On Holiday Favourites

Consuming Christmas

When I was a toddler, I tried to eat a Christmas ornament. Not an edible gingerbread ornament, but one of those shiny, glass Christmas balls. You know the ones: they adorn almost every tree. Apparently this particular ball had fallen from its carefully chosen branch and my infant appetite decided it looked too delicious to pass by un-chomped. I popped it in my mouth, took a bite and cried a bit. I was fine; the ornament was not.

I've always been fiercely proud of this story. I probably shouldn't be; it wasn't my finest (or smartest) moment as a child. But it seems to me it was the first time I attempted to consume my favourite holiday, no matter the cost. Though I likely didn't understand what Christmas actually was, a subconscious craving began to rumble within me, signalling that the over-decorated holiday world around me was something upon which to feast. I haven't stopped chomping since.

Of course, I now know that holiday feasting takes many forms. True, we eat and drink until we can't possibly squeeze in another bite, but we also feed ourselves in other ways: we watch films, listen to music and alter our environments for the sake of festivity. We celebrate Christmas by devouring it through every medium, and we don't stop until we've had our fill.

Because I've been attempting to consume Christmas since before I could walk, I've cultivated quite a holiday repertoire: a collection of inedible favourites, worth savouring year after year...

Favourite Holiday Films:
The Muppet Christmas Carol 
Home Alone

Favorite Holiday Television Specials:
Community: Season 2, Episode 11, "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas"
Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Favourite Holiday Albums:
A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi
A Very She & Him Christmas by She & Him
A New Kind of Light by Jill Barber, Rose Cousins and Meaghan Smith

Favourite Holiday Songs:
"In the Bleak Mid-Winter" by just about anyone
"River" by Joni Mitchell

Favourite Holiday Reads:
The Dead by James Joyce
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
The cookie tradition

When I think of holiday food, I think of cookies. Not a particular kind or recipe, but cookies of all shapes and flavours: the great cookie tray of my mind. It seems to me we all go a bit cookie-crazy this time of year, combining our respect for old favourites with a craving to try new recipes, and making far too many cookies for far too few mouths in the process.

I've scaled back my cookie production in recent years. When I first started baking, I tried to bake a batch of cookies for just about everyone I knew at Christmas. Twelve pounds of butter later, I learned that sometimes less really is more; sometimes it's best to give a cookie sample (10-12 cookies seems fine) or no cookies at all. Remember: everyone else is baking this time of year too.
Now I pretty much only roll out the cookie sheets for my family. And while we have our one recipe that must get made, I try to also introduce a new cookie to the tray each year.

This year, it's all about Speculoos. I've been reading about these faintly-sweet, super spicy cookies for some time now. Originally from Belgium, Speculoos are reminiscent of gingerbread. They're traditionally cut with intricate, scenic molds and each cookie displays an image or figure, often from the story of St. Nicholas.

I don't have any scenic molds, so I went with a simpler approach à la Dorie Greenspan. Rolled into logs and cut into buttons, these cookies are an homage to the day I took a bite out of a ball ornament. Without decoration, icing or sprinkles, they are unmistakably edible: a new favourite.
Speculoos Buttons
Recipe by Dorie Greenspan, adapted from Lucky Peach #13: "Feel the Joy" (p.103)

You will need...
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons mild (light molasses)
1 large egg, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 egg
Sanding sugar

To make the dough...

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, spices and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, beat butter until smooth (medium speed for 2 minutes). Add sugars and molasses; beat again until mixture is smooth (medium speed for 3 minutes). Add the egg and beat until incorporated. Then, add vanilla and beat for another 2 minutes (medium speed). Add the dry ingredients to the bowl all at once. Beat on a low speed just until the flour disappears into the dough and everything comes together.

Scrape the dough out onto a work surface and divide into thirds. Roll each portion into a log using the palms of your hands and squeezing the dough together so it compacts. Roll into an 8-inch-long log. Wrap the three logs in plastic film and freeze for at least three hours.

To bake...

Preheat oven to 375. Position oven racks to divide oven into thirds. Line three baking sheets with parchment.

Brush each log with beaten egg and roll in sanding sugar. Next, using a sharp, slender knife, slice off the ends of each log to tidy up the appearance of your buttons (you can bake these end pieces too - they just won't be as pretty). Slice the logs into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Place them on baking sheets (don't worry about leaving a lot of room between each cookie as they stay pretty much the same size).

Return one tray of cookies to the freezer while you bake the first two. Bake for 11-13 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back after 6 minutes, or until the cookies are golden brown and almost firm at the centre. Transfer to a wire rack to cool to room temperature before serving.

Frozen dough will keep for 2 months in the freezer. Baked cookies will keep for up to 4 days in an airtight container.


On Cool Stuff (a gift guide)

Gift guides are annoying. I have a theory that no one actually buys anything from them; they're just another form of vicarious experience. Another way that we're made to feel like we're doing something meaningful (picking out thoughtful gifts for our friends and loved ones), when really we're doing nothing at all (reading, scrolling, forgetting).

My gift guide is probably no different. You'll probably look at it and think: huh, cool. And buy nothing. But oh well. At least you can rest assured that nothing about this post is sponsored. I'll receive no payment if you click on any of the carefully curated links below. This list is just a selection of things I find to be cool: things I would love to give or receive.

From top to bottom and left to right...

1. These Decorative Sisal Trees are my kind of Christmas decoration: understated and vintage-seeming. They're not cheap though, so I would keep my eyes peeled for something similar at antique stores or flea markets or maybe even in a forgotten box in your grandmother's basement.

