Canadian Thanksgiving

Although today is technically Thanksgiving here in Canada, my family celebrated yesterday. I know that a lot of other people I know hereabouts do the same. Having Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday combines the tradition of a Sunday family dinner with the practical consideration of a stat holiday on the Monday. This means that out-of-town guests can travel in on the Friday night or Saturday, then go back home on the Monday, i.e. no traveling the day of celebrations and no need for most to miss any work.

Here in Canada, Thanksgiving is mostly a secular harvest festival, although some religions do incorporate thanks for a bountiful harvest into their liturgical calendar. Unlike Americans, we don’t have a tradition of the First Thanksgiving (our history is markedly different than our southern neighbours, with our first European settlers being predominantly explorers, hunters, and trappers). We also celebrate this holiday much earlier, i.e. the second Monday in October instead of the fourth Thursday in November. We used to celebrate Thanksgiving later in the season, but the earlier date keeps it from conflicting with Remembrance Day (November 11th) and, on a practical note about climate, is also when the bulk of the harvest has been brought in this far (and farther) north. Heck, the Prairies often see snow as early as September.

I started cooking the dishes that I was going to bring to Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday. I began with pumpkin pie, which was a combination of the Purity Pastry crust from page 73 of the Purity Cookbook (Elizabeth Driver, 2001 edition) and the Pumpkin or Squash Pie filling on page 686 of the Joy of Cooking (Irma S. Rombauer & Marion Rombauer Becker & Ethan Becker, 2006 edition). The filling pulled away from the crust since I had to store the pie in the refrigerator overnight, but it still tasted just fine. Due to food sensitivities in the family, I substituted coconut milk for the heavy cream/evaporated milk specified in the filling recipe. I have done this for years now, and I find that it tastes almost identical to using cow’s milk. That being said, I’ve learned that it takes much longer for the filling to set this way. To compensate, I don’t glaze the crust, as it causes it to burn over the long cooking time. Also, I put the pie plate on a baking sheet when I put it in the oven (something I do when making any type of pie), which both helps protect the bottom crust from burning and keeps any filling overflow from burning onto the bottom of my oven.

I cooked a small pumpkin to make the pumpkin pie instead of using canned (I like the flavour better that way), and I had some leftovers squash puree that needed to be used up, so I made Pumpkin Bread (page 628, Joy of Cooking) as well. I made this quick bread loaf with coarsely chopped pecans and golden raisins, as that’s what I happened to have in the pantry. It’s a rather lovely, dense loaf, as this kind of bread tends to be, and it smells divine. Unfortunately, since there are nuts in it, I won’t be able to send it to school as part of lunch for my girls in the upcoming week.

Since I had the time (which I never seem to when I’m carving Jack-o-lanterns for Halloween), I saved the pumpkin seeds and roasted them in the oven with a bit of olive oil and salt. These are one of my favourite fall snacks, and the smell of them cooking takes me right back to my childhood.

OF course, no family dinner around here would be complete without a batch of Nan’s Pan Rolls. It’s especially fitting this time of year, since Nan passed away four years ago this weekend. Making one of her signature dishes is a fitting way to remember her, I think.

This was Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ place (bottom to top): Yorkshire pudding, squash & pear casserole, roast turkey, gravy, bread stuffing, pan rolls, Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, and steamed asparagus. This may seems like a huge spread, with all of that food for only six of us. However, traditionally you only have a little of each dish at the actual dinner, which is more than enough to feed you to bursting, and then you eat leftovers for the following week. Generally it’s an informal recreation of the dinner on day 2, then (depending on the size of the bird) some kind of casserole on day 3, then hot turkey sandwiches on day 4, then turkey soup or stew on day 5, and so on.

So happy Thanksgiving to all Canadians, and a happy Thanksgiving in advance to our American neighbours!

Dad’s Birthday Dinner

This past weekend began with my dad’s birthday on Friday. September is a busy birthday month in my family, with my brother’s birthday near the start of the month, and then my mom’s just over a week later, and then my dad’s about a week after that. Before she passed away, we celebrated my Nan’s birthday right at the end of the month as well. This meant a lot of birthday parties and dinners, although as we got older, more of the latter than the former.

Dad’s request for his birthday dinner was much more traditional for my family than my mom’s, given both the region in which we live and our cultural heritage. Dad requested baked beans and biscuits, followed by butter tarts for dessert. Baked beans are generally considered to be a Québec specialty, but they are extremely popular in Ontario and New Brunswick as well (both provinces have a proportionately large French-Canadian population, especially where they share a border with Québec). My father fondly remembers my grandfather making baked beans for the family; it was probably one of the recipes he learned while working as a lumberjack. The baking soda biscuits are definitely Granddad’s recipe, passed down to me by my father. And butter tarts are a quintessentially English Canadian dish, although it’s not one passed down to me by my grandparents; so far as I know, Granddad wasn’t much for fancy baking, and Nan never mastered the art of pie crusts.

