Advent 2013

A candle on an Advent wreathIt’s advent, which means there will be a post on Button Soup every day between now and Christmas.

The Button Soup advent calendar lets me write at length about important holiday traditions.  It also forces me to complete the dozens of half-written, unpublished posts that have accumulated on my computer and in my brain.

It’s gonna be good.  Stay tuned.

Stuffing, or Dressing

A casserole of Thanksgiving stuffing, or dressingI say this without exaggeration: I hold stuffing as one of the greatest culinary traditions of the New World.  I know the British and French and many others make similar dishes, but stuffing, or dressing, is an indispensable dish for the Thanksgiving table.  Technically it is an accompaniment to the turkey.  I often have to remind myself of this.

So.  What is stuffing?  Stuffing is bread.  As the name implies, it was originally crammed into the cavity of poultry, absorbing the juice and fat exuded from the bird during cooking.  While this method is still common in Canadian homes, it is giving way to “stuffing” that is prepared in a casserole instead of a bird.  There are two reasons for this trend.  Most importantly: even a bird as large as a turkey cannot accommodate the volume of stuffing that is required to sate the appetite of the typical North American family.  Also, by the time the stuffing cooks through the surrounding meat is overcooked and dry.

Making stuffing in a casserole solves these problems, but the cook needs to find a way to get turkey flavour into the dish, which is why I cut up my raw bird and make stock from the carcass a day or two before Thanksgiving.

Flavour.  Essential flavours: poultry stock or jus, onion, celery, and herbs, especially sage, thyme, rosemary, and savoury.  I recommend deeply toasting the bread before moistening it with the poultry essence.

Texture.  Though stuffing is made in almost every home in North America, in my experience no two stuffings are the same.  There is in fact a broad stuffing continuum.  On one end are the highly bound stuffings which have a relatively high moisture content, and have been worked so that the bread becomes a cohesive paste.  This form of stuffing resembles an Austrian Knödel in texture.  (In a strictly academic sense I consider stuffing to be a type of dumpling, though few North Americans would recognize it as such.)

On the other end of the spectrum the stuffing has much less moisture and is not bound at all, but is crumbly, with the individual cubes of bread falling over each other.

All stuffings are located at some point on this spectrum, and a diner’s preference has a lot to do with the style that his mother made when he was young.  Some of the most impassioned conversations I’ve had about food have revolved around stuffing, and which style is best.

I think that most of the recipes my friends cook at home were written in the last twenty years, and were gleaned from glossy cookbooks and television shows.  Stuffing is one of the few recipes that people still learn from their moms.  And for some reason it almost never appears on restaurant menus.  Most comfort foods have been co-opted by even the fanciest restaurants (think: truffled mac and cheese…), but stuffing has escaped this fate, for now.  This is a special dish.

 

Stuffing

 

Lisa’s Turkey Stuffing

Ingredients

  • 2 qt whole wheat bread, cut into 1″ cubes
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 cups fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 cups onion, chopped
  • 2 cups celery, chopped
  • 2 cups bacon lardons
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • a small fistful of fresh marjoram or oregano, minced
  • a small fistful of parsley, minced
  • a small fistful of sage, minced
  • 2 1/2 cups turkey stock
  • salt

Procedure

  1. Render bacon until crispy.  Remove from pot.  Sautée mushrooms in fat until browned.  Remove from pot.
  2. Add butter, the remaining vegetables, and the paprika and sautée until the onions are just turning translucent.
  3. Return the bacon and mushrooms to the pot.  Add the bread and cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
  4. Add the hot turkey stock and mix well.  Cover and cook over low heat for at least 30 minutes, stirring frequently, until bread cubes have broken down.  Slow cooking and frequent stirring are the keys for this cohesive style of stuffing.  Add the herbs for the last 10 minutes of cooking.
  5. Transfer to a buttered casserole and chill.  To serve, bake casserole in a 425°F until the top of the stuffing is crisp, about 15-20 minutes.

Thanksgiving

Pumpkin and buttercup squash on the Thanksgiving table.Thanksgiving is the only truly and completely North American feast that my family celebrates: all others have their roots deep in European ground, and are either specific national dinners like St. Patrick’s Day, or broader Christian celebrations like Easter and Christmas.

Thanksgiving dinner is the most rigidly traditional meal that most North American families share.  For Easter and Christmas, families choose between ham and turkey, or possibly roast beef.  They may serve scallop potatoes, or mash.  Dessert could be any number of pies or cakes.  The specifics depend on the family, where they are on the continent, and where their ancestors came from.  Thanksgiving, on the other hand, is more uniform, and centres on a few distinctly New World ingredients and preparations.

