Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

A christmas wreathButton Soup Advent Calendar: Conclusion

I meant to start my series of Christmas posts with some general thoughts on what Christmas food means to me. When I sat down to write that post, I faltered, and decided to jump right into the specific preparations. Now that I have worked through several dishes and had some time to reflect, I have some thoughts to share.

Christmas food is interesting to me because few ingredients are "in season" in the normal sense. Unlike, say, Thanksgiving, Christmas is a celebration that ironically takes place during scarcity. The food relies heavily on preserved ingredients such as dried fruit, candied fruit, dried mushrooms, cured meat, and baked goods high in fat and sugar. Along the same lines, there are lots of aged items, notably fruitcake, rumpot, and wine.

Because of the bleak winter landscape, Christmas meals are informed by tradition more than conventional seasonality. While dandelions and asparagus are associated with springtime simply because that's when they grow, Christmas ingredients are often rooted in history and culture. Turkey, for instance, or exotic ingredients like dates, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon.

While I have a reverence for those imported tastes and aromas, I also tried using neglected local flavours like juniper and evergreen. Smoking with evergreen especially is something I enjoyed. The idea of "eating my Christmas tree" excites me. (On a related note, this was the first year that I ate my jack o' lantern, roasting him after the trick-or-treaters had stopped calling.)

I didn't say it specifically, but the Christmas posts were in three sections: drink, sweets, and meats. To me those groups form the core of festive food, generally, and Christmas food, specifically.


This happens to be my one hundredth post, and the close of what I consider the first chapter of Button Soup. I have new plans for the coming year. Stay tuned.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Turkey Less Ordinary

Turkey is certainly one of the finest gifts made by the New World to the Old.


Cooked poultry has the following ideal characteristics:
  • well-seasoned,
  • tender, moist flesh, and
  • crispy, browned skin.

Holiday turkeys should also provide the makings for flavourful gravy and stuffing.

It's difficult to meet all the above requirements with the traditional roasting method. Since turkeys are so large, they don't cook evenly. The breasts, being white meat, cook faster than the legs, and to bring the legs to the correct temperature usually means overcooking the breasts, leaving you with dry meat.

Traditional stuffing, cooked inside the bird, creates a similar problem: by the time the dressing (soaked in poultry juices) is brought to a safe temperature, the surrounding flesh is dry.

I propose the following as a remedy to these common problems.

Break the raw turkey up into two breasts and two thigh-leg portions. There are two advantages to this. First, the raw carcass can be used to make a stock that's much more flavourful and gelatin-rich than the one made with the cooked carcass. This stock can be used in the gravy and stuffing, making for a more turkeycentric feast. The second advantage to breaking the bird up is that the breasts and legs can be pulled from the oven separately, each at the proper finishing temperature (165°F).

Large roasts like turkey are problematic in that you can usually only season the exterior, leaving large masses of unseasoned meat within. Brining lets salt penetrate into the flesh and seasons the roast throughout. I soaked my turkey in a conventional brine complete with nitrite, which gave the turkey a good flavour but a slightly unsettling pink colour.

Long cooking at low temperatures yields the tenderest meat. For extra flavour I smoked mine on the barbeque. My hot-smoke set-up cooks around 225°F. It took almost five hours for the thighs to come to temperature.

Gentle heat doesn't promote the delicious, delicious browning reactions that give us crisp, golden skin. Once the turkey is done smoking, put an oiled pan over medium-high heat and brown the turkeybits until the skin is deeply browned and crispy. As an additional benefit, you'll be left with lots of fond with which to make gravy.

This process yields the tenderest, juiciest turkey I have ever eaten. The one problem with it is that few around the table will even recognize the dish as poultry; with the curing salt, smoke, and moist flesh, the final product resembles ham. My guests actually referred to it as "Ham-urkey."

I don't know how I feel about that.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Fir-Smoked Ham

If you consult a North American resource on smoking meat, you're likely find something like the following:

The first rule of smoking meat: use hardwood. Apple, hickory, maple, oak, pear, cherry, whatever you please, but do not use soft wood, and especially not evergreens. They are extremely resinous, and not only do they produce harsh, turpentine flavours in the meat, they are also poisonous!

These comments are discouraging to someone who lives where the prairies meet the boreal forest. Of course there are hardwood trees in Edmonton, but they're not nearly as common as, say, poplars and spruce. There's a spruce tree in my front yard that, if left to its own devices, will someday eat my house. There's a fir tree in my living room right now, and in the new year I'll put it on the curb and the city will take it away. Too bad I can't use any of that resinous wood, or any of those perfumed needles, to flavour my cured meat...

A lone sentence in Larousse recently changed how I look at my Christmas tree: "Westphalian ham is... cold-smoked over strongly resinous wood." After a little more research I found that there are several German hams that are smoked with wood from evergreens. Black forest ham, for instance, is smoked over fir. (That is, real black forest ham is smoked over fir: while black forest ham is a protected designation in Europe, in Canada and the States the name can be applied to the many inferior knock-offs.)