All that being said, I’d never made baked beans by myself before — that had always been Mom’s job! So I needed to look up a recipe. The Maple baked Beans With Apples on page 151 of The Canadian Living Cookbook (Carol Ferguson, 1987). I adapted the recipe to cook predominantly in the crock pot, since I didn’t want to run the oven for hours and hours on such a hot day. I basically tossed all of the ingredients that would have been baked in the first stage in the crock pot for about 16 hours. Then I ladled it all into a Dutch oven, topped with sliced Granny Smith apples, brown sugar, and butter, and baked it all together uncovered for an hour. It turned out absolutely fabulous, enough so that my parents asked me for the recipe!

The biscuits, of course, were Dad’s Biscuits. I rolled out the dough and cut it with a cookie cutter instead of going with the easier drop-off-a-spoon version, since formed biscuits hold up better to dunking or spreading with baked beans. I asked Dad if it was weird to have his own recipe made for him, and although he agreed that it was an odd feeling, he wasn’t complaining.

Served last were the raisin butter tarts. I used the same recipe as I did for the potluck dinner a month ago: page 234 of The Canadian Living Cookbook. However, I substituted an equal volume of golden raisins for the walnuts that the recipe called for, which tasted delicious. I kind of overfilled the tarts though, so they boiled over when they baked and hence look a mess. They tasted good anyway, although the stickiness of the overflowed filling meant that they were a pain to remove from the pans.

So happy birthday to my dad! Love always to the man who taught me through his automatic acceptance that people can do whatever they put their mind to, no matter what traditional gender roles in our society may dictate.

Hot Cross Buns

I find myself extremely happy that it’s not my responsibility to cook the formal Easter dinner this year, since my whole household, myself included, is still sick with a nasty cold. I did manage to haul my butt out of bed on to prepare hot cross buns in time for Good Friday. I think that’s the limit of my abilities at the moment.

For those not familiar with the hot cross bun, they’re basically a slightly sweet, spiced bun that studded with black currants and topped with an “X” or “+”, depending on which way you look at it. The Good Friday holiday for Christians is the commemoration of the death of Jesus upon the cross; the cross on the bun is said to represent the crucifixion, which is why hot cross buns are traditionally served on that day.

I used the “Hot Cross Buns” recipe on page 37 of Baking Bread: Recipes From Around the World for the Complete Home Baker by Audrey Ellison (1995). Unfortunately, I was not terribly impressed by the recipe. First of all, it calls for “shortcrust pastry leftovers for crosses”, without explaining the quantities or techniques necessary. Since I hadn’t made any pastry recently, I went with the second option of “a simple paste [made] from 2 tablespoonfuls each of flour and water”. That ended up being much too runny. I increased the flour to 3 Tbsp, and even then I had to pipe on the crosses because the mixture was so loose.

Additionally, either the cooking time was too long or the temperature was too high, since my first batch was burned by the time I went to check up on it by the minimum recommended time. I double-checked that the temperature on the oven was as instructed after the burned ones came out, and it was correct. So I’m not sure what went on there.

Maybe it’s because I’m sick and have no patience, but this particular recipe ended up being a huge pain in the neck. But at least I have homemade hot cross buns for breakfast, which I think makes it worth it.

Buckwheat Pancakes Recipe

Buckwheat crepes (crêpes au sarrasin) are traditional in Québec this time of year, served with a generous helping of maple syrup, of course. However, that’s not the dish with which I was raised. My father learned how to cook this kind of food from his father, who, as I’ve mentioned before, worked as a lumberjack in northern New Brunswick. There my grandfather was expected to take his turn cooking for the camp. What was passed down, therefore, was not a delicate crepe, but a hearty pancake meant to fill bellies as quickly as possible, and to fuel heavy manual labour for the rest of the day.

I prefer to eat buckwheat pancakes in the colder months, saving lighter or thinner versions for the summer when the heat makes lighter meals more appealing. However, if you prefer a heavier pancake, a nuttier flavour, or if you have a sensitivity to wheat or gluten, then can be eaten all year round. Despite its name, buckwheat is a totally different kind of plant than wheat; it’s actually more closely related to rhubarb than anything else (although it tastes nothing like it).

