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…

Start with the turkey. The rest will follow. Part 1.

Start with the turkey. The rest will follow. A menu for Christmas dinner practically writes itself with a little decision making to guide it through.

Christmas Dinner

The turkey, whether it’s fresh, frozen, brined, buttered, fried, stuffed, whole or dismembered is all dependent on your own expectations and whatever mood you’re in. To keep it simple – an ideal goal at Christmastime – let’s say it’s fresh, buttered, and stuffed. For flavourings, it’s got to have sage, so mix a bunch of freshly chopped sage with a celebratory amount of softened unsalted butter, shoving it between the flesh and the skin.

Christmas Dinner

For the stuffing, in the season of excess, why have one when you can have two? The one going inside the bird has got to be this one, that’s so east-coast Canadian it’s not even referred to as stuffing but as dressing and as such, is made up of potatoes. It’s as simple as making mashed potatoes but has the addition of some onion and the official herb of Nova Scotia, summer savory. The bread stuffing that I crave, with an extra dose of gravy over top is done as a side casserole.

Christmas Dinner

Summer Savory Potato Dressing

Makes enough to stuff a small turkey
Serves 8 as a side dish

1.145kg (approximately 5 medium) white potatoes, peeled
1/2 tsp kosher salt
70g unsalted butter
1 small yellow onion, diced finely (approximately 150g)
2 tablespoons dried summer savory
100ml whole milk (3.5% M.F.)
2 teaspoons large flaked sea salt, such as Maldon
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a large pot add the potatoes and fill with enough cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, add the kosher salt and turn the heat down. Simmer, partially covered until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife. Drain the water off the potatoes, add the rest of the ingredients, and mash until resembling a relatively even texture. Allow to cool completely before stuffing the bird.

Christmas Dinner

Basting the beast need not be complicated either. Though turkeys are lean birds this one is so loaded with butter it won’t hurt missing an encounter with the brush here or there, leaving you to get in full cheer with your guests. When you do remember to baste it, I like mixing equal parts of maple syrup and butter in a small saucepan on the stove and brushing it over the bird in liberal amounts. The sugar and butter help the skin bronze beautifully and the sweet maple syrup will drip down over the obligatory parsnips roasting, tucked up alongside. Leave the bird to cook depending on a number of factors but try to think of it as a giant chicken, and just cook it until the juices run clear in the thigh. If you need precise timings, refer to any number of guides out there on the subject.

Christmas Dinner

The cranberry sauce does not come from a can. I understand some need it to but for shame if you’re in an area such as Canada that has access to good fresh and frozen cranberries that come directly from our friendly east-coast cousins. It’s hard to improve on the recipe on the side of the bag, which consists of adding water and sugar and simmering until the tart berries have just given up their shape. I don’t want my cranberry sauce tasting like oranges, anise, cinnamon or anything else. If you feel like some extra fussing in the kitchen, say to escape some drunken family member or cat obsessed aunt, add a grated apple which will provide a jellied texture to the sauce as well as some extra natural sweetness.

Christmas Dinner

Cranberry Sauce

340g bag whole cranberries, fresh or frozen
170g granulated sugar
1 small apple, peeled, cored and grated
125ml cold water

In a small saucepan add 230g of the cranberries, sugar, apple, and cold water. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally for 10-15 minutes until the cranberries have started to pop and collapse. Add the remaining 110g of cranberries and continue to cook for another 5 minutes, until the berries just begin to pop. Pour into a resealable glass jar and cool. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

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Gravy is gravy is gravy. Thicken the sweet pan juices with a slurry of white all purpose flour and cold water and season with a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper. If for whatever reason you haven’t much in the way of pan drippings add some turkey stock that you’ve made from simmering the neck on the stovetop with some aromatics, then add some wine (known as chef’s juice on Christmas) before going on to add the thickening slurry.

Christmas Dinner

Sides plus dessert coming up in two posts!

Christmas Cookies

Have you heard how many people have been singing about Santa Claus coming to town lately? It’s been pretty much everybody and if that doesn’t stress you out a little bit, well you’re a better person than I. There is only one full work week before Christmas. So you know those Christmas cookies you were thinking would be fun to make this year? It’s time to pull the trigger and make them.

Christmas Cookies for Santa

It’s hard choosing what cookie recipe to make with so many out there to choose from. After I went with my trusted three recipes that I knew I could churn out without thinking, I realized that I could have done so many other things like a sugar and butter-laden shortbread – the kind that induces heart palpitations but is so utterly addictive. Mint Nanaimo bars or even cornflake wreaths topped with a snippet of Swedish Berry would have both been joy making, especially since my cupboard is stocked with so much green food dye.

