Christmas Eve Dinner

The last few days before Christmas were a flurry of cooking activity. On the 22nd, I baked tortière, pumpkin pie, chocolate pumpkin brownies (this time without the coffee), while my husband made bread machine corn bread.


Baking pumpkin pie.

On the 23rd I made my first attempt at German stollen, banana nut muffins, and the ill-fated pumpkin pie; my husband baked corn meal muffins. Of course, we cooked dinner both days as well.


Tortière, corn bread, chocolate pumpkin brownies, and pumpkin pie.

Then, on the 24th, I made Nan’s pan rolls, rosemary bread in the breadmaker, and deviled eggs. I’d planned to make orange-glazed carrots & parsnips, but we forgot to buy carrots and there was no way I was facing the stores on Christmas Eve, so that got written out.

Then we hosted Christmas Eve dinner for our little family, plus my in-laws and my brother-in-law. Usually this dinner is hosted by my husband’s parents, but they are currently between homes, having sold their house in October but with their new condo not being complete until the start of February. So this year it was up to us to make this family tradition happen. This dinner is traditionally consists of (and no one can tell me why) cabbage rolls, which my mother-in-law made this year, and tortière, which I made. I also added the pan rolls, rosemary bread, and deviled eggs with lumpfish caviar.

I tried to honour my mother-in-law’s German heritage by also serving stollen, for which I used the Taste of Home Almond-Filled Stollen recipe and The Spruce’s Easy Almond Paste recipe, since I couldn’t find almond paste in any of the local shops. Sadly, the dish went down like a lead balloon. I mean, I overbaked one loaf (the recipe makes three), but I didn’t serve that one. Even so, only two slices were even eaten with or after Christmas Eve dinner. The bread rose nicely and had a good texture, although I can’t be much of a judge of the flavour because I don’t really like candied fruits (I don’t like fruitcake either for that very same reason). I think I’ll just forego making this bread next year if we host this dinner again. It was a lot of work and nobody seemed to like it. Maybe I’ll just make gingerbread instead; at least that I’ll eat if nobody else does!

Cat-Proof Tree

A friend of mine, who owns three very mischievous cats, posted a link to a Facebook post about Genius People Who Found A Way To Protect Their Christmas Trees From Asshole Cats And Dogs back in November, and it gave me some ideas. Specifically, the picture of the little tree in the gigantic lantern.

You see, I’d salvaged this 3.5-foot-or-so decorative lantern a while back and, although I’d filled it with orange lights as a Halloween decoration, I didn’t have any real idea what I wanted to do with it once the holiday was over. I’d thought I might spray paint silhouettes on the inside and turn it into a permanent addition to my Halloween decoration collection, but I didn’t have any concrete plans. However, I thought that my friends might like a tree that their cats couldn’t destroy, so I started working on the lantern.

The lantern had been discarded for a reason; it needed repair. It required a good cleaning, some glue in spots and a couple of coats of paint, not to mention some new hardware. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find matching replacement hardware, so the rusty stuff was just going to have to do. I also had to find a short enough tree and some small embellishments (which I kept to a neutral white and silver motif to hopefully go with the decor on any floor of their house, and any decorations they would want to add).

I was quite happy with the final product, which looked nice in a lit room…

…but really was at its best in low to no light.


Photo by Karen Turnbull.

My friends seem to be quite happy with their Christmas gift. Although the cats were quite interested at first, the fact that they couldn’t reach the branches, lights, or ornaments meant that they lost interest pretty quickly — which was perfect. The tree in the lantern is pretty heavy, so the cats can’t knock it over. And as a bonus, the tree doesn’t even have to be taken down after the Christmas season is over unless my friends want to use the lantern for something else. A plastic garbage bag over the top would keep the whole thing dust-free in storage until they want to use it next year.

I really liked how my Christmas tree in a lantern turned out. A bit of Googling has made me realize that lanterns are great for protecting all kinds of decorations from pets and young children. I’ve seen them filled with glass balls, tiny dioramas, seasonal knickknacks, paper or painted silhouettes (usually with frosted glass), greenery arrangements, and live plants. I have so many ideas now that I think I’ll be keeping my eye out for more lanterns to salvage and decorate.

Boxing Day

Boxing Day in our family is mostly a relaxing day where we play with our new Christmas toys and then head over to my parents’ place for the traditional turkey dinner. (I would have taken pictures of the food, but we all dug in so quickly that I didn’t have a chance!) Mom’s turkey dinner includes stuffing, gravy, Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, butternut squash and apple casserole. Dad makes Yorkshire pudding that we either cover in gravy or spread with butter.