I decided to try smoking some brined ham hocks with balsam fir needles and twigs. Usually I am an all-or-nothing sort of cook, but at the last minute I decided to temper my fir trim with conventional hardwood chips.

Once the smoke got going I could smell the pronounced sweetness of the hardwood, spiked with some harshness from the softwood, specifically, the smell of burning tar, reminiscent of cigarettes.

I was really hoping to get a striking layer of black soot from the fir, but the final colour of the hocks was the same mahogany that you get from conventional hardwood smoking.

Hardwood smoke can be sickly sweet and strong of vanilla, but the pine and tar flavours of the fir added some complexity to the finished hams. The smoking process still needs a lot of work. There are lots of questions to be answered:
  • Which part of the tree should be used: the needles, the wood, or both?
  • Should the needles or wood be fresh? Dried? A combination of dried and soaked?
  • Hot smoke or cold? Perhaps cold-smoking mutes some of the harsher characteristics of evergreen smoke?
At this point all I can say is that there is some potential for a good regional specialty.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

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)
Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino

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).

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

The boar's head on its roasting pan, with onions, celery, apples, and herbs
The apple in the pig's mouth
A phenomenon that occasionally accompanies heavy drinking:

A snow angel in the front yard

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pâté with Pork Tenderloin and Morels

I like to make pâté around Christmas. This year I wanted to try a terrine with an inlay. Inlays are usually pieces of lean mean, like a pork tenderloin or duck breast, that are set in the middle of a terrine, surrounded by forcemeat, so that each slice of the terrine has a cross-section of the lean meat. At left you can see a rosy pork tenderloin cooked to medium.

Winter is a reflective season, and nowhere is this more true than with food, as many of the things we eat in December were by necessity harvested in September, or earlier. The special significance this pâté has to the past year is the garnish studding the forcemeat: morels. This was a remarkable year for mushrooms. These morels are a small portion of the hundreds of pounds picked by Chad and Thea out near Devon early in the summer. Most were dried, and I'm sure many are now being enjoyed at kitchen tables around Edmonton.

As you might have guessed from the shape, this pâté wasn't actually cooked in a terrine. I pressed the forcemeat around the tenderloin, then wrapped the whole assembly in plastic and poached it in the oven. I hoped it would keep its round profile, but obviously the meat settled, producing the oval shape you see above. I guess I should invest in some proper terrines. (Christmas gift hint.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Yule Log Cake

My mom has prepared a yule log cake every Christmas I can remember. I have no idea how this tradition came to my family, as it is extremely French ("bûche de noël"), and we are not.

The cake is a simple sponge. Whole eggs are beaten thoroughly, sugar is added, then a bit of water, and finally flour and cocoa are folded in. The batter is runny, and forms a shallow, uniform, fine-textured cake after baking.

The interior icing is a buttercream made by whipping room-temperature butter into Swiss meringue. Swiss meringue is a mixture of whipped egg whites and simple syrup cooked to soft ball stage.

The exterior frosting is icing sugar beaten into lard, which makes the colour bright white, in contrast to the beige buttercream inside the log.

I dragged a fork across the exposed sides of the cake for a bit of texture.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Wheat Pudding

I don't cook rice very often, but I used to work at a restaurant that let me take home large amounts of leftover rice, and over the years I have developed a taste for rice pudding. My favourite version is
made with a blend of brown and wild rice (which adds a satisfying chew to the dish), and dried saskatoons.

Lately I've been wondering if I could make a similar dish with a starch that is more common in my kitchen. Take that fifty pound bag of wheat berries in my closet, for instance. The one that I keep threatening to grind into flour if it doesn't make itself more useful.

I was wary of trying to adapt wheat to a rice pudding dish. When I first started cooking with wheat berries, I thought I could treat them like rice. I made some disastrous attempts at "risotto-style wheat" and "wheat pilaf." No matter how long I cooked the berries, they never seemed to burst like wild rice, or release their starch like short-grain rice, or stick to each other like pilaf. They were tasty and enjoyably chewy, with a little pop as you bit through the bran, but they just rolled around on the plate, and didn't form a cohesive starch like rice.

Lately I've been reading about the traditional Ukrainian Christmas dinner, a meal of twelve meatless courses, looking for ideas on winter meals. When reading about the main ingredients in their feast, I kept thinking, "I have that in my pantry... I canned tons of that this fall... I know where to find that...," items like dried mushrooms and fruit and sauerkraut and potatoes. It sounds like the Ukrainian landscape is very similar to ours, which makes the Ukrainian culinary repertoire a useful resource.

The first course of the dinner is usually a dish called kutia: boiled wheat berries, sweetened with honey, often flavoured with poppyseeds, served cold.

Kutia recipes gave me a method for bursting the kernels of wheat and shortening their cooking time. The key is to dry the wheat in a low oven for an hour. I'm not sure exactly why this works. Maybe drying the berries weakens the cells walls and lets the boiling water penetrate more easily. I don't know. But after drying for an hour, then soaking overnight, the berries burst after only a couple hours of boiling.

Once the cooking liquid is reduced, the dish has a great texture. I half expected the mixture to be gluey, but it's surprisingly creamy, with the exploded bran giving a good chew-factor.