2. My new obsession: Short Stack Editions are small-format, single ingredient cookbooks with a handmade, DIY feel. Each one features quality recipes written by an excellent cook. You can buy these pamphlet-esque cookbooks individually (only $14) or as a full set. The ideal stocking stuffer.

3. Fool is the best food magazine that ever was and ever will be and the latest issue (#5) is worth your money. While you can order it on the Fool website and have it shipped all the way from Sweden, you can also find Fool in plenty of independent book stores and some of the more enlightened magazine shops.

4. I've always found this album to be completely weird and completely amazing: seek out the A Christmas Gift for You LP from Phil Spector at various used vinyl shops this holiday season.

5. This Recipe Box was designed with people like me in mind.

6. I like these: Celebration Lowball Glasses.

7. This one has a story. Last year, my mom and I took a trip to London and we fell in love with Skandium, a beautiful store full of Scandinavian-made goods and furniture. These little guys, known as Tomtens, caught our eye immediately. The shopkeeper told us each one is handmade in Sweden using sheep's fur from the island of Gotland. The Tomten is supposed to bring peace and protection to your home. We each bought one and so far so good. Protect your loved ones! Give them a Scandinavian Christmas Gnome this year.

8. These Thermal Leggings are my kind of cozy.

9. I've been coveting this Special Edition Anne of Green Gables since it was first released earlier this year. Check out that cover art: unthinkably charming. I also love the quote on the back, which is basically my mantra: "Looking forward to things is half the pleasure of them."


On the Art of Recipe Writing

What makes a good recipe? It’s something I think about a lot. It feels elusive, unknowable. There’s no guidebook for the form. But then again, there’s no guidebook for any worthwhile art. All we can do, I've come to realise, is learn what we can from those who know better.

That’s why I read. A lot. That’s why my shelves are lined with every colour of cookbook and I continue to buy food magazines even though I rarely seem to make many of the recipes. It’s also why I jump at the chance to meet people who know the craft. Just last week, one of those chances came my way: I attended a food writing workshop with Lucy Waverman, part of Devour: The Food Film Festival hosted by my hometown Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

Are you familiar with Lucy Waverman? Most Canadians are. She's the editor of Ontario's Food & Drink magazine, a columnist for The Globe and Mail, and the author of eight award-winning cookbooks. She's the real deal and I've always been quick to flip to her weekend recipe column as soon as I get my hands on Saturday's Globe

I was thrilled to be able to hear her speak. She knows the food writing business in and out. She also tells a great story about the time she met Julia Child: apparently, an 80 year old Child could out-drink just about anyone. 

So what did Waverman teach me about recipe writing? The most important thing she brought to my attention was the "or until..." moment in any recipe. You know the one: "Roast for 3-4 hours or until the meat falls off the bone." "Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick tester comes out clean." It's an essential part of any well-written recipe, Waverman told us, because without it, your reader lacks an important visual cue. Our ovens, pots and pans, and especially our ingredients are all slightly different; "or until" becomes the great equalizer in cooking.
When Waverman spoke about this, a switch turned on in my mind. Of course! So important! But I also understood it as an opportunity to be a bit creative in recipe writing, something I'm always looking for. Think about it: the "or until" part of a recipe carves out a space for descriptive language in an otherwise instructional form. True, good writers infuse themselves in the flow of a recipe, but it can sometimes be hard to balance clarity and creativity. The "or until" moment is where both of these elements can come together in a useful way. Such as...

"Sear on all sides, for 15 minutes in total or until the meat glistens with a mahogany patina."

"Bake for 18-22 minutes or until the muffin tops are plump, golden and domed."

"Whisk vigorously for 30 seconds or until the eggs bubble and wink."

Of course, it's important for your visual description to remain true to the cooking process and be actually helpful for the reader. That's another thing that Waverman emphasized: recipes are forms of education, opportunities to teach and learn.The recipe I chose for this post has quite a few "or until"s of its own. Trust them: you might learn something!
Sweet and Smokey Squash Soup
recipe serves eight

This recipe uses Sweet Dumpling Squash, a new variety for me. It has a tough, ridged skin that's hard to peel so I decided to pre-roast the squash in the oven before adding it to the soup. This route is much easier than the alternative: no fiddling around with a knife and peeler. The sweet in this soup comes from a combination of squash, pear and sage, while the smokiness is derived from double-smoked bacon. 

2 sweet dumpling squash (they vary in size but aim for medium)
olive oil, salt and pepper for seasoning

5 strips of bacon (double-smoked if you can find it)
2 d'anjou pears, peeled and diced
1 yellow onion, diced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1/4 cup heavy cream
more salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375.

Cut each squash in half and scoop out the seeds. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet, flesh side up, and rub with a little olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

Roast for 35-40 minutes or until the orange flesh doesn't fight the gentle jab of a fork. Allow squash to cool slightly and then scoop the flesh into a bowl. Reserve.

In a large soup pot, cook bacon until crisp. Remove and reserve.

Saute pear, onion and sage in the bacon fat left in the bottom of the pot for 5 minutes or until the onion turns amber and soft. Add stock. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15-20 minutes or until the apple turns to mush when met with the back of a spoon.

Add the squash and half of the bacon, crumbled, to the pot. Heat through and puree until smooth (an immersion blender is especially useful when dealing with this much soup).

Add heavy cream. If the soup seems too thick, add a bit of water to thin it out. Re-heat the soup again before serving: piping hot is best!

Top each bowlful with a little crumbled bacon.