Stollen

Yeah, I like to bake during the holidays. And every year I make stollen. It’s a dense, sweet German fruited bread, yeast-risen although some refer to it as a cake. The best thing about it is ease of shaping – you pat the dough into a rough oval, fold it over itself (and a log of marzipan, if you like), brush with a little beaten egg for a glossy sheen, and bake it until it’s deep golden. Then you get to shower it with icing sugar from a shaker or through a sieve, which is one of my favourite things. And no matter how wonky you think you’ve made it, it always comes out looking (and smelling) awesome.

Stollen 5

Use any kind of dried fruit, but make sure it’s moist, or it will suck the moisture out of the dough—if your raisins are like little dried-out pebbles, cover them with hot water, tea or even booze and let them sit until they plump up a bit, then drain well before adding to the dough. (You don’t want them too soft, or they’ll break apart as you knead them in.) Stollen is supposed to be dense, on account of all that butter and fruit weighing it down, making it tough for the yeast to do its job. If you want your stollen a little lighter, let the dough rise on its own for an hour or two, then punch it out and add the fruit, folding the dough over it and gently kneading it in.

Stollen 4
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Kanelbullar - Scandanavian cinnamon buns

Blog Flog: This post was sponsored by Alberta Wheat. Thanks for growing delicious things, and supporting this space!

So I’ve seen these twisted Scandinavian cinnamon rolls in pictures over the years, and have always been fascinated with them – they’re like genteel cinnamon buns, not as gooey and unwieldy (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and are irresistibly pretty, like elaborately twisted knots. They’re called kanelbullar, or sometimes kardemummabullar if they’re spiked with cardamom (which they should be). Since the best part about the holidays is the baking, I figured now was the time to give them a go. I’ve already made them twice in a week, and have plans to stack some of the filled, flat pieces of dough in the freezer to pull out, twist and bake on Christmas morning.

Kanelbullar - Scandinavian Cinnamon Twists

People have been asking for weeks if I’ve finished my holiday baking yet, as if it’s a project that needs to be neatly done and tucked away well in advance of Christmas. I never quite understand this question, because isn’t holiday baking something you do throughout the holidays? It’s not like Christmas shopping, which pretty much needs to be wrapped up (literally) by Christmas eve. I understand that fruitcakes are often made back in October, to be given an adequate number of weeks to douse in booze, but in my mind the rest of the baking – the cookies, squares, Turtle-stuffed shortbread, stollen, panettone, mince pies, butter tarts, homemade Raincoast crisps, Parker House rolls – these are in constant rotation in and out of the oven throughout the month of December.

Kanelbullar 5Kanelbullar 4

Of course there are the things I make once a year, so many recipes that stay the same. Some of them evolve, of course – I try to expand my fruitcake horizons, and a few weeks ago I gave plum pudding a go in the slow cooker. Most years I take something new for a spin, just to try some new bread or pastry to see if it’s worth bringing into the annual Christmas fold.

When it comes to baking during the holidays, there are a ridiculous and endless number of things to be made. And of course being in Alberta, we have some of the best raw materials to work with, including wheat – our largest crop and the basis for so many of these things, and yet an ingredient we largely take for granted. I have a sack of unbleached all-purpose flour from Highwood Crossing in High River in my kitchen, and anticipate going through all of it in the coming weeks. Rather than have a big flour canister on my countertop, I have an enormous bin in a pull-out drawer, I go through so much of the stuff.
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Dutch Baby 1

So hey, who loves a Dutch baby? I’ve partnered with EggcentricTV and the folks at Egg Farmers of Canada to make a video tutorial on how to make one, taking took over my parents’ (brand new!) kitchen to talk about one of our favourite sharable recipes for their #RecipesThatGive campaign in support of Food Banks Canada. Feeding people is important to me, particularly at this time of year when we all love to gather around food, and yet so many members of our community are feeling the pinch.