At the end of cooking, I added honey, salt, dried cranberries, and a bit of butter. For a looser pudding add cream.

My only qualm is the slightly grey colour of the pudding, a flaw that I'm willing to overlook simply because it's so tasty.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sugar Plums

Here's another dried-fruit preparation with a baffling name.

Sugar 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." As such, the most common manifestation of sugar plums is dried fruit and nuts, chopped, sweetened, bound with honey, and rolled into little balls. A good winter treat for Edmonton. We're not awash with the fleshy fruits that lend themselves to drying, like apricots or figs, but there are lots of 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.

Friday, December 17, 2010


This is a dish that confused me for some time. "Minced" means broken up (it's actually related to the word "minute," as in exceedingly small). The British use the word "minced" in places we might use the word "ground," so when I started hearing about mincemeat pies, I assumed they were meat pies.

Then certain people (Lisa, Alton Brown) tried to explain to me that there was no meat in mincemeat pies at all, just dried fruit.

Just as I started grappling with the idea of a meatless mincemeat, I found one of my grandma's recipes which seemed to combine the aforementioned concepts. The ingredients:
  • beef
  • suet
  • apples
  • dried currants
  • sultana raisins
  • citron (I believe this refers to candied lemon peel, not actual citron fruit...)
  • cider (knowing my grandma, non-alcoholic)
  • spices
The ingredients were chopped, cooked, and canned.
I'm still trying to come up with a definition. "Dried fruit, usually with fat, sometimes with meat," might work, but, "Dried fruit and whatever else you have on hand" is probably the safest. This week I had suet, apple preserves, dried cranberries, dried currants, raisins, and brandy.  I worked off this recipe, from Alton Brown.

I was initially excited about the preserving potential of mincemeat, but most of the ingredients are already shelf-stable, and those that aren't (beef, apples) are probably best preserved in other ways. At any rate, the mix keeps very well, and actually benefits from storage, much like fruitcake. It makes a great pie. Most recipes call for a sweet crust, but I think a well-salted crust made with lard gives a good contrast to the sweetness of the filling. The partially reconstituted fruit has a very satisfying chew.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


The waiting is the hardest part.

-Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

I used to revile fruitcake, but in recent years a description by Jeffrey Steingarten has made me more receptive to the dish.

...full of dark, saturated medieval tastes and colors... aged for a year and then set aflame at the very last minute, carefully spooned out like the treasure it is...

I became mildly interested in the idea of aging baked goods, but I still regarded fruitcake as a gaudy curiosity. Then I came across fruitcake in the memoirs of a woman who grew up during the depression in Northern Ontario, called On Turnips, Teas, and Threshing Bees. Her description of fruitcake, and the lengths her family went to prepare it, surprised me. They started collecting ingredients early in the fall, candying ripe fruit. Later in the year they had to seed all the Muscat raisins and crack the walnuts by hand.

Even the eggs were a luxury. Apparently chickens have only recently decided to lay eggs all year long (persuaded by better feed and warmer barns?). Her family preserved the last of the fall's eggs expressly for the Christmas fruitcake. They kept them in a jelly she called water glass, which is sodium silicate. Storing the eggs for months was a considerable sacrifice for her family, as during the depression eggs were one of the few bartering items they had to trade for necessities like flour.

Living in the Canadian shield, spruce was the main wood for ovens and furnaces. Hardwood was comparatively rare, but a few chosen logs were set aside for the fruitcake, which needed to bake at low temperatures. They cherished this cake.

I decided to reconsider my position on fruitcake this year with a simple trial: a single loaf with glacé cherries, candied orange and lemon peel, and hazelnuts.

Glacé cherries"Glacé" is a confusing term because it can refer to ice cream, cake frosting, fruit candied in "hard crack" syrup, or simply fruit preserved in syrup. It's that last definition that applies here. Most sources I consulted had a similar procedure for making glacé cherries:

Make a simple syrup of one part water and one part sugar.  Bring to a simmer, add pitted cherries, remove pot from heat, cover and let stand over night.  This is simply to infuse the syrup with cherry, and the cherries with syrup. The next day, remove the cherries and reduce the syrup until a candy thermometer reads 230F.  This gives a good thick-but-runny consistency.   Reintroduce the cherries, simmer briefly, then store in a sanitzed jar.

Candied Peel

Candied peel is dead simple to make. Remove the peel from lemons and oranges. Use proper, thick-skinned oranges like navel, not thin-skinned mandarins. Cut into strips.

The peel is usually blanched to remove some of the bitterness of the pith (the fleshy white part). Put the peels in cold water and bring to a boil. Strain and repeat. Strain and repeat.
After blanching, boil the peels in simple syrup until translucent (see left). Remove and roll in sugar. Soak the peels in water or liquor before folding into the cake batter.

I made a simple, dense, pound cake of equal parts butter, sugar, eggs, and flour, by weight. If you cream the butter and sugar well enough, there's no need for baking powder. I added the zest of one lemon, then folded in my cherries, candied peel, and hazelnuts.
The doneness of the cake depends on how you intend to store the specimen until Christmas. If you're just throwing it into the fridge, it's important that you slightly under-bake the cake, so that it remains moist. If you're going to be steeping the cake in alcohol, bake the cake as you normally would, until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.