 

Origins of Thanksgiving in Canada[1]

There was a time in our history when thanksgiving services and meals were called to celebrate a specific event.  The most famous example in Canadian history occurred in 1578, during Martin Frobisher’s third expedition to find the Northwest Passage.  His ship was separated from the others in the convoy for weeks.  When they finally reunited, a service of Thanksgiving was conducted by the chaplain, and all the men ate dinner together.  This story always seems to come up in discussions of Canadian Thanksgiving, even though truthfully it has nothing to do with the modern celebration.  Some other examples:

  • 1763, in Halifax, to mark the Treaty of Paris and the end of the Seven Years’ War
  • 1816, in Upper Canada, for the end of the war between Britain and France
  • 1856, for British victory in the Crimean War.

Thanksgiving wasn’t made an annual, statutory holiday until 1879, and over the next eighty years it would change exact dates many times, from October, through November (sometimes marked in conjunction with Remembrance Day, sometimes celebrated American-style, late in the month), and sometimes even in December.  The modern date, the second Monday of October, was set by Parliament in 1957.

 

Thanksgiving in America[2]

Canadians are very familiar with the story of the first American Thanksgiving, and the imagery of the severely-dressed pilgrims feasting with their native American hosts has crept north of the border.

Until the 1860s, Thanksgiving was celebrated by all the northern states, but not necessarily on the same day.  In 1863 Lincoln proclaimed two days of Thanksgiving: one on August 6 for Union victory at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and one on November 26, to commemorate a year “filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies”.

In 1864, when General Sherman captured Atlanta, Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November a national day of Thanksgiving for the second year in a row.  Lincoln would die the following spring, but future presidents kept the tradition in his honour.

Then there was a disastrous year when the last Thursday of November fell on November 30, which was the fifth Thursday of the month.  Thanksgiving had been promoted by retailers as the start of the Christmas shopping season as early as the turn of the century.  With only twenty business days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, retailers feared a drop in total sales, so the National Retail Dry Goods Association lobbied to have the celebration moved back one week, to the fourth Thursday of the month.  As often happens in the States, it became a comically partisan issue (#shutdown), with about half the states celebrating on the fourth Thursday, half on the fifth.

President Roosevelt later legislated that Thanksgiving would always be the fourth Thursday of November, whether it was the last Thursday of the month or not.

 

Thanksgiving Dinner: The Essential Components

Obviously there is lots of variation between household and household, and between region and region across North America, but to my mind there are six absolutely essential components to a Thanksgiving meal:

1.  Turkey.  The most festive roast in the North American repertoire.  My preferred method is discussed here.

2.  Gravy.  The indispensable accoutrement to roast turkey.

3.  Cranberries.  Somewhat polarizing, but universally agreed to be an essential component.  Bog cranberries are native to the northeastern US and parts of Canada.  I use highbush cranberries.

4.  Stuffing. Also known as dressing.  Post forthcoming.

5.  Mashed Potatoes. Post forthcoming.

6.  Pumpkin Pie.  Discussed here.

Other Notable Ingredients.

  • Corn, especially in the form of cornbread.
  • Apples.  Canadian Thanksgiving falls at the tail end of Edmonton’s apple season. Cider goes well with all the dishes listed above.  Also, apple pie.
  • Sweet Potato.

 

References

1. All my info on the history of Thanksgiving in Canada came from the following fantastic little book:  Duncan, Dorothy.  Feasting and Fasting: Canada’s Heritage Celebrations.  ©2010  Dorothy Duncan.  Dundurn Press, Toronto, ON.

2.  I’m practically positive that no one reads the footnotes that I write, so I’m perfectly confident writing my source for information on the history of American Thanksgiving.

The Bathroom Readers’ Institute.  Uncle John’s Ultimate Bathroom Reader, 8th Edition.  ©1996  The Bathroom Readers’ Press, Ashland, OR.  There is a fascinating article called “The Evolution of Thanksgiving” on page 209.

Scallop Potatoes

Scallop potatoes: sliced potatoes, cheese, and creamI think I remember scallop potatoes more fondly than any other form of the tuber.  Maybe French fries were more highly prized when I was a child, but truth be told I ate them much more often than scallop potatoes.  Scallop potatoes, being a casserole dish, was reserved for large dinners, especially Easter.

