was thickened with a roux and enriched with heavy cream.  The soup was garnished with sauerkraut and dark rye croutons.



Bib simply means beans.  Broad beans are a very common Holy Supper dish.  They are usually simply boiled and mixed with sautéed onions.

We made baked beans with preserved tomatoes, kale, and a breadcrumb crust.

Baked beans with kale


Smazheni Doshchyvyky
puffball mushroom fritters

Typically only dried mushrooms would be used at a Christmas Eve dinner.  Puffballs, while common in Ukrainian food, do not dry well, so these fritters would not typically be served at Christmas.

I happened to have some chopped, sautéed puffballs in my freezer.  They were foraged by Yolande, the farmer at Tipi Creek CSA, this past summer.  They were folded into a simple fritter batter, deep-fried, and served with red onion jam.

A parade of puffball mushroom fritters with red onion marmelade



cabbage rolls

My Alberto-Ukrainian sources tell me that in the old country holubtsi are made with sour cabbage leaves, and almost always accompanied by mushroom cream sauce.  The Albertan version uses fresh cabbage leaves, and bakes the rolls in tomato sauce.

We opted for the sour cabbage wild mushroom version, but included wild rice in the stuffing.

Borsch and Vushka
beet soup and dumplings
Another indispensable dish.  Finish with freshly grated horseradish.

pickled herring
Herring being a bit of rarity here, we used pickerel.  Served with honeyed carrots and dill.

The familiar dumplings, filled with homemade cottage cheese and served with onions.

Some form of tea is usually served towards the end of the supper.  We made labrador tea, sweetened with orange peel syrup.

cranberry soup
Fruit soups are common throughout central and eastern Europe.  We used some stinky highbush cranberry preserves, thinned out with apple cider.

raised doughnuts
Traditionally these are filled with poppyseeds or jam.  We served ours with a dollop of rosehip jelly and powdered sugar.

Raised doughnuts with rosehip jelly and powdered sugar


1. Weleschuk, Mary. Cooking from Generation to Generation. ©2011 L. Rasmussen Co. Ltd. Winnipeg, MB. Page 7.  I am hugely indebted to this family cookbook for descriptions of the Sviata Vechera rituals.

Wild Rice and Barley Pudding

A variation on a Christmas classic, using some local pantry items.

I had some cooked barley in my fridge, remnants of a barley-broth.  I decided to employ the rice pudding method to save the left-overs.  (Rice Pudding Method: a lengthy secondary cooking in sugar and milk.)  The barley sucks up a lot of the milk and releases some starch into the pot.

Once a porridge has formed, cooked wild rice and dried cherries are added, and the whole lot is thickened with butter, egg yolk, and a touch of cream.

Since the wild rice and cherries are added at the end, they stay firm for textural contrast.

Wild Rice and Barley Pudding


  • 235 g cooked pearled barley
  • 300 g whole milk
  • 30 g dark brown sugar
  • 1 pinch kosher salt>
  • 1/2 stick of cinnamon
  • 50 g cooked wild rice
  • 20 g dried sour cherries
  • 30 mL brandy
  • 1 egg yolk with absolutely all remnants of white removed
  • 20 g butter
  • 30 g heavy cream


  1. Soak the dried cherries in the brandy.
  2. Put barley in a heavy-bottomed pot and cover with milk, brown sugar, and cinnamon.  Stir to combine.  Bring to the boil then simmer until most of the milk has boiled off or been absorbed, about 40 minutes.
  3. Strain the cherries from the brandy.  Reserve the brandy.  Add the cherries and wild rice to the barley.  Remove the cinnamon stick.
  4. Return to a simmer.
  5. Remove the pot from the heat.  Stir in the butter, then the egg yolk.  Adjust the consistency of the pudding with the heavy cream.  Serve immediately, accompanied by a taste of the cherry-brandy.

Makes 3-4 servings.

Wild rice and barley pudding, with dried evans cherries

Bread Pudding as God Intended It

Bread pudding with raisinsWhen I say bread pudding “as God intended it,” I mean using actual, stale, left-over bread heels.  Buying fresh bread just to tear it up and dry it out is like using striploin to make sausage, or rolling a torchon of foie gras just to melt it into cooking fat.