If you're taking the alcoholic route, keep your cake in a non-reactive container at room temperature. Every couple of days, sprinkle rum or brandy onto the top and sides of the cake. Alton Brown uses a spray-bottle to achieve a uniform mist of liquor. I partially block the bottle opening with my thumb and pour.

After a few weeks aging, the cake is dense, moist, and redolent of fruit peel and rum. It's remarkable how the flavours develop over the weeks. This is definitely going to be a tradition in my house.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Gingerbread Church with Stained Glass

Lisa had a great method for making a stained glass effect on gingerbread houses, so we decided to make a church.

Our gingerbread is a standard recipe from a Jean Paré cook book. This was my first time making gingerbread, and also my first time realizing that most of the tastes I associate with gingerbread are actually from the molasses.

For the stained glass, we bought hard candies and crushed them to make coloured sugars. After the gingerbread was baked off, we set the cookies on parchment, then filled the window-holes with the coloured sugar. After baking for a few minutes, the sugar melts, and once it cools it resembles glass.

Just as the windows come out of the oven, the melted sugar can be manipulated with a toothpick to create designs.

Our gingerbread is bound with classic royal icing.

The roof is made of slivered almonds.

Gingerbread church blueprints
Cutting the gingerbread
The baked gingerbread, cooling on a rack
The crushed candies
The windows, filled with coloured, powdered sugar
The rear window, filled with coloured, powdered sugar
The rear window after baking and manipulating with a toothpick
Making the royal icing
A front-view of the finished gingerbread church
A rear-view of the finished gingerbread church

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Alberta Beer: A Thought Experiment

What makes beer "local"? Is it simply that it's brewed in Edmonton? Do the grains and hops have to be from Alberta? Do the water and yeast? Could it be that the origin of the ingredients is only one part of the equation? What about how we brew and bitter our grains?

In modern practice, beer is made of grains that are malted, roasted, mashed, bittered with hops, fermented, and carbonated. Which of these processes are necessary, and which are a matter of cultural preference?

Strictly speaking, malting isn't required, though something must be done to break down the cell walls of the grains, and to convert some of the starches to sugars. Malting prompts the germ of the grain to produce enzymes that accomplish these tasks. However, there are also enzymes in our saliva that Incan women once used to break down cornmeal so that it could be fermented. Certain types of mold produce similar enzymes that the Chinese have used for thousands of years to produce rice wine.

The roasting, or kilning, of the malted grain serves a few purposes. It kills the germ, arresting the production of enzymes and fixing the sugar content. It also generates colour and flavour by caramelizing some of those sugars. Finally, roasting also preserves the grains; kilned malt can be kept for months before being used in brewing.

Mashing, that is, mixing the roasted malt with hot water, draws the starches, sugars, and proteins out of the grains and into solution. It also reactivates the enzymes that convert starch to sugar and proteins to amino acids.

The next step uses hops to imbue bitterness and aroma to the mixture. In Europe, beer has always been flavoured with herbs, but before hops became the norm, a mixture called gruit, which might include rosemary, bogmyrtle, yarrow, coriander, and juniper, was used. Hops was first used in Bavaria, and it spread throughout Europe because it preserved the beer better than other bittering agents.

This is a point in the brewing process that could define an Albertan beer. While hops can definitely be grown in Alberta (actually it grows like a weed...), I don't think it's harvested commercially, and I'm certain that local brewers don't use local hops. Why not add the aroma and flavour of something else?

The first thing that comes to my mind is juniper, which is similar to hops, with sweet pine and citrus notes, though it lacks the pronounced bitterness.

I experimented with these flavours when brewing a Christmas beer. Actually that statement gives me more credit than I deserve. What really happened is I botched a batch of beer that I was making from a store-bought wort concentrate.

For some reason the ale finished extremely bright and fruity, with almost no hints of caramel or hops or really any balancing flavours. I was seriously considering throwing out the entire 20L batch. I wondered if there was a way to bitter the beer at this stage. Could I make a juniper infusion to mix into the beer? I boiled juniper berries for an hour before realizing that I already had the very essence of juniper in my cupboard. I poured gin into my beer.

The taste of pineneedle and fruit, along with the high alcohol content, make this a fantastic Christmas beer.

While I'm happy to stir some gin into my beer simply so that it doesn't go to waste, I now know that the flavours of roasted malt and juniper berry work well together, and my goal this spring is to brew a beer from scratch that incorporates juniper in the traditional boiling method.
Anyways. Continuing with the list of beer processes, obviously fermentation is necessary. I define beer as a drink made from fermented grains.

Finally is the issue of carbonation. Before modern bottling techniques were developed in the 1600s, no beer was carbonated. Once bottled, if fermentation persisted, carbon dioxide was trapped in the solution, and the beer became fizzy when opened. After many years, this effect is now expected by beer-drinkers the world over. Conventional modern commercial brewers are careful to ensure fermentaion has stopped before they bottle their beer. They inject carbon dioxide into the mix at bottling.