Dutch Baby 2

I chose a Dutch baby – a puffed pancake you bake in the oven, and one of my favourite things to make year-round but especially during the holidays, when I like a little added drama but minimal work. It’s fast and affordable – whisk together three eggs, half a cup of milk and another of flour and bake in a preheated pan in a hot oven and voilà – it’s like an enormous Yorkshire pudding you can fill with berries for a festive brunch, dab with butter and drizzle with maple syrup on a sleepy morning, fill it with ice cream and hot fudge sauce for the ultimate group sundae, or go savoury and load up with something saucy: think butter chicken or turkey dinner leftovers, doused in gravy.

Dutch Baby 4
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Blackberry Gateau Basque

I’ve made this a few times over the years, and like that it’s sort of half cookie half pie, yet called a gâteau. I made it when I have a glut of homemade jam in the house, or all-fruit mincemeat in December. This year I seem to have a surplus of blackberry jam in my freezer, so pulled some out to use in this big sweet sandwich, with jam spread between pieces of buttery cookie-pastry and baked as one giant cookie-pie, and served in thin wedges. You can nibble these out of hand, like a cookie, or serve them on a plate topped with a scoop of ice cream, like a far fancier dessert. The fact that it’s called a gâteau Basque rather than a big cookie-jam sandwich just makes you feel so much more sophisticated as a cook.

Blackberry Gateau Basque

Most gâteau Basque, named for the region in France, is tucked into a shallow tart pan, but I figured a) less than 50% of the population owns a fancy fluted tart pan, and b) it’s not necessary for this gâteau to taste delicious.

See? It doesn’t even have to be perfectly round. Just round-ish.

Gateau Basque 9
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Nigel Slater's fruitcake

Currently bedside: Nigel Slater’s latest, The Christmas Chronicles. He’s one of my all-time favourite food writers, and Christmas is my favourite time of year, and the two are packaged together perfectly. (Here’s a taste from the Guardian.) I love how much he loves the “crackle” of winter, just like I do, how he finds the cold brisk and invigorating. He makes me want to get up early and write by candlelight, then build a fire and slice crisp apples into a pot and simmer them with warm spices, a clementine and some brandy while a pork belly roasts in the oven. He perfectly encapsulates why I love these short, cold, cozy days, particularly in early winter – and even (especially?) the grey ones. Who better to refer to when seeking out a new fruitcake?

Nigel's fruitcake 8

Over the years, I’ve short-sightedly been thinking of fruitcake in black and white, or light and dark, always drawn toward the dark, sticky fruitcake of my childhood – specifically the one from the 1977 edition of The Joy of Cooking. (They aren’t the same, if you look at the dark fruitcake recipes in more recent editions.) It has been a fine recipe, and served us well for decades, but in recent years my results have varied, and although my mom always baked hers in an assortment of oddly shaped ring pans of various sizes, which I wound up doing as well, necessitating varying cooking times and producing too many hard edges, I like the idea of settling on one round cake, or a couple loaf pans. (In fact, Elizabeth Baird told me a few weekends ago that she bakes hers in a 9×13-inch pan, using Rose Murray’s recipe, and cuts it into 6 logs. It cooks quickly and evenly, and the logs are the perfect size for slicing.)
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Smothered Chicken 1

It’s the most eating-est time of year, but not just because of all the shortbread and turkey dinners and Turtles—some of our favourite December things are the weekend morning we gather around my mom’s dining room table to make crackers for Christmas dinner, the afternoon Christmas carol jam, and the night we invite everyone over to watch Elf and Christmas Vacation, and plunk down a big pot of meatballs, or my grandma’s beef carbonnade, or something easy we can all dig into, in the middle of the table. I love that there are just more people around for dinner more often these days, which means those one-pot meals that are so comforting (and genuinely satisfying to make) are pulled into service for home entertaining of the more casual sort—the ones where everyone brings their own slipper socks.