Stack of pancakes using a 50/50 buckwheat/all-purpose flour mix.

Buckwheat Pancakes
Yields 12 six-inch diameter pancakes*

In a large bowl, mix together:
3 cups buckwheat flour**
2 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
In another large bowl, combine:
3 1/2 cups milk
2 eggs
4 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla
Whisk together wet ingredients until they become a smooth mixture. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients. Beat with an electric or hand mixer until batter is smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally with a rubber spatula to remove lumps.

*This recipe may be halved if desired. However, keep in mind that pancakes reheat well in the microwave, and leftovers can become a quick hot breakfast for the next day(s).
**For a lighter pancake, substitute 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour for the same amount of buckwheat flour.

The most difficult part of making pancakes, the part that takes a bit of practice to get right, is the frying. Lightly coat the cooking surface of a heavy, non-stick frying pan with cooking spray. Place the pan on the burner, turn the heat on to just a little bit higher than medium heat, and immediately pour a ladle-full of batter directly into the center of the pan. (Never preheat an empty nonstick pan.) The batter will spread out without help to its optimal thickness. Watch the cooking pancake carefully for bubbles to appear on its surface. When the bubbles pop and leave little craters behind that don’t immediately refill in with batter, it’s time to flip the pancake. (See above photo.)

The pancake should stay in one solid piece when it is flipped. The trick is to cook it slowly so that the batter is almost (but not quite) solid at the time of flipping. If the pancake isn’t cooked long enough, the top layer of batter will just slide off. If it is cooked at too high of a heat, the pancake will be burned on one side by the time it is ready to be flipped. Have patience! Buckwheat pancakes are especially thick and therefore need more time at a lower heat to cook all the way through. Cook each side until it is golden brown.

Pancake using a 50/50 buckwheat/all-purpose flour mix, topped with fresh fruit, maple syrup, and whipped cream.

Traditionally, buckwheat pancakes are served with butter and maple syrup. However, they are a great base for many toppings. If you can’t get (or don’t like) maple syrup, any kind of syrup or sweet sauce will do; corn syrup, honey, berry syrups, and artificially-flavoured syrups are fine. Dust pancakes with white, brown, or icing sugar for a classy touch. Jams, jellies, fruit butters, and nut butters are delicious as spreads. The pancakes can be topped with fresh or canned fruit, adding whipped cream if you have it. They are also a good vehicle for flavouring inside the pancake itself; for added punch, sprinkle a few chocolate or butterscotch chips or small blueberries over the batter as soon as it has been poured into the pan. You can include those kinds of ingredients in the bowl of batter itself, but I like adding them at the time of cooking so that I don’t have to make up multiple batches to appeal to different peoples’ tastes.

Mr. Ubbink’s Crepes Recipe

Crepes are one of the first thing that I learned how to cook without the need for parental supervision. I used to go visit my elementary school best friend almost every second weekend (she’d be over at my house if I wasn’t over at hers), and her father taught us his technique. Crepes do take a bit of practice, and you do have to read the recipe properly — there was one memorable occasion when we read “1/4 teaspoon salt” as “1/4 cup salt”, creating an end product that was highly inedible.

Replica crepes in a Montreal shop window (2005)

By the time I hit high school, it became a tradition to make crepes in the morning whenever I hosted sleepovers. I would make crepes up in bulk when I had a birthday party in order to feed all of my guests breakfast. My friends came to expect it; it was now a tradition!

I still use Mr. Ubbink’s recipe whenever I make crepes, which isn’t as often as when I was a kid, although I do still break them out for special occasions. The recipe is both dependable and flexible, although as with most crepes, flipping them takes a bit of practice. Don’t be discouraged if you make “scrambled” crepes the first few times, since they taste just fine so long as you cook them thoroughly, and they can still be topped as you wish.

Savoury crepe filled with cheddar cheese, Monterrey Jack cheese, and summer sausage; topped with a sunny side up egg and chopped chives

Mr. Ubbink’s Crepes
Yields 4-5 large crepes

In a large bowl, mix together:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
Add to bowl:
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups milk
1 tsp vanilla
Mix all ingredients together with a whisk or a hand mixer. Blend until batter is smooth.

Apply a small amount of cooking spray, butter, or margarine to a large non-stick frying pan. Preheat the pan to medium-high. Pour 1 large ladle-full of crepe mixture into the pan, tilting to spread the batter into a circle that covers the bottom of the pan. Fry until the crepe has darkened in colour and is just starting to show spots of golden brown. Carefully flip the crepe and fry the other side until spots of golden start to appear on that side as well. Repeat until all the batter is gone. This type of crepe is best rolled into a tube, sometimes with fillings such as fresh fruit inside the tube.

