The inventive head chef at Fogo Island Inn in Joe Batt’s Arm, Nfld., reminisces about Christmas at his nan’s, a highlight of which was her signature dessert made with tangy partridgeberries and a sweet molasses crust:
My nan would invite the whole family to Christmas dinner at her house in St. Anthony [on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula]. My family would make the stormy, four-and-a-half-hour drive from Deer Lake and stay for the week.
Nan and my aunts would all get together and they’d start cooking three to four days ahead. There’d be four or five turkeys along with pease pudding, bread pudding, stuffing, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, turnip, salt beef, salt fish and mustard pickles. While they cooked, I’d steal bits and pieces and get in the way.
It was a long house and a big family – we’d have 35 or 40 people there. So they would set up a long [row of tables] all the way from the kitchen through the dining room to the living room. On Christmas Day, we’d sit around it, eating and having a chat all afternoon.
The table setting was what I call ‘ghetto Newfoundland,’ with different tablecloths like a patchwork quilt going all the way down. You wouldn’t have enough plates or cups, so every second cup was different and the plates were all different sizes. It was kind of picturesque – just like Newfoundland, where nothing matches.
After the meal, we’d have pies and lassie tarts and a cup of tea. Later, the music would start and the crowd would stay late into the evening.
The lassie tart is about as traditional as Newfoundland pastries get. It stems from the days before [islanders] could get sugar but had molasses, which turns the dough brown. When I make it now, I add just enough sugar to take the edge off the tartness of the partridgeberry while keeping its tannic bitterness, which is a beautiful thing.
The globe-trotting Michelin-starred chef, who’ll be a judge this winter on MasterChef Canada, may not have garnered all of his culinary skills from his mother (‘she was,’ he says, ‘a terrible cook’), but her Eastern take on roast turkey is one he copies still:
I grew up in Scarborough, Ont. and lived there during the most influential years of my childhood, from ages five to 18. We arrived [from China] in ‘65, during the Cultural Revolution, and that very first Christmas stands out in my memory. I got gifts for the first time and we decorated a tree and kept it till February.
The cousins who were living here would always come and spend Christmas at our house. My grandmother was still in Hong Kong and my mother could not cook. Fried shrimp balls and stuffed turkey were the only two dishes she could make that were [edible] – and they were both a treat on special occasions. Being Chinese, we were always very economical and turkey was definitely the cheapest meat. You could get a great big bird for a low price – and we never bought the self-basting one. We bought the cheapest one we could find and basted it ourselves. A couple of nights before Christmas, we’d start to marinate the turkey the Chinese way. We salted it, then added soy sauce, sesame oil and pepper; that was it.
The important part was the stuffing: It was rice fried with a bit of egg and it was fantastic. All the juices from the turkey get into the rice. When I got old enough – around the age of 12 – I got to carve the turkey with the electric knife. The adults liked the dark meat, the kids liked the white meat and nobody touched the wings. We didn’t know what was good back then!
Jackie Kai Ellis
The black-sesame dumplings that Ellis’s family made by the dozens to celebrate Chinese New Year serve as inspiration for the Asian-inspired cream puffs she turns out at Beaucoup Bakery & Café, her year-old patisserie in Vancouver:
When I was a kid, my mom was so strict about eating sugar. The only candy we were allowed to eat was sugar-free Trident gum – once in a while. Her banana bread was the driest and blandest because she would halve or even quarter the sugar in it. I started to bake quite young – I taught myself – and she’d say, ‘Why is yours so good?’ I’d say, ‘Because I’m following the recipe!’
That said, she’s an amazing cook. We’re from northern China and we’re known for our steamed and pan-fried dumplings filled with fish, black sesame or pork with chives. During New Year at our house in North Vancouver – where I lived with my grandparents, cousins, uncles, aunts, my sister, my mom and my dad – we would all sit around the table making dumplings together. It was definitely a family affair. Some would be making the dough, some the filling, some would be wrapping and they’d give my sister and I scraps of dough to practise with.
Black sesame is often used in dumplings that are served in soup. I have translated that into a French pastry to create my religieuses.
Religieuses are traditional French pastries normally flavoured with coffee, caramel, chocolate or vanilla. But I just love black sesame. It’s so fragrant and very Asian. Some people just can’t wrap their minds around it, but the people who love it – chefs, food writers, people with developed palates – just go gaga for it.
To this day, the recipe for her French grandmother’s foie gras is such a well-guarded secret that the owner of HeritageCookbook.com – a site through which visitors can compile their own family recipes in a keepsake cookbook – must turn to a simpler but every bit as decadent version when the holidays roll around:
My most memorable holiday meals were the ones I had in France, prepared by my dad’s mother. We always started with oysters and champagne, followed by foie gras that was jarred with fat to make it rich and buttery. Then there would be a fish course followed by duck confit and ceps [porcini mushrooms] cooked with parsley, garlic and butter – and that was it for vegetables. There’d be a cheese plate of course, a bowl of mandarins and nuts and a bûche de Noël for dessert. The meals seemed endless, course after course after course.
This wasn’t a wealthy family, either – it was just how people ate there. The act of sitting down together was sacred and celebrated – nothing casual about it. We’d eat from noon till 4 or 5 p.m. and then my grandfather would say to my grandmother, ‘What’s for dinner?’
It involved so much prep – and nobody would help [my grandmother], because in France, you don’t help the hostess. It would be rude because the kitchen is her world – and there’s also a lot of secrecy about family recipes. My uncle doesn’t even want my aunt to share my grandmother’s recipe for foie gras with me – and it’s my own grandmother’s!
My [Canadian-born] mom moved to France [where she met my dad] in the sixties; she [came back with a recipe for] ‘faux’ gras, a chicken pâté that tastes almost exactly like the foie gras my grandmother served. It’s made of chicken liver, brandy, cream and butter and is delicious served with champagne – simple but sophisticated.
The cookbook author and owner of Montreal’s Preservation Society learned a thing or two about canning and devilling from her grandmother’s take on Czech Christmas Eve in Edmonton.
I’m from Alberta and my father’s half-Czech, so we celebrated a Czech Christmas Eve. It’s a meal of fried fish accompanied by devilled eggs, potato salad, pickled cucumbers and beets and apple strudel for dessert.
My grandmother would cook for us at her house and I would help with the strudel. It’s the kind where you pull the dough all the way across the table – it’s supposed to be so thin that you can read a love letter through it. There was always a pack of phyllo pastry [on hand] to patch any holes I’d make.
My grandmother died the day before Christmas Eve when I was about 25. There was no one else around to prepare the dinner except me and my cousin, and she’s a dancer – truly not a cook. And I’d never done the strudel [by myself] before and I don’t know if either of us had ever made devilled eggs. But we managed to do the whole thing on our own.
Now when I make deviled eggs, I make them out of pickled eggs. I throw in a bit of brine with the egg yolks and mayonnaise. They’re just better that way.
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