What the X-Mas?

This time we’ve lost it. What did we do to get here? We’re foodies far gone. With 3 shopping days left before Christmas, we’re awash in gift guides for the food obsessed including barbecue masters, cocktail crazies, pizza pedlars, teetotallers, and would-be expert bakers. Beautiful cook’s tools, refurbished cracked enamel, rusted-over serving spoons that require a tetanus shot after a single use and 24 karat gold cocktail stirrers more likely to stir up a wave of sadness after I finish my second diamondback, alone, on some ignoble weeknight, after I catch my reflection in its glinting surface, stuck to my countertop with simple syrup.

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The greatest fruit in history, the pineapple, has made its mark on 2014. Overcoming its consumable status, this symbol of hospitality is the new jack-o-lantern, and the new bird silhouette on your throw pillow and stationary. Remarkably though, it’s still unable to overtake kale as the new and hot produce item. Cauliflower never happened the way it was forecasted to and with Beyonce wearing kale merchandise, it’s obvious cauliflower is never going to happen. Ignore all the hot new vegetable articles you’ll start seeing this January and know it’s going to be more kale and pineapples for 2015.

crustcrumbs kale

Do I get somebody a Kale sweatshirt, then? Or maybe a gilded pineapple Christmas tree ornament? How about if it’s wrapped in spicy mortadella wrapping paper? This is perhaps the most confusing Christmas shopping season ever for the food-loving. Where we once only had Williams-Sonoma to turn to for extravagant food-related wares, we have everywhere—thanks in part to the great food revolution that was so valiantly fought by Jamie Oliver—now everyone eats food. Sure I can pick up heirloom pears on the way home or easier yet, just point and click over on Food52 but is this what we were fighting for? Apologies for sounding like Charlie Brown but isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas for foodies is all about?

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Luxury and extravagance have always been part of my game but this year I don’t feel right about a paycheque spent on a 15-pound sourdough statement piece. Try to think of the last time someone made a statement with an oversized loaf of bread and you start to realize you don’t want to go down the same path of Roman empires and French kings. Do you want to wear a donut necklace? I’m not sure I want to express my love of donuts so outwardly when the extra 20 pounds I’m already wearing clearly expresses how much I like fried dough. The same can be said for the flask bangle—what does it say about the wearer? All of these negative and complicated feelings arise when all I’m trying to do is share my love of good food with someone else!

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This person—this food-obsessed person we’re all shopping as or for can’t be led so far astray with the likes of these gift guides. The trick with any food gift is to remember that locavorism is still at the core of all our hearts. Food lovers adore shopping local, which makes sense—they’re already willing to go out of their way and delve deeper into their pockets to support the Saturday farmer’s market. The devoted food enthusiast will want you shopping at all their favourite hole in the walls and specialty shops, selfishly, so that business can continue to service them throughout the rest of the year. Maybe that means a new or vintage cookbook, a jar of imported mustard or bottle of Moscatel vinegar. Maybe a gift certificate to their favourite butcher will go over well, after all, everyone could always use a little extra meat money in their pocket and there’s a potential bonus that you could get invited to a prime rib dinner they host after they spend your gift.

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It’s a trying time of year for foodies, not to mention the whole feasting bit and specialty shopping required to impress a shortlist of fussy family members, so as long as you haven’t completely lost yourself after wading through the ridiculous and outrageous gifting options this year has on offer just remember that all the food enthusiast really wants to receive this year are compliments over how perfectly cooked everything is and if they’d be so kind to share the recipe.

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Merry Christmas from Crustcrumbs! And thank you to our bizarre Christmas family of amazing Toronto comedians, Dawn Whitwell, Dan Galea, and Sara Hennessey!

The Finale: Plumtopf Rumtopf

Well we took long enough before our last addition in our mini rumtopf series. It wasn’t our intention to make this the only thing on Crustcrumbs over the past four months but here we are. We’ve been keeping extraordinarily busy over the summer and fall with barely a chance to catch our breath but thankfully, when these blue plums showed up at the market, I was able to focus my bleary-eyed attention over to them so we could put this rumtopf to rest.

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These late-summer plums found under the label of blue plums, prune plums and Italian plums, not only make a satisfying deep purple preserve after their skins have bled into their flesh and preserving liquid but they also make for the ideal fruit for the lazy preserver—such as myself—because their pits practically fall out after slicing them open.

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Our rumtopf is now full or our favourite summer fruits, drowning in overproof rum, and suspended in enough sugar to keep it preserved for the next 50 years—not that we’ll be keeping it around that long. Come Christmastime, when we decide to crack it open (and rest assured there will be photographic evidence) the fruit and liquor will make it into our trifle bowls and cocktail coupes. The important thing to remember will be that the mix of alcohol and sugar is sky high making whatever we use it in a deceptively evil dish that’s able to knockout anyone who dares to overindulge.