If you are making a crepe inside of which you wish to have a melted ingredient such as cheese or chocolate chips, the technique is slightly different (it’s actually a lot like cooking and omelet). Cook the first side, flip, and then add the filling to half of the cooked side. Fold the crepe in half over the filling. Cook until the bottom is slightly golden, flip carefully so that the filling doesn’t fall out, and cook the last side until it is starting to turn golden and the filling has melted. You may need to turn the burner down so that the filled crepe can cook more slowly, allowing the filling to melt without burning the batter.

Sweet crepe filled with fruit salad (Asian pears, strawberries, blueberries, bananas, and grapes) and maple syrup, topped with whipped cream.

Suggested toppings/fillings:

berries, fresh cut fruit, drained canned fruit, jam, chocolate chips, syrup, whipped cream, ice cream, nut butter, fruit butter, icing/brown/granulated sugar, marshmallows and chocolate chips, caramel sauce, custard, chopped nuts, apples and cinnamon sugar

deli meat, cooked chopped roast meat, fish, plain steamed vegetables, steamed vegetables with a cream sauce, asparagus and cream cheese, salmon and cream cheese and capers, shredded cheese, bacon and eggs, poached eggs and salsa, spinach and feta, avocado and fried mushrooms, canned tuna and mayonnaise and lettuce

Basically, just about anything you could bake into a cookie or put in a sandwich is good in/on a crepe! (They can also be a great vehicle for using up leftovers.)

Beginner’s German Cooking

My husband and I have been married for almost ten years now, and we have been together for fifteen. For all of that time, I have been the primary cook in the house. So I hope you can understand how surprised I was when my husband complained a month or so ago that I have made all kinds of foods based in my Canadian and British heritage, but I never cooked anything from his German background except the occasional bratwurst. This was the first time he’d requested German food in the fifteen years we have been together. I really wish he’d said something sooner. New cuisine has a learning curve!

Königsberg Meatballs from page 70 of Grandma’s German Cookbook by Linn Schmidt & Birgit Hamm (2012). Delicious and very filling. Served here with boiled potato cubes.

Now, I love trying new dishes, that’s not the problem. It’s just that I had never cooked anything specifically German before. (This was before my experimentation with labskaus.) I asked my mother-in-law if she could suggest any books or other resources that might help; she gave me her extra copy of her favourite German cookbook, ‘Round the World Cooking Library: German Cooking by Arne Krüger (1973). From the introduction:

“A word that the Germans themselves use to describe many aspects of German life is “gründlich”, meaning solid. Like most national characteristics, the German reputation for extreme thoroughness and heavyhanded seriousness has been exaggerated. But no one — and particularly not the Germans themselves — would deny the German passion for organizing everything down to the smallest detail, or their profound distrust of improvisation. This applies not only to their cars and cameras, but to their cooking as well. German cooking may not possess the fantasy and imagination of Italian cooking, or the delicate refinements of French cooking, but this does not mean that German cooking is bad. On the contrary. German home cooking (which the Germans call “gut bürgerliche Küche”, or good plain cooking) is honest, down-to-earth, simple and substantial; it is perfectly in tune with the earnest spirit of German life.”

(As an aside, I ran “gut bürgerliche Küche” through Babelfish, and it came back with “good middle class cuisine”, which seems close enough.)

Chicken Stroganoff from page 78 of The German Kitchen: Traditional Recipes, Regional Favorites by Christopher and Catherine Knuth (2013). Quite tasty. I thought stroganoff was a Russian dish, but in this book it was presented as German, so what do I know? Served here with brown rice and steamed white & orange sweet potato cubes.

While German Cooking has been a great resource, I needed to read up further. I scoured my local library for German cookbooks and put a whole stack of them on reserve when they weren’t immediately available. I’ve read and reread them a number of times. I’ve tried out a few of the dishes and I think I am starting to get a rough grasp on them. I think the hardest part so far has been finding the proper ingredients. One bread recipe, for example, called for (among other ingredients) spelt flour and malt powder. I was finally able to find the spelt flour in a health food shop, but the malt powder eluded me for some time. I eventually went to a brew-your-own-beer place, which did have wheat malt powder for sale. I never did find barley malt powder, which I’m told is the standard in Europe. Also, sometimes the malt is sweet, and is sold in a syrup that is eaten the same way one would eat molasses here. Is there a powdered version of this syrup, like how you can get maple sugar? If there is, I haven’t seen it. Which kind of malt powder did they mean? It’s probably perfectly obvious to someone who has made this these dishes before, but for a beginner in German cuisine… I’m just not conversant with all the variations of the ingredients. But I am learning!