Don't misunderstand me: I don't like being served flat beer when I know it's supposed to be carbonated, but carbonation is definitely something I'll be playing with this spring.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Rumpot Revisited

It's the height of folly to say this in the midst of our fleeting summer months, but I can't wait for Christmas.

-Allan, in August, filling his rumpot

It's been six months since I made the first layer of my rumpot using the early BC cherries and apricots.

Sitting in my coat closet, the mixture has gone through some profound transformations. It has lost the striking vibrancy it once had, and is now a uniform burgundy. The liquor has lost its clarity and is now murky with an exceptionally rich mouthfeel, verging on viscous.

It's delicious. The severity of the alcohol has been subdued, and the liquor is now surprisingly mellow.

The pot no longer exudes the delicate aromas that seduced me early in the summer. It now has a medicinal scent, strong of the boozy raspberries.

This morning was the first time I ate the fruit. On waffles with whipped cream, with an ounce of the liquor and black coffee. The fruits have combined to form one homogeneous flavour, so it matters little whether you spoon an apricot or a strawberry onto your plate. The fruit is extremely delicate, saturated with liquid.

A fantastic way to start the day, as long as you don't have to operate heavy machinery later in the morning.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mulled Wine

And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China

I remember my dad telling me that when he was little he mostly got Christmas oranges (mandarins) and nuts in his stocking. When I was younger I thought that was unspeakably lame. I now realize that oranges would have been a novelty at any time of year, but to have such a sweet fruit in the dead of winter was truly a luxury.

I've been trying to cultivate a deeper respect for food we bring from afar. Given the season, I've been rekindling the ancient occidental obsession with oriental spices. To that end, I'd like to share a story from Herodotus:

What they say is that the dry sticks, which we have learnt from the Phoenicians to call cinnamon, are brought by large birds, which carry them to their nests, made of mud, on mountain precipices, which no man can climb, and that the method the Arabians have invented for getting hold of them is to cut up the bodies of dead oxen, or donkeys, or other animals into very large joints, which they carry to the spot in question and leave on the ground near the nests. They then retire to a safe distance and the birds fly down and carry off the joints of meat to their nests, which, not being strong enough to bear the weight, break and fall to the ground. Then the men come along and pick up the cinnamon, which is subsequently exported to other countries.

Bearing in mind the countless oxen and donkeys that gave their lives so that I might have cinnamon, I prepared mulled wine.

It is imperative to steep only fresh, whole spices in the wine. Don't use old, powdered spices as they make for a gritty and revolting drink.

Put red wine on low heat. Sweeten to taste with honey, maybe one part honey to ten parts wine, by volume. Add the whole spices. To me, star anise, cinnamon, and cloves are essential. Black peppercorns and orange zest play worthy supporting roles. After zesting, I also squeeze the orange's juice into the wine.

In an attempt to preserve as much of the alcohol as I can, I heat the mixture on low for a few hours. Afterwards you can strain out the spices and hold the wine on the burner.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Add eggnog to the list of food and drink I will never buy from a grocery store again (along with bacon, ice cream, pizza dough...)

You can create a superior drink by using good cream and eggs, and freshly grated nutmeg. It also has the added decadence of an egg white foam on top, unlike the homogeneous store-bought nog, repleat with emulsifiers that prevent separation. Drinking the creamy liquid through the foam is the height of Christmas luxury.

Egg Nog Ratio - 2 parts milk : 1 part cream : 1 part egg (by weight: a standard large egg weighs two ounces)

Sugar, liquor, and nutmeg to taste.

Separate the egg into yolks and whites. Whip the whites to soft peaks. Add a touch of sugar and continue whipping to firm peaks. The sugar helps keep the whites stiff.

In a separate bowl, whip the egg yolks until the yellow colour has paled. Whisk in milk, cream, and liquor. Rum is the obvious choice, but I also enjoy brandy. Sweeten to taste. Grate a touch of nutmeg into the mixture.

Whisk the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Drink immediately.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Concentration by Freezing

In furtherance to Winter Food.

While reading the maple syrup section of On Food and Cooking, I came across a shocking bit of information.

Even though North American Indians didn't have metal pots until the Europeans came, they had an ingenious method for reducing maple sap to make syrup. They would leave the sap in the cold air overnight. In the morning there would be ice on top. That ice would be mostly (but not exclusively) water, so in discarding the ice they were left with a higher concentration of sugar in the sap.

After reading this, I immediately turned to the section of the book on distilled spirits, to see if there was any mention of whether this method works to concentrate alcoholic solutions. Sure enough, there was a boxed sidenote titled, "Concentration by Freezing," with references to all kinds of liquors that are made in the frosty outdoors and never see the inside of a still.

On the internet, notably Wikipedia, this process goes by the name "freeze distillation." My dad, a process engineer, takes exception to the term, as distillation separates solutes based on their different boiling points. There is a process called freeze crystallization that separates solutes based on their different freezing points, but that doesn't apply here, either. The large difference between the freezing points of water (0°C) and ethanol (-114°C) is not what makes this process work, as evidenced by the fact that the process can concentrate maple syrup, which has no ethanol. I'm going to use the accurate though somewhat anemic word "concentration."