My contribution to the meal this year was my usual pumpkin pie. It’s usually one of my best desserts, but I was really disappointed with it this time. The consistency was good, the crust was reasonable (considering it was in the fridge for two days), but the filling was almost bitter. I distinctly remember putting sugar in the filling, but I doubled the recipe and I think what I did was double everything except the sugar. This also means that I have a second, bitter-tasting pumpkin pie sitting in my freezer that I might just throw out. What a waste. It was almost palatable smothered in whipped cream, but that’s not a ringing endorsement.

See, this is what happens when you bake for three days straight in preparation for a holiday: something’s bound to get messed up. I should have just thawed one of the berry pies that I’d frozen for future use back in the summer. I wanted to be traditional with pumpkin pie, but in retrospect it would have been better to lighten the cooking load a bit. Oh, well. Maybe I’ll have learned my lesson by next year.

Ditto

Taffy Lane in Orleans (a suburb in the east end of Ottawa) is well known throughout the city for its possibly-excessive number of Christmas lights. Traffic moves slowly on this residential street almost every evening throughout December as people walk and drive to check out the decorations. They’ve been doing this for over thirty years! My children and I love this street and make a point of visiting at least once a season — preferably after the snow flies, because the light reflected off of the snow makes everything that much more sparkly.

This year I forgot to bring along my good camera, but I had to snap a few photos of these two front yards:

1092 Taffy Lane, which is my kids’ favourite, and not only because of Santa in the outhouse.

And then 1094 Taffy Lane. Gotta love that sense of humor.

I hope everyone had a happy and healthy holiday!

Holiday Sweets

It seems like I have spent most of the last few days either cooking or driving around town to deliver Christmas presents, with a bit of housecleaning and last-minute decorating mixed in. On one of those gift deliveries, I received my very first gift of the season!

That’s three types of homemade fudge, all cooked up by my friend and her daughter, and then wrapped prettily. Thing 1 and Thing 2 keep asking me to share, but I have selfishly been hoarding it all for myself. (They’ve been on the receiving end of many other treats, so I don’t feel too bad.) I have a weakness for fudge.

One of Thing 2’s Sparks leaders has organized gifts to bring to one of the local retirement homes. Parent volunteers baked cookies and squares, which the leader will package into gift bags. One of the baked goods that I contributed was mini lemon cupcakes, which is actually just IKEA Muffinsmix Citron baked into tiny IKEA Snodriva paper liners (now discontinued). Is it a bad thing that I don’t always make things from scratch?

I did bake these Fudgy Pumpkin Coffee Brownies (page 222, Purely Pumpkin by Allison Day (2016)) completely from scratch, though. These also went to the retirement home gift bags. I used some of the Halloween pumpkin that I’d roasted, too! I really liked how moist these brownies ended up, courtesy of the pumpkin puree inside. I successfully substituted equal amounts of whole wheat flour for einkorn wheat, which I couldn’t find around here (and honestly had never heard of until I read this recipe). I did use a dairy-free chocolate chip, but I think I may go for a standard kind next time — I hear that they’re even making a dark chocolate chip now that’s available in most grocery stores.

Christmas Prep

We’re right smack dab in the middle of Christmas prep around here, dashing from hither to yon to prep for school spirit days, family events, and hosting over the holidays. Of necessity, suppers have been quick and easy; I think tomorrow I will be breaking out the slow cooker just to make dinner that much easier.

Last night, though, I rummaged through the freezer and turned up with some rather nice basa fillets. I dredged them in flour, sprinkled them with a bit of garlic powder and salt, and lightly fried them in a glug of olive oil in a non-stick pan. (As an aside, when making this kind of dish, does anyone else think about that lightly fried fish fillets meme?) I topped the fried fish with crumbled bacon and served it alongside boiled baby potatoes and steamed carrots.

I still wasn’t feeling spectacularly well last night, so I didn’t get as much prep work done as I wanted to, but the hectic pace around the holidays is one of the reasons I start canning way back in the summer. As planned, I plunged into my shelves of homemade preserves to get gifts together for my kids’ teachers.

As with Guiders, I consider teachers to be especially important to my children and, as such, they are deserving of some nice things around Christmas to show my appreciation. Teachers put in long hours in a job that I, to be completely frank, am vastly temperamentally unsuited to do. Before my children were born, I seriously considered home-schooling, but as time went on I realized that teaching is definitely not one of my gifts. I have the utmost appreciation for those people who can do so, especially while both funding and support are slowly withdrawn from the public school system over the years.

This year, my kids’ teachers are getting amaretto cherries, spiced pear jam with pineapple, handmade cloths, and a box of Girl Guide cookies. (I considered giving the cookies to the Guiders too, but I thought they could probably use a break from this fundraiser by this point.) I hope that the teachers will be able to enjoy these foods over the winter break — or any time after, really, as they’ll last about a year unopened.