Nan’s Pan Rolls Recipe

I’ve mentioned before that I regret not asking my grandmother for copies of her recipes; honestly, I felt like that indomitable old lady was too tough to die, until the very day that she passed away. As I grew up, I did less and less cooking with her — she would cook for me or I for her, but rarely did we cook together anymore. It became all that much more difficult once my attention (and hers as well) was focused on my children. I didn’t realize that it would be something I missed so much.

White pan rolls straight out of the oven.

In Nan’s memory, I’ve been trying to recreate her famous pan roll recipe. Whenever we were in town, or she was visiting us, Nan was always the one to cook Sunday dinner (which was always understood to mean “roast beef dinner”). Her fresh rolls were an integral part of that meal, and came to be considered by all the family as the proper accompaniment. She would start the dough and leave it to rise before she left for church in the morning, then punch it down and form the rolls immediately upon returning home. It was a Sunday ritual.

White flour pan rolls after the second rise.

To me, pan rolls should be squished as tightly as possible into their pan so that, when they rise, they rise upward and become tall and skinny once they are pulled away from their fellows. They should be yeasty, but not too fluffy, and fairly filling. They should be golden on top, crispy around the edges, and soft (but not raw) in the middle. With this recipe, I think I’ve made them as close to what Nan made as I possibly can.

White pan rolls after the second rise.

Nan’s Pan Rolls
Yields 35 rolls

In a large bowl, mix together:
4 1/2 cups (500g) all-purpose flour*
2 packages (14g) quick-rise instant yeast
2 1/2 tsp salt
Add to the dry ingredients:
3 cups very warm water (120ºF to 130ºF)
2 large eggs
1/4 cup (4 Tbsp) lard, melted
Stir by hand until mixture is more-or-less smooth.
Gradually mix in:
4 1/2 cups (500g) all-purpose flour
If the dough starts to become tough to knead, do not add any more flour. When flour is fully incorporated, dough should be smooth and elastic, but not sticky. If dough is sticky, add all-purpose flour 1 Tbsp at a time until stickiness abates.

Whole wheat dough divided in half and made half into pan rolls, half into a loaf of bread, after the second rise.

Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand for about 8 minutes. Oil a large mixing bowl. Form the dough into a ball and place it in the bowl. Cover the bowl with a clean, damp tea towel. Place the bowl in a warm, dry area with no drafts. Allow the dough to rise until double, about 1 hour.

Punch down the dough. Grease a 9″x13″ cake pan. Divide the dough into 35 approximately equal-sized portions. Form the portions into balls and place them in lines closely together to fill up the cake pan.** Cover the pan with a clean, damp tea towel and allow to rise again until double, about 1 hour.

Whole wheat loaf after baking.

Preheat your oven to 450ºF (232ºC). Bake rolls for 10 minutes. Turn heat down to 350ºF (177ºC) and bake for about 20 minutes more. Check to see if they are done by removing the rolls all in one piece from the pan and tapping them on the bottom. When cooked through, they should make a hollow sound. Remove the rolls from the pan immediately and place them on a wire cooling rack.

To create the glossy shine on top of the rolls, use waxed paper to pick up:
1/2 to 1 Tbsp cold butter
Rub the tops of the rolls with the butter, keeping the waxed paper between the butter and your hand.

Nan’s pan rolls taste best when served immediately; to keep them at their freshest, pull them apart only when they are about to be eaten. These rolls will keep for three or four days if wrapped in a clean plastic bag. Make sure they are wrapped up only after totally cool, or they will go soggy.

Whole wheat pan rolls being pulled apart by my temporarily-tattooed Thing 1.

*For whole wheat bread, replace the first 4 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour with all-purpose whole wheat flour.

**Alternately, this recipe makes two good-sized loaves of bread. I used a slightly too-small loaf pan to create a “mushroom-top” loaf; if you want your loaf to have smoother sides, use a pan that is at least 9.5″x5.5″. You could also make three smaller loaves in smaller loaf pans instead of two big ones. Allow the loaves to have a second rise as per pan roll instructions. Be careful of cooking times if you change the shape of the end product. Bread loaves will take 10min at 450ºF (232ºC), and then they must be turned down to 350ºF (177ºC). However, how long they stay in at 350ºF depends on the size of loaves you make. When in doubt, bake for less time and check often to see if they’re done.