Chicken Bones

Over the weekend I hit one of the local bulk food stores, and while I was there my attention was drawn to what I thought were real Chicken Bones. Okay, not real chicken bones, but the candy named after them. Chicken Bones follow in the grand tradition of naming confections after the parts of animals that they superficially resemble, just like Beaver Tails and bear claws. At any rate, I thought I was getting the Ganong original chicken bone candy, but in retrospect I may have been getting an imitation.

Here’s a video by Ganong about how the real thing is made:

Real or fake, Chicken Bones were an essential flavour of my childhood holidays. Unlike the ubiquitous mint of candy canes, Chicken Bones are a strong cinnamon candy with a touch of dark chocolate at the center. Now, I wouldn’t have known to make this comparison as a kid, but as an adult I can definitely say that they remind me of Fireball whisky.

Chicken Bones are a really Maritime thing, although they’ve made their way to the rest of Canada somewhat sparsely over time. That isn’t to say that they’re universally loved out East; I know a fair number of people who can’t stand them, but they are definitely ubiquitous. My Nan, who was from Britain but lived almost sixty years of her life in small-town New Brunswick, used to buy Chicken Bones around the holidays, along with After Eights and liquorice allsorts. Chicken Bones have a flavour and smell that I most strongly associate with her. Now that she has passed away nobody else around here seems to serve them. So when I saw them at the bulk food store, even if they were imitations, I had to pick up a few. I do miss my Nan around Christmas, since I spent so many of these holidays in her company. But sometimes keeping the little traditions alive helps to bring her back just a little bit, which is especially important this time of year, I think.

Busy Night

I had a billion and one things to accomplish yesterday evening, most of which I can’t even write about because they had to do with Christmas gifts for people that I know read this blog. One thing I can mention is that I did get the chance to put the last finishing touches on the Frankensteined gaming PC (made with excess parts graciously donated by our friends) that my husband and I are giving Thing 1 for Christmas. She doesn’t have Internet access yet, so here I can sigh with relief here about having at least one major gift out of the way.

Dinner was a quick one, since I can only do so many things at once, and for a change the kitchen was not calling me. I wanted to eat at least somewhat healthily, so I made up some soft tacos with a pre-packaged spice mix. Well, I say “made up”, but mostly I just prepped all of the ingredients and set them out on the table so that everyone could fill their own tacos. I fixed mine up with spiced ground beef, avocado, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, and lactose-free cheddar. Also available on the table were sour cream (which I prefer over mayo, but can’t eat), homemade blender salsa canned earlier this year, and shredded cheddar cheese.

Dinner out of the way, I went on to work on some Christmas crafts. I whipped up my first-ever circle skirt for Thing 1 — which is even easier for a kid than for an adult since there aren’t any seams! A friend of mine recommended the following resources to me, which were invaluable:

Make a circle skirt without a pattern by Costuming Diary
Circle Skirt (and a follow-up instructional video by Made Everyday
The Best Way to Sew Bias Tape by Positively Splendid

I combined the techniques because I wasn’t working with a serger, and because I wanted a finished waistband edge but I also wanted the cute red elastic to show. This skirt will be worn later in the week when the girls go get their pictures taken with Santa. I still have to make a second, smaller one for Thing 2. Hopefully I can make the time tomorrow.

In every spare minute, I’m knitting away on cloths to be given as gifts. I think of this colourway as “Evil Minion“. This is either the last or second-last one, depending on how much yarn I am left with. After that, it’s time to start on knitted owls for my girls’ Guiding leaders.

As we do every year, we have had a guest in our house starting December 1st. Candy Cane will stay until December 25th, at which point she will be whisked back to the North Pole where she will stay until next holiday season. Here she is unpacking all of her copious outfits. I know some people find The Elf on the Shelf kind of creepy, but my kids really love her and look forward to her annual arrival. We’ve never made a big deal of the “reporting back to Santa” aspect of the Elves at our house, so my kids just see her as another piece of Christmas magic.

Childhood Family Dinner

Yesterday I had a million and one things to do in order to prep for the party on Saturday, so I really needed to make a dinner that I could probably have cooked in my sleep. This was the kind of dinner that I had regularly as a kid and was one of the staples of how I learned how to cook, way back when. A few small things have changed here and there, but it basically tastes the same.

I baked chicken thighs that were sprinkled with powdered onion soup mix. When I was a kid, boned and skinned meat was way too expensive for everyday meals, so it would have been whole chicken legs (drumstick and thigh), bone-in, skin-on. I served it with whipped potatoes; as a kid, that would simply have been mashed, no fancy schmancy electronics like a hand mixer. The corn was exactly what I grew up with: boiled from frozen, generally in the microwave.

We ate all kinds of other food, of course. My mom used to hang out with a Lebanese couple, and they exchanged recipes and techniques, so Mom made great Lebanese food. We ate all kinds of pasta and roasts and fancy Sunday dinners. But when push came to shove and we had something going on on a weekday evening (and with both my brother and I in hockey and Guiding/Scouting, that was most evenings), this was our fast, easy, everybody-likes-it kind of meal. To me, this kind of dish is a comfort food, because it brings back fond memories of family togetherness. And as a bonus, now that I’m a parent myself, there’s nothing in a supper like this that I have to fight to get my kids to eat!

Oh, and if you think that my parents wouldn’t have served supper on a plate with a skull and bones on it, on top of a skeleton-print tablecloth, you probably haven’t met my parents. Trust me, if they’d had those things, they would have used them in a heartbeat.

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.