Put your drink in a bowl and put it in a freezing environment like, say, your freezer. Or maybe your backyard.

When I first read about freeze-concentration, I imagined that there would be a clear, easily separated layer of pure ice on top, and a liquor beneath. This is not what happens. Instead, a very slushy network of ice crystals forms, from which the liquor must be pressed.


My first attempt was with beer. I had never heard of beer being freeze-concentrated, but I thought I should try it, since the AGLC has banned strong beer from stores. I used Big Rock Traditional Ale, which is based on (ahem) traditional English ales. It has a dark caramel colour with a hint of red, and is very clear. It has a slightly fruity nose and tastes of caramel and roasted malt. It's one of my favourite Albertan beers.

I froze 700g of beer and pressed 215g of liquor from the ice, meaning roughly two thirds of the beer was wasted.

  • Appearance -The liquor was ever so slightly darker than the original beer.
  • Taste - The difference in taste was noticeable, but subtle. The sweetness and the roasted, caramel notes were definitely enhanced, though it didn't taste any more boozy than the original.
  • Mouthfeel - The beer lost its carbonation.
  • Overall assessment - The results were pleasing, but not nearly good enough to justify wasting two thirds of a beer.

Next I tried wine, a sauvignon blanc that my father made. His wine has a surprisingly deep gold colour, and is dry, tart, and slightly grassy.

I froze 330g of wine, from which I pressed 105g of liquor. Again, roughly 30% yield by weight.

  • Appearance - The liquor was just slightly richer in colour than the original. This really surprised me, as the colour difference between freeze-concentrated applejack and the original cider is often very striking.
  • Bouquet - Freezing really seems to kill the nose...
  • Taste - Here I really started to see the benefits of the process. The wine was much sweeter, more alcoholic, and, interestingly, less acidic.
  • Mouthfeel: Inconclusive.
  • Overall assessment: I could see myself doing this again, especially if I were using a homemade fruit wine. Once thawed, the lower-concentration liquid that froze still has some flavour (extremely dry, acidic) and could probably be used in cooking.

Future Experiments

In terms of percent of alcohol captured from the original drink, freeze-concentrating is not as effective as distillation, but it definitely has its advantages. It preserves the flavour of the original drink much, much better than distillation, which doesn't capture any sugars.

Freeze-concentrating also has advantages over heat-concentrating (ie. reducing over heat). Concentration by heat introduces dark caramel flavours to the liquid. If you had a chance to taste Indian Head birch syrup when the River Valley Syrup Company was selling at the Old Strathcona market, you know that it is a lot darker in colour and taste than maple syrup. This is because birch sap has a lower sugar concentration than maple, and must therefore be reduced more to produce a comparably sweet product. The prolonged reduction resulted in lots of deeply caramelized sugars. That darkness of flavour was certainly one of the appeals of the product, but it would be interesting to try freeze-concentrating. With a lighter syrup you might be able to to compare the flavour of birch and maple on more level ground.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Winter Food

Throughout late summer I found myself craving winter food. When I was filling my rumpot with fruit and canning my sauerkraut it was twenty degrees outside, but I was thinking of the dead of winter, and the rich, warming, comforting food I would enjoy.

Preservation of food has become central to my idea of local cuisine. I've always included meat in my concept of preserving for the impending winter, but I recently realized that this doesn't make much sense.

Before refrigeration, fresh meat could only be kept in the winter. Of course you could kill a chicken in the summer and eat it for dinner, but what if you were to kill a cow and not have a freezer? My great grandparents associated summertime with pickled meat. Butchering was largely done in the colder months, so they were much more likely to enjoy fresh meat in the winter than the summer.

I'm oversimplifying, but you could say that they ate fresh vegetables and pickled meat in the summer, and pickled vegetables and fresh meat in the winter.

This realization turned my idea of winter food on its head, and I started thinking of ways to use the cold weather in cooking. Now and again I'll cool large pots of stock in a snowbank, but there are some preparations that have a more significant dependence on the cold. For instance...

Boiling maple syrup on snowMaple Taffy

Using snow to make candy has been done for centuries in Canada. Toffee, for instance, was invented in Quebec. According to Larousse, a sixteenth century nun set molasses in the snow to attract young natives to her school.

Rapidly cooling sugar syrups helps prevent the growth of crystals, and results in a clear, glassy appearance.

The process is simple enough. Start with maple syrup in a pot over medium heat. The higher the concentration of sugar in a syrup, the higher the temperature at which it boils. The maple syrup will start to boil just above water's boiling point of 212°F. As moisture evaporates and the sugar becomes more concentrated, the temperature of the syrup will rise. The relationship between sugar content and boiling point is direct and predictable: a syrup of 85% sugar will boil at 235°F, a syrup of 90% sugar will boil at 270°F. Candy thermometers are your friends.

Resist the temptation to stir the pot, especially in the later stages of boiling, as you might induce crystalization.