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Behind-the-Scenes: Christmas Cocktail Party

Merry Christmas!  As the Santa Claus of Crustcrumbs (oh wait, no, that’s John), I’m here to bring you the greatest gift of all: behind-the-scenes pictures from our Mad Men themed office cocktail photoshoot.


The worst part about doing a big photoshoot like the one we did for our Christmas cocktail series is that I can’t post all of the images from the shoot.

Whether it’s Sara Hennessey getting weird with a nutcracker…

Sara Hennessey

Crustcrumbs Behind-the-Scenes

… or creating a cheesy conga line solely because John said “NO CHEESY CONGA LINES”, and he should probably learn by now that I’m going to think everything on his forbidden shot list is a good idea…

Crustcrumbs Conga Line

Crustcrumbs Behind-the-Scenes

… or just general “pretending to be drunk” shenanigans…

Crustcrumbs Behind-the-Scenes

Crustcrumbs Behind-the-Scenes

… we obviously had a lot of fun doing this shoot.  It was also sometimes difficult to remember that it was supposed to be about the drinks.

Crustcrumbs Behind-the-Scenes

Because I was having so much fun, I forgot to take a behind-the-scenes photo of my lighting setup.  Luckily I’m also clumsy, and I took this picture by accident:

Crustcrumbs Behind-the-Scenes

Shooting in an office is difficult.  First of all, when you’re dealing with multiple light sources, it can be a pain to balance the colour between the window light (blue) and gross fluorescent office lighting (orange).  Since I knew I wanted to desaturate the images and give them a bit of a “vintage” look, I didn’t worry too much about colour balancing.

Secondly, there is stuff everywhere.  Stuff casts a shadow.  Since I didn’t want to spend all day setting up multiple lights everywhere, I set up just one as seen in the photo above – an ABR800 ring flash in a moon unit pointed down at the girls over the cubicle wall camera right.  For a secondary light source, to fill some of the shadows and make them less harsh, I used a shoe mount flash (speedlite) attached to my camera and pointed it at the ceiling.  You can read more about bounce lighting here.

The end result:

The Ladies of Crustcrumbs

A big thank you to all five of our models and to Eagle for letting us use their office on a Sunday afternoon!

Bourbon-Soaked Chocolate and Espresso Trifle

Trifle is one of my favourite desserts, I think remaining at the top of the list because I limit myself to one per year. This year, two really because *spoiler alert* we shot this in November and you can be sure I’ll be having another trifle on the 24th of December.

Christmas Dinner: Dessert

It’s easy – like really easy to do. And for some reason, I find that with a trifle, shortcuts and cheats work. The sum is far greater than the parts. I’m sure if you did everything the right, full length way it would also be incredible but I don’t think that’s a desirable route this time of year. Besides, at this point in the meal everyone is about ready to burst and is completely soused. It’s the perfect time for some tomfoolery at the table.

Christmas Dinner: Dessert

The trifle comes off eating as a light dessert because of the airiness of the cream. The store-bought cake that makes up the heft is soaked in merry making amounts of booze meaning it resembles little of its former self, and the cheaters custard just melds everything together. Simply referring to this as a custard is a cheat really. The corn starch in it, in my opinion disqualifies it from being a custard but like I said, it’s not the time to be playing around with scalding milk and egg yolks in the kitchen. If things were to separate on me this late in the game, it would seriously jeopardize my annual trifle intake and that’s unacceptable.

Christmas Dinner: Dessert

I have to say this variation of trifle, with its bourbon, chocolate and espresso comes from my desire to not have to make two desserts at Christmas. The New York Times’ Melissa Clark published an incredible recipe for a Whiskey-Soaked Dark Chocolate Bundt Cake in 2008 and upon first making it, it became a staple of our Christmas table. I wasn’t willing to stop making or eating trifle though, so this is my solution. I’m sure the bunt cake would be over-the-top in this trifle but the cake is so perfect on its own, with barely a dusting of icing sugar, it would be a crime to make it solely to have here. Go with plain chocolate cake and to drive my point home about using any store bought cake you can find, I will say unashamed that I used frozen double chocolate, pre-sliced Sara Lee pound cake.

Christmas Dinner: Dessert

Bourbon-Soaked Chocolate and Espresso Trifle

For the custard:
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 large egg yolks
500ml whole milk (3.25% M.F.)
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder

For the whipped cream:
500ml whipping cream (35% M.F.)
2 tablespoons icing sugar

To assemble:
2 x 306g chocolate loaf cakes, sliced
125ml bourbon
100g dark chocolate, roughly chopped

In a medium saucepan whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, and egg yolks then slowly add the milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently for approximately 20 minutes until the custard is thick. Add the espresso powder and whisk again to dissolve. Refrigerate with plastic wrap resting directly on the surface of the custard to avoid it developing a skin. Cool completely before proceeding with the rest of the trifle.

Whip the cream and icing sugar together to form stiff peaks.