At this time of year though, it’s better to go with your autopilot if you have one. It helps to avoid tears on Christmas, just as it does to decide not to roast and peel your own chestnuts or over-do-it on the County Nog.

As much as I’d like to experiment with other recipes, I have to give a recipe for this gingerbread. This is what I want to smell baking when I’m making Christmas cookies and I’d be a little disappointed if I didn’t have that familiar scent around Christmas as there’s really no other appropriate time to have them. It’s heavy on the cloves, which is one thing I really like about them. They’re also lighter in colour and crisp. They’re a perfect gingerbread cookie for those that say they don’t like gingerbread because they really don’t resemble any other gingerbread cookie out there.

I’m not one for decorating cookies. I really hate to do it so for these I enlisted a helper to do the dirty work, after I mixed up some icing that consisted of icing sugar and water, with some added red and green food dye. If no one is expecting pretty Christmas shapes, my real preference for these cookies is to roll out small amounts in my hands and smush them onto the cookie sheet, making for an average-looking round cookie that’s uneven in places but tastes just as good as the fussed-over version.

The prune turnovers, I hope I don’t have to convince you too much about. They’re absolutely basic to put together but taste like a Scandinavian Christmas. The instant you pull out the bottle of brandy, and dump in the sugar and prunes, you know it’s Christmas.

Christmas Cookies for Santa

The Peppermint Meringues come from Martha Stewart. I think they were first published in her magazine as a stand-alone holiday cookie issue, before it was turned into the popular Martha Stewart Cookies book. With only three egg whites, some sugar and food colouring, they take no time to put together. Though as a Canadian that flips between Celsius and Fahrenheit from recipe to recipe, I find I always flip the oven temperature in my head to Celsius instead of following it as written, meaning whenever I make this recipe, I inevitably have to run to the oven, remembering that I’ve again turned it up much higher than it’s supposed to be. I skip the chocolate ganache filling because I like them how they are, minty, light, and unfussy.

If you’ve taken the time to read this entire cookie rambling you’re practically done for. Santa Claus is probably reading this with you, over your shoulder and Christmas is about to be over. Just make something quick!

Christmas Cookies for Santa

Gingerbread Cookies

250g unsalted butter, softened
355g granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 tablespoons dark corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
450g all-purpose unbleached white flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground cloves
2 teaspoons ground ginger

In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with a paddle attachment, add the butter and sugar. Cream on medium speed for approximately 3 minutes until light and fluffy, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the egg, corn syrup, and vanilla extract and continue to mix until fully incorporated. With the mixer turned off add the flour, baking soda, and spices and mix on low speed until just incorporated, finishing mixing by hand using wooden spoon so as not to over mix the dough.

Divide the dough into two portions and wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour. The dough can be made a couple of days ahead of time or frozen if desired.

When ready to bake preheat your oven to 350°F and remove the dough from the fridge to allow time to warm up and become pliable.

Between two sheets of parchment paper, roll out the dough to approximately 1/8” thickness and cut into Christmasy shapes. Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet or a sheet lined with parchment paper for a little non-stick cookie insurance, for approximately 8-10 minutes. Leave a good 1” of space between cookies as these spread a fair amount.

Christmas Cookies for Santa

Brandy Prune Turnovers

makes 18 turnovers

60g granulated sugar
125ml brandy or Calvados
250g pitted prunes
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamon
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
45g fresh bread crumbs
450g package frozen all-butter puff pastry
1 egg, well beaten
coarse sugar, for sprinkling

In a small saucepan, add the sugar and brandy and heat over medium-low, stirring occasionally until the sugar has dissolved. Add the prunes and continue to heat for another minute. Remove the pan from the heat, cover and let stand for 20 minutes. Add the spices and bread crumbs and using an immersion blender or food processor, blend everything to form a smooth paste. Cool completely before using.

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Roll the puff pastry out into two equal squares if you’re not lucky enough to have scored some ready-rolled puff pastry. Cut each square into 9 smaller squares and heap about 1 tablespoon of the prune mixture into the centre of each. The filling doesn’t do much in the way of expansion when it’s baked so squeeze as much of the filling in each square as you can, while still managing to seal the edges with some of the beaten egg. Fold over each square to form a triangle and press firmly around the edges to ensure they’re sealed. Place the turnovers on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and stash in the fridge to ensure the pastry remains cold. Right before baking, brush the turnovers with the egg and sprinkle with coarse sugar, then bake for approximately 25 minutes or until puffed and golden brown on top. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Christmas Cookies for Santa