To make bread pudding stale bread is soaked in milk, cream, eggs, and sugar, then pressed into a casserole and baked.

There is a continuum of bread pudding textures, ranging from the dense and eggy (the well-known Jack’s Grill (RIP) bread pudding was a good example) to the light and ethereal.

I want to take a paragraph to describe an interesting style of bread pudding that chef Nigel Weber taught me in culinary school at NAIT.  He shingled slices of old bread in a tray, then poured what was essentially a creme brulee custard mix into the dish until the bread was submerged by two thirds.  He then gently baked the tray as you would for a fine custard, and later used a blowtorch to burn the tips of the bread.  And so in one spoonful the diner has a bit of pure, delicate custard, some slightly chewy bready bits, and then the crisp, scorched edges of the exposed bread.  Still undeniably bread pudding, but a very interesting, thoughtful preparation.  Classic Weber.  Anyways.

Below is a very good recipe for cohesive but delicate bread pudding.  What I like most about this recipe is that it uses the exact same ratio as all of the other custards on this site, 4-1-1 dairy, sugar, egg.

Bread Pudding


  • 12 oz stale bread, cut into 1″ cubes
  • 8 oz whole milk
  • 8 oz heavy cream
  • 4 oz eggs (about 2 large eggs…)
  • 4 oz white sugar
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • optional garnishes: 6 oz fresh fruit, especially saskatoons or blueberries; 8 oz dried fruit, especially raisins; 3 oz chopped dark chocolate


  1. Whisk together the milk, cream, eggs, sugar, and salt.  Pour the liquid over the stale bread.  Toss until all the liquid has been absorbed by the bread.  Let the mixture stand in the fridge for at least one hour, but preferably overnight.
  2. Fold any garnishes such as fruit or chocolate into the mixture.
  3. Set a pot of water on the stove to boil.  Grease a loaf pan and line it with parchment.  Pack the bread mixture into the loaf pan.
  4. Set the loaf pan into a roasting tray or casserole.  Pour the boiling water into the tray so that it comes halfway up the side of the loaf pan.
  5. Bake in a 350°F oven until the centre of the pudding is set, about 40 minutes.


Rum Sauce, or Hard Sauce.

  • 1 lb icing sugar
  • 1/2 lb unsalted butter
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 fl oz rum


  1. Gently cook to remove the starchy taste of the sugar.
  2. Remove from the heat and whisk in the eggs and rum.
  3. Coat each slice of bread pudding with rum sauce, then broil the dish until there are a few burnt patches on top.  This is a trick I picked up at Jack’s.  The charred bitterness sets off the sweetness nicely.

For a more elegant sauce, consider custard sauce, crème anglaise.

The Boar’s Head

The boar’s head in hand bear I,
Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you my masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio
(As many as are in the feast)

-English Traditional


Has it ever taken you years to understand the lyrics to a certain song?

I grew up listening to a carol that I thought was in a different language. While a few lines are in Latin, the rest is in plain English. Even so, I only deciphered the meaning of the song last year. The carol is The Boar’s Head, and it refers to the English custom, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, of serving a boar’s head at Christmastime. The head was placed on a silver platter and marched into the hall with music. When I first read about the custom last year, I resolved that this Christmas I would roast a boar’s head, bedeck’d with bays and rosemary.

I rested the head on a bed of onions, celery, apples, bays, rosemary, and thyme, and cooked it in a very low oven for several hours. The jowls release a lot (a lot!) of fat, which is good for frying bread as an accompaniment. The head finishes with very tender flesh and very hard crackling, and the whole mess is liberally salted and peppered. Good food for the longest night of the year, which we usually observe with heavy drinking.

Caput apri defero (The boar’s head I offer)
Reddens laudes Domino (Giving praises to the Lord)

The boar’s head I understand
Is the rarest dish in all the land
And thus bedeck’d with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico (serve with a song).

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

Our steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of Bliss;
Which on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio (in the hall of the Queen)

A roasted pig head
An apple in the pig's mouth

A phenomenon that occasionally accompanies heavy drinking:
Snow angels: a solstice tradition