To assemble the trifle, start by adding a couple of tablespoons of the custard to the bottom of a trifle bowl and arrange a layer of cake over top. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of the bourbon then a layer, approximately 1/4 of the custard, followed by 1/4 of the whipped cream. Repeat the layers, finishing with a thick layer of whipped cream. Sprinkle with chocolate and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Christmas Dinner: Dessert

Turkey Dinner Part 2: The Sides

If you’re having turkey as the main event then the sides are absolutely the most important thing going on in the meal. Your guests will know what to expect with the turkey and though it’s nice, it’s not much more than that. Like the the turkey and its various trimmings, the side dish portion of Christmas dinner practically writes itself.

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The parsnips are already roasting with the turkey, getting sticky with maple syrup, butter and turkey juices. The meal still needs carrots. Keeping them separate from the turkey makes them a vegetarian side and provides opportunity to add another flavour profile, in addition to preserving their colour. The carrots, heirloom if you fancy, are simply glazed in a shallow pan on the stovetop with a decent knob of butter, a little sugar, some cold water and a few star anise thrown in there for Christmasy spice and woodsy decoration. The only other spice necessary is a bit of freshly ground black pepper and a touch of flakey sea salt.

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Though the bird is stuffed, it’s with potatoes so it’s okay to make another stuffing with bread. Do something familiar but made better with a few upgrades. Red fife flour is somewhat of a Canadian specialty. It produces a whole grain bread very similar in flavour to rye, and giving attention to the bread here is a pleasant change to forging ahead with whatever miscellaneous petrified white bread that’s often used. The sausage is sweet and mildly spiced while the figs add further sweetness and their seeds an appealing grainy texture.

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Sausage and Fig Stuffing

Enough for 8 as a side dish

1 large day-old loaf red fife (or rye) bread
3 large mild Italian sausages, casings removed
100ml olive oil
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped finely
12 dried mission figs, cut into smallish pieces
500ml turkey stock
1/4 large bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
50g unsalted butter

Cut the bread into large cubes, approximately 1” chunks, and place in a large mixing bowl. In a heavy bottomed skillet fry the sausage in the olive oil until starting to brown then add the onion, garlic, rosemary, and figs and continue to fry until the onion softens. Add in the turkey stock and cook until the figs begin to plump. Decant the mix into the bowl with the bread and mix in the parsley. Mix and check the seasonings, adding salt and generous amount of pepper to taste.

Generously butter a casserole dish, large enough to hold everything and tumble in the stuffing. Dot the butter overtop of the stuffing and bake, covered until warmed through. If it seems dry, add additional stock, turkey pan drippings, or gravy. This stuffing can also be stuffed inside the bird, such as the summer savory dressing.

Christmas Dinner

Now as the menu is almost done, you may be thinking the plate might look a little dull. It needs a hit of green. Something that’s not going to get cold by the time the other dishes make their way around to the last diner. A hot casserole of something decadent is ideal. Brussels sprouts in bacon or maybe simmered down in mustard and blue cheese would be a good thing but certain family members don’t like the sprouts and there are others that don’t like blue cheese. Spinach buried under a ridiculously thick béchamel sauce is the way to go this time around. The sauce is rich and aromatic better than any macaroni and cheese. A lightly crisp topping made with Japanese bread crumbs, butter, and a little thyme help to gussy the dish up so it’s worthy of the Christmas table.

Creamed Spinach

Enough for 8 as a side dish

1620g (approximately 4 large bunches) spinach
500ml whole milk (3.5% M.F.)
1 small yellow onion, halved with the root-end removed
2 whole cloves
4 whole allspice berries
10 whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
80g unsalted butter
80g all-purpose unbleached white flour
150ml whipping cream (35% M.F.)
2 teaspoons Maldon salt

For the topping (optional):
30g Panko bread crumbs
35g unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon fresh thyme

In a small saucepan add the milk, onion, cloves, allspice, peppercorns, and bay leaf and warm over medium heat until starting to steam. Remove from the heat and cover for approximately 20 minutes, allowing the aromatics to infuse the milk.

Meanwhile, thoroughly wash the spinach and trim away the tougher stalks. Add the wet spinach, to a very large pot and cover as much as the lid will fit on top. Wilt the spinach down over medium-high heat, stirring as necessary until the spinach has collapsed. Remove from the heat and set aside in a colander to drain completely.

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

In a large saucepan melt the butter over medium-low heat, add the flour and cook for 5 minutes or so, until just starting to turn a light brown colour. Strain the infused milk, discarding the aromatics and add it slowly to the pan, whisking as you go. Stir frequently and cook for 10 minutes. The sauce will be thick. Add the drained spinach, cream, and salt and stir to combine.

If not using the topping, the spinach is ready to serve straight from the pot. To dress it up a bit, decant the creamed spinach into a buttered casserole dish. In a small bowl combine the ingredients for the topping and scatter over top of the casserole. Bake for 25 minutes or until the top is browned and the casserole is bubbling.

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With dinner set, it’s time to work out dessert…