The maple taffy on a wooden stickHeating the syrup to 235°F will yield a sticky, slightly runny though still manageable taffy. I like this stage because it is a little messy. Higher temperatures yield firmer taffies.

As soon as you reach your desired temperature, pour the syrup over clean snow. Wait maybe ten seconds for the syrup to cool, then pick up the taffy by winding it around a popsicle stick or wooden spoon.

Sugar shacks do this in early spring, during the sap run, so that visitors can taste the first syrup of the season. With few hard maples being tapped around Edmonton, this is as much a celebration of the snow as it is the maple. Maybe a good tradition for the first snow fall, rather than the spring.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Notes on Dry-Curing Meat: Mold

When dry-curing, mold is inevitable, yet there's little detailed information available to guide the beginner. I don't know for sure why this is, but I have some theories:
  • mold is so variant and hard to describe,
  • mold-discussions might disgust customers, and
  • mold is a mystery of the charcutiers' cult.

The general rule in charcuterie is that smooth, hard, white mold is "good." I don't think it affects the flavour of the meat in any way, but it discourages the growth of "bad" mold, that is, mold that is pathogenic or that somehow compromises the meat. Any type of fuzzy mold is said to be bad.

Luckily, undesirable mold can simply be cut away; it doesn't taint the entire batch of meat. Some sources say that if fuzzy mold appears you can wipe it off, soak the meat in a brine solution, pat dry, and continue curing. I have now tried this twice, and the mold returned both times.

Pictured above is a piece of bresaola I cured this fall. Bresaola is a cured cut of beef hip, eye of round in this case, that is air-dried for several weeks until firm throughout. It is very common in northern Italy, especially Lombardia, though its roots are in Switzerland. This specimen has the ideal smooth, white mold, which is easy to identify. When drying meat, I come across countless other phenomena that I don't know what to make of.

Sometimes when I make pancetta there is a pronounced, mucus-like fluid in the roll. When I squeeze the roll, it oozes out the end. The first time I saw this I waffled for hours on what to do. Was this simply liquid drawn from the meat? Was it pernicious mold? This sounds ridiculous, but ultimately I just started eating the meat. The fluid disappeared in the freezing/slicing/cooking process, and the pancetta was not only safe, but delicious.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Step One: Acquire Grouse

A friend's father, Mr. McLarney, hunts game birds with his English pointer. I had never, not once, paused to consider the signficance of common canine descriptors like pointer, setter, and retriever, until Mr. McLarney's hunts were explained to me. The dog walks a ways in front of him, and when it comes upon a bird it stops and "points": it aims its snout at the prey. Mr. McLarney moves within range and readies his gun, then makes a call to the pointer. At the signal, the dog scares the bird into flight, so that Mr. McLarney can pull it from the sky with his shotgun.[1]

Mr. McLarney trained his pointer in his backyard with a fishing rod and a feather. I have a hard time imagining what those sessions might have looked like.

This fall I received two grouse from the McLarneys. They had been shot the day previous. The condition of receiving the birds was that I provide the McLarneys with a recipe. Apparently Mr. McLarney is such a skilled hunter that Mrs. McLarney has run out of ways to prepare the birds.

Step Two: Clean Grouse

The most common way to clean game birds is to remove the skin, which takes all the feathers with it. I spread the feathers on the breast to expose the skin, which on this bird was paper thin and easily torn.

The bugs, berries, and leaves in the grouse's cropPulling the skin and feathers away from the breast, I had my first glimpse of the crop, which is a pouch at the base of the throat that moistens the food before it is sent to the stomach and gizzard. As I removed the skin, I broke the wall of the crop, exposing a handful of bugs, berries, and leaves that released a pungent aroma into my kitchen. This discovery affected me. Not because it was grotesque, but because later, when eating the meat, I could taste that same sourness I smelled in the crop. The picture at left could be titled, "Why game meat tastes different than farmed meat."

The next step was gutting, which was easier than I anticipated. I cut around the anus, then slid my fingers through the incision and into the chest cavity. The organs separated easily from the walls, and came out in a fairly uniform piece.

Step Three: Cook

One of the main reasons I was excited to receive the grouse was because this would be one of the few times in my life that I would get to cook an old bird.

Let me explain.

Almost every chicken in the grocery store was killed about one month after it hatched. Young animals have tender flesh, and many of their bones and joints are still made of flexible cartilage. Next time you are breaking down a chicken, observe how the keel bone (sternum) is still pliable and lustrous, almost like plastic.

Older birds have much tougher flesh, their bones are solid, and their joints have little cartilage. These birds need long cooking and moist heat. Chances are you will never find an old bird in a grocery store, which is unfortunate, because we have inherited recipes, like coq au vin, that depend on them. If you were to try a traditional recipe for coq au vin with a young chicken, the lengthy braising would leave you with mushy meat.

I am very grateful to the McLarneys. This was my first experience plucking and gutting birds, and my first taste of wild poultry (and buckshot). As promised here is a recipe that I think will suite Mr. McLarney's palate. It is based on faisan à la normande, or "Norman pheasant," the word "Norman" simply indicating that there are apples in the dish.