Smothered Chicken 7

Smothered chicken is an old, classic recipe. I love the idea of it. You can make it with a whole spatchcocked chicken, like Craig Claiborne wrote about in the New York Times, or you could do chicken pieces, which is I think the most common, or you could just do chicken thighs, which I’m a fan of for their flavour + price point. It’s quicker than stews or braises, but tastes like it has been in the works all afternoon—you brown the chicken, then brown some onions and mushrooms, and make a quick gravy right in the pan with a splash of cream, then return the chicken to the pot, cover with a tight-fitting lid and simmer for another 15 minutes or so, until the chicken is ridiculously tender. Best of all, smothered chicken is an excuse to boil some egg noodles. And even if you didn’t grow up with it, it comes with built-in nostalgia.

Smothered Chicken 9
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RK Treats for Toys 5

I’ve officially given up on the gingerbread house. Making them, that is – not that I’ve ever been a fan of eating them, after sitting out on our mantle gathering dust (and the occasional spider) for weeks – not that dry, molasses-heavy gingerbread designed for its structural integrity has ever been particularly known for its deliciousness. But this – this I can work with.

RK Treats for Toys 2

We’re making a different kind of edible treat this year – the folks at Rice Krispies reached out to ask if I’d help spread the word about their Treats for Toys program, which turns homemade treats into real toys for kids in need. This is a win-win scenario: I get a fun project to take on at the kitchen table with W (and any of his cousins and friends who might be over), working with a medium I can actually handle, and want to eat afterward. The idea is that if you transform marshmallowy Rice Krispie treat mixture into toy shapes – robots, cars, building blocks… we even came up with a top that actually spins, built around a chopstick and moulded in a plastic funnel – and share a photo on TreatsForToys.ca or through social media using the #TreatsForToys hashtag, Kellogg’s Rice Krispies will donate $20 (!!) to The Salvation Army to buy a real toy for a child who may otherwise go without. Now in its fifth year, the #TreatsforToys program has contributed more than $130,000 to date to make the holidays happier for kids across Canada.
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Castello Cheese board 2

One afternoon a few weeks ago, a few friends and I strategized a last-minute get-together by text: Friday night? Allison’s house. Everyone brings a bottle of wine and something for the cheese board. These kinds of spontaneous get-togethers always seem to work out best—there’s no checking of schedules weeks ahead of time, no pressure on any one of us to plan a party and menu. A cheeseboard can be assembled in minutes, and makes any gathering of people seem more official, with a focal point to gather around and nibble from.

Castello Cheese Board 16

The best part: everything goes on a cheese board, from nuts to dried fruit. I can pick up a cheese or two at the store en route, or rummage through my pantry and grab a ripe pear, a bag of crackers or cashews, half a jar of olives and the last of the crabapple jelly to contribute. Once everything is piled onto a board, it looks wonderfully appealing—a sort of mini potluck, and no one has to cook.

Castello Cheeses & Chutney

These impromptu parties are some of the best, the evenings I look forward to, getting the chance to spend time with people I don’t get to see often enough. But even when get-togethers are planned, I generally have a cheeseboard on the menu—because who doesn’t love cheese? It’s low-maintenance, and requires only putting things on a board or tile or platter, which can be done as people are ringing the doorbell.
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Parsnip Soup

It’s funny how people have this thing about parsnips, like it’s one of the world’s most unrecognized (and despised) root vegetables, yet when you mention a recipe with parsnips people say oh! I love parsnips! I figured I’d best get this recipe in before the imminent onslaught of butter, sugar and mincemeat.

This was my contribution (along with all of the photos!) to the latest Soup Sisters Cookbook, this one geared toward families and getting your kids into the kitchen. Soup is, after all, the ultimate starting point for the beginner cook – measurements don’t need to be precise, and you can play around with ingredients that are in season or whatever you happen to have in your fridge, and if veggies were wrinkly going in, no one will know. I’m a particular fan of soups you can purée and sip at your desk or take in your insulated to-go cup when you’ve had altogether too much coffee. And you’ll feel like you’re winning at this grown-up thing when you’re driving around with sippable parsnips in the cup holder of your car.

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