Not Feeling Well

Much to my dismay, I feel like death warmed over today. So I’m going to go curl up in bed around a bottle of Pepto Bismol and try desperately not to even think about food. For those not laid low by illness, I would highly recommend the Gastro Obscura (the food section of Atlas Obscura), which I have been greatly enjoying perusing lately. For example, there’s a great article on narutomaki, which is a type of Japanese fishcake that you may have seen floating on top of the last soup in my fast food ramen entry.

For today, please enjoy this photo of our Elf on the Shelf Candy Cane perched atop my kitchen cupboards, “helping” me cook. Hopefully I will be well enough to write properly tomorrow.

Fast Food Ramen

I fell in love with ramen (restaurant-style, not the cheap instant packages) when I first went to Japan in 1998, and I fell back in love when I returned in 2005. There is such a variety of ways that it can be prepared, and such a plethora of potential toppings, that I could eat it every day and not get bored. When Ginza Restaurant opened in Ottawa’s Chinatown and focused on selling the best ramen I’ve had outside of Japan, I could not have been more ecstatic. (Seriously, try their hakata tonkotsu ramen, it is to die for.) For the longest time it was the only place in town where I could get this wonderful noodle dish. Recently, though, I’ve noticed that the popularity of ramen is slowly growing, and it’s starting to be available all over town, much as Vietnamese pho came to be about ten years ago. If this means that we’ll end up with over fifty restaurants that serve ramen in Ottawa, I couldn’t be more pleased!

Here are a few of the ones that I have tried so far, all of which fall under fast food/takeout:

Umi Teriyaki & Sushi
Rideau Centre Food Court, 50 Rideau Street

This was the first non-Ginza ramen that I tried in town, and I was quite ready to be disappointed. The austere food court in the Rideau Centre mall isn’t exactly the place you go for haute cuisine — it’s where you go to grab a quick, mediocre bite. I mean, this is definitely fast food, but it’s cheap ($8.49 for the chicken teriyaki ramen that I had), flavourful, and satisfying. The noodles could use to be a bit chewier (a hallmark of good ramen is the chewy alkaline noodles, which don’t dissolve in the broth), but overall this was worth the money. Ask for it spicy (medium or hot) to clear your sinuses on a cold winter’s day.

Saigon Pho
232 Bank Street and 3722 Innes Road, Unit 2

At $13.49 for takeout and $12.49 for dine-in, this was the most expensive ramen so far. Heck, the most expensive ramen at Ginza is only $11.95! So for that price, I expected more. The broth is nice and the noodles are chewy, but they are really skimpy on the toppings. I did like that there were a variety of ways that you could customize your order. I had the tonkotsu black: tonkotsu broth with black garlic oil, pork belly, soft boiled egg, black fungus, and green onion. I just don’t think that you’re getting value for money on this one, though.

Nom Nom Kitchen
2160 Montreal Road, Unit 4

Nom Nom Kitchen is a little Asian fusion takeout place with a few dine-in tables located in a strip mall directly across from a McDonald’s. It’s not very glamorous, but the food is good, and it’s also very reasonably priced. Their lunch specials are usually around $7.00 and are generously portioned. Ramen isn’t one of their specials, sadly, and it isn’t on their online menu. It’s about $10.49 for a bowl of Japanese-style tonkotsu with pork, veggies, and soft-boiled eggs. They also offer a dish that is, I believe, a fusion of Japanese and Korean styles, and is a bit more spicy. Since this restaurant is aimed at a take-out clientele, the presentation is only mediocre, but the flavour is lovely, the broth is tasty, and the noodles are nice and chewy. I only wish that the eggs were more soft-boiled than hard. Even so, I have been back many times now and everyone I’ve taken with me has liked their food. If you value flavour over appearances, I would rank this ramen #1 of the four I’m reviewing today.

Bento Sushi
St. Laurent Mall Food Court, 1200 St. Laurent Boulevard

There are a lot of Bento Sushi locations, most of which you’ll find tucked into grocery stores peddling mediocre takeout sushi. But they do have a few standalone locations, one of which is in the food court of the St. Laurent Mall. Since this is a big chain that isn’t exactly known for its high-quality food, I went in not expecting much. However, as with Umi Teriyaki & Sushi, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not the best ramen I have ever had, but the broth was nice and the toppings were flavourful. The noodles weren’t as chewy as I like, but they weren’t horrible either. I had their chasu ramen with tonkotsu (from their menu: “thin noodles in a tonkotsu pork broth with carrots, shiitake mushrooms, green onions, and fish cake”), which was $9.99. Overall, their ramen was miles better than their sushi, which may be damning them with faint praise. But I’ll take their ramen over just about anything else in the food court — except maybe Jimmy the Greek‘s pork souvlaki and salad.

If anyone else has suggestions for ramen in Ottawa that I should try, drop me a comment with the name and location. I’d be more than happy to check them out! I have absolutely no qualms about eventually having eaten at every ramen-serving restaurant in this city.