Mrs. McLarney's Apple-Braised Grouse (or Pheasant)


  • a few thick slices of bacon, cut into small pieces
  • half an onion, diced
  • a grouse (or pheasant): two breasts and two legs
  • half a cup of white wine or cider
  • three apples, peeled, cored and quartered
  • two cups stock (ideally made from the bird you are cooking, but chicken stock would work fine)

  • Sweat bacon pieces until they are lightly browned and all their fat has rendered into the pot. Remove the pieces of bacon from the pot.
  • Crank the heat and deeply brown the grouse. Remove the grouse from the pot.
  • Lower the heat and sweat the onion in the same pot until translucent.
  • Deglaze the pot with white wine or cider.
  • Return the bacon and grouse to the pot. Add the apples.
  • Add the stock and bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer.
  • Cover the pot and simmer until the grouse is tender, maybe two hours. The apples should break down into a sauce that can be served with the bird.

A plate of apple-braised grouse

1. After learning that pointers point and setters set, I spent the next hour looking up the etymology of every breed of dog I could think of, just to make sure there wasn't an easily understood meaning to their name that I was missing. "Poodle" is derived from the German word "pudeln," meaning "to splash in water," which makes sense, as poodles were originally bred as retrievers for hunting water fowl. Shitzu is mandarin for "Lion Dog," as apparently those pups were bred to resemble the lions in traditional Chinese art.

Addendum: Apples

Ask, and it shall be given you

-Matthew 7:7, also Kevin Kossowan

We received the grouse at the height of apple season, so the apple-braise was a no-brainer.

I just wanted to mention that Lisa and I don't have our own apple tree, but this year we asked some tree-owning acquaintances if we could partake in their bounty. Overwhelmed with deteriorating fruit, they happily obliged us, as you can see at left.

This fall Kevin drew a lot of attention to the amount of fruit that grows in Edmonton, and I just wanted to corroborate his statement that, regardless of how much or how little you speak with your neighbours, they are probably eager to share their crop with you.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Buffalo Liver Dumplings

Liver's robust flavour is perfect in dumplings, that humble but satisfying dish that was once made with left-over bread, milk, and eggs.

First I cut the liver into pieces and seared them on high heat. I set the liver aside, sweated onions in the same pan, then deglazed with vinegar and water.

For moisture and body, I added leftover bread heels soaked in milk. I used eggs to bind the mixture, dried bread to tune the consistency, and finsihed with salt, pepper, and thyme.

The ingredients were then forced through the hand-cranked meat grinder above, at left, which used to belong to my grandmother. This was the first time I've used it. It has a plate on it that redefines what I consider a "coarse grind." You can see in the photo that it doesn't even have holes like a typical die, but rather annular slits. It was perfect for the dumplings.

Once ground, I shaped the paste into balls. They can be poached, but I prefer frying them in a pan. I ate them with broth. Buffalo broth, of course.

A Weird Digression on Bison Milk

Working with buffalo liver and milk got me asking questions. What does buffalo milk taste like? My understanding is that bison are related more closely to dairy cows than to the dairy buffalo of Europe, so I would wager that their milk is similar to our household milk in fat, protein, lactose, et c. How difficult would it be to milk a buffalo?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Buffalo Tongue

A simple variation on the brine and boil theme.

The rule of thumb for brining hams is a half day per pound of meat. Tongues seem to take a week for the brine to penetrate, even if they only weigh two pounds. This could be because the meat is dense and fine-textured, but that's only a theory.

As is easy to imagine, the tongue is a highly exercised muscle. It contains lots of connective tissue that moist heat dissolves into delicious, succulent gelatin. As such tongues are almost always boiled.
Peeling the I had just made some good buffalo stock, so I decided to braise this particular tongue. I didn't expect braising to affect the tongue much differently than boiling; I just figured it would result in some very rich, gelatinous stock to play around with.

I say that I braised the tongue, but I guess I should mention that I didn't sear the meat beforehand because there is a layer of "skin" on the tongue that is practically inedible, even after extensive cooking. In the most obvious sign that there is a God in heaven and that He wants us to eat tongue, the skin easily peels away from the cooked flesh. There's no point in searing the tongue, as the caramelized exterior will eventually be removed.

Tongue can be eaten in any number of ways, but my favourite is sliced thin and served cold. The tongue is nature's cold-cut.  As I said, cooked, it has lots of gelatin, and a surprising amount of fat at the base, where it connects to the bottom the mouth and throat. Unlike other fatty cuts like pork shoulder or beef shortribs, which have coarse textures, tongue has a very fine, homogeneous texture that lends itself to slicing. It's great on sandwiches.

I made a simple tasting plate for my sliced tongue. Remember those cylinders of marrow I extracted from the soaked buffalo bones? They were poached and sliced to make little medallions of marrow. Seasoned with coarse salt, they are perfect for spreading on toast, and an ideal accompaniment to buffalo tongue and relish.

An Edmonton tasting plate: buffalo tongue, toast, marrow, grainy mustard, and homemade relish