As a child growing up in the eastern US, one of my favorite holiday moments was Christmas morning, when I could rise early—often before the sun—and rip into my presents. So the first Christmas I spent with my French Canadian husband’s family came as quite a shock to me. You see, they didn’t open their presents until after Christmas dinner. Now, I was an adult by then, and I’d learned some patience, but still…
What about the children? How can anyone possibly expect them to wait all day to open their presents? I mean, they’re just there, under the tree, in all that pretty packaging with bright shiny bows, saying, “Open me, open me, open me.” It’s cruel and unusual, I tell you!
Not only did they have to wait until after Christmas dinner, dinner was served late and it took a long time to get through all that food. Bottles of wine had to be finished. Often uncles and aunts who lived nearby would stop in for dessert.
And oh, the dessert. At my mother-in-law’s house, you could gauge the importance of a meal by how may desserts she served. At Christmas you could count on at least five: always the classic Yule log, a fruit salad, some kind of pie or other, a selection of home-made cookies on a fancy plate, her home-made fudge and sucre à la crème on another fancy plate. And that wasn’t counting the inevitable box of chocolates she’d break out at some point during the evening, usually after presents and just before everyone settled in with their favorite drink to play cards until 4 or 5 AM.
This bounty was brought out after we were all groaning from the main courses, mind you. Usually always turkey, but in Quebecois households, Christmas dinner never stops with the turkey. It’s usually one of two main courses. Depending on your household, that second course is either tourtière or ragoût de boulettes.
At my mother-in-law’s, we had tourtière. This is a savory meat pie. Recipes vary by family. It’s one of those things were everyone has their own variation, which, naturally, is better than everyone else’s. Some make it with a combination of ground pork and veal. Others swear by pork alone. And don’t try to argue about whether a proper tourtière contains potatoes or not—a fight might break out. In some regions, the tourtière recipe gets so elaborate, it’s made with layers of meat, including hare or partridge or whatever other game you might have on hand.
Unfortunately, I can’t give you my mother-in-law’s recipe for tourtière. She guards it jealously.
Ragoût de boulettes is a meatball stew. This isn’t fancy eating by any means, but it’s darned good, so people eat it at Christmas anyway. Made of ground pork, the meatballs are spiced with cinnamon and cloves and simmered in gravy. Nice, hearty fare to face the Canadian winter.
I actually made this the other night (minus the turkey and all the trimmings) for a regular supper.
Ragoût de Boulettes (Meatball stew)
This makes a lot, so you’re sure to have leftovers.
2 lbs ground pork
1 C finely chopped onion
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
1 tablespoon parsley flakes
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 C plain bread crumbs
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 C chicken broth
½ C flour
¾ C cold water
Mix pork together with onion, seasonings eggs and breadcrumbs. Form into about 30 meatballs. In a Dutch oven, heat the oil and brown the meatballs. You might have to do this in batches. When brown, add the broth and simmer for 30 minutes (or more—the point is to cook the meatballs through, but I don’t think it hurts them to simmer longer if you want). Pour the flour into a skillet (just flour, nothing else) and heat over medium, stirring frequently until the flour is a nice caramel color. This is farine grille and it’s used often in Quebec cuisine as a thickener. Place with the cold water in a jar with a tight fitting lid and shake until well mixed. Pour slowly into simmering stew, stirring constantly, until the gravy thickens. Simmer about 10 minutes more, and you’re done.
- 2 lbs ground pork
- 1 C finely chopped onion
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground cloves
- 1 tablespoon parsley flakes
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 2/3 C plain bread crumbs
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 6 C chicken broth
- ½ C flour
- ¾ C cold water
- Mix pork together with onion, seasonings eggs and breadcrumbs. Form into about 30 meatballs.
- In a Dutch oven, heat the oil and brown the meatballs. You might have to do this in batches.
- When brown, add the broth and simmer for 30 minutes (or more—the point is to cook the meatballs through, but I don’t think it hurts them to simmer longer if you want).
- Pour the flour into a skillet (just flour, nothing else) and heat over medium, stirring frequently until the flour is a nice caramel color. This is farine grille and it’s used often in Quebec cuisine as a thickener.
- Place with the cold water in a jar with a tight fitting lid and shake until well mixed. Pour slowly into simmering stew, stirring constantly, until the gravy thickens.
- Simmer about 10 minutes more, and you’re done.
Sucre à la crème is very similar to fudge without the chocolate. When I explained what it was to my very American mom, she said it sounds like something her mother made called brown sugar fudge. Done right, it has a very smooth, creamy texture, but it’s definitely for people who have a sweet tooth.
Sucre à la Crème
1 C white sugar
1 C brown sugar, packed
2/3 C light cream (10% fat, or coffee cream)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tsp vanilla
In a small pan with a thick bottom, mix the sugar, brown sugar and cream. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Boil without stirring until a candy thermometer reads 236°F. Remove from heat. Add butter and vanilla without stirring and let cool until the candy thermometer reads 110°F (about 45 mins).
Using a hand mixer, beat for 3-5 minutes or until the mixture starts to thicken and lost its shine. Don’t skimp on this step. It’s the key to your candy’s smooth, creamy texture. At this point, you can add chopped nuts if you like, but I’ve mostly had this candy without nuts. Spread mixture into a buttered 8 X 4-inch bread pan. Using the point of a knife, trace the outlines to make 32 squares. Refrigerate for an hour or until firm. Cut into squares using a sharp knife.
Yum! It’ll keep for about 2 days in an airtight container at room temperature (if it lasts that long) or 2 weeks in the fridge (yeah, like it won’t be gone way before then) or 2 months in the freezer (as long as you forget it’s there).
P.S. By the time my husband and I got around to having kids, we let ours open their presents from us on Christmas morning. And then when they got to grandmaman’s, she let them open theirs early. Not so cruel and unusual, after all.