At its core the dish is potatoes, cut into rounds (scalloped), then baked in cream and cheese.  There are obviously countless variations; I know some mothers who bake their scallop potatoes in mushroom or onion soup mix.  There is a classic French dish called pommes à la dauphinois that is identical to scallop potatoes.  The addition of grated cheese to the top of the dish would make gratin dauphinois.  Sometimes eggs are included with the cream to bind the dish, though if you use starchy potatoes and bake the dish uncovered so that the cream reduces, the egg binder is unnecessary.

Thomas Keller has popularized a version of this dish called pavéPavé means simply block, or square, and is related to the English word pave, as in paving stone.  It is therefore applied to a number of dishes that take a blockish shape, though most famously sweet sponge cakes smooshed together with buttercream.  Over the last few years most every fine dining restaurant in Edmonton has offered Keller’s potato pavé at some point or another.

Seriously the only difference between your mother’s scallop potatoes and Thomas Keller’s pavé is that she cut the potatoes to 1/4″ thickness with a knife, and Tom cuts them to 1/16″ or finer with a mandolin.  I like leaving the skins on the potatoes.  There’s a lot of flavour in the skins.  And the sliced potatoes look nice with the dark perimeter.

You can use any type of potato, but the more starchy the potato, the tighter the layers will bind.  When you cut into a casserole made with thinly sliced Russets, it will hold its shape very well, and each block can be extricated cleanly.  Sweet potatoes, which have very little starch, will not bind and will slide over each other.  If you want an especially tightly bound dish, you can weigh the pavé down after it comes out of the oven, pressing the potatoes together and exuding some of the excess cream.  What a graphic image.

I use a cheese that blends the good melting characteristics of youth with the complex flavours of aged.  Sylvan Star medium Gouda or Gruyere  or six month Pecorino from The Cheesiry, for instance.

Bake at medium heat for a long time, uncovered.  This will let the cream reduce, and the cheese on top brown and form a crust.  The dish is done when a paring knife slides easily into the cooked potatoes.

Scallop potatoes with a hearty crust of baked cheese

Little Scotch Eggs for Burns Night

Packing hard-boiled quail eggs in forcemeatScotch eggs are hard-boiled eggs that are wrapped in sausage meat, then breaded and deep-fried.  They’re eaten cold, ideal for picnics and packed lunches.  Actually if you watch the original British version of The Office you’ll see that Keith always has a Scotch egg for lunch.

Tonight is Burns Night, and we’re going to be serving little Scotch eggs made with quail eggs, instead of the traditional chicken egg, as savoury bar snacks.

Have a dram for the bard tonight.

 

Scotch quail eggs

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

Ingredients

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

Procedure

  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. Shape the mixture into balls 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.
  4. Let the sugar plums stand overnight.  The surface will dry so that the candies are less sticky and easier to handle.

Eggnog

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.

 

Eggnog

Ingredients

  • 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

Procedure

  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.

Bulletin: Exciting Developments in the Field of Fruitcake

Fruitcake, soon to be saturated with Sailor JerryI know I already posted today, but I wanted to quickly tell you about some cutting-edge developments in the composition and aging of the 2012 fruitcake.

Hazelnuts lose their spot to almonds.  For three years now my fruitcake has been poundcake flavoured with orange zest, garnished with glacé Evans cherries, candied Navel orange peel, and roasted hazelnuts.  The cherries are the star.  They bring loads of flavour, acidity to balance the buttery luxury of the cake, plus they’re from Lisa’s dad’s backyard.

Working with Evans cherries over the past couple years, we’ve noticed that their aroma has a distinct note of almond extract.  For some reason this aroma is especially evident in the single-varietal rumpots we’ve made.  This year we decided to substitute the hazelnuts with almonds, to see if they could reinforce or even elevate the great, natural flavour of the Evans cherry.

Appleton rum falls to Sailor Jerry.  I don’t know what I’m supposed to think about Sailor Jerry.  I know lots of kids who drink it because it’s marginally stronger than most brands of rum, and I guess because it’s associated with a tattoo artist, and probably also because it has a charming, trashy pin-up girl on the back of the label.  Its popularity in hipsterdom notwithstanding, in the last year it’s become my favourite spiced rum, mostly because of the boatload of vanilla essence on the nose.  It’s great in Coke for that reason.

Anyways, I’ve decided to age this year’s fruitcake with Sailor Jerry spiced navy rum, instead of the usual Appleton VX.  Maybe spiced rum will overpower or muddle the aroma of the orange peel and cherries.  I don’t know.  Sometimes you have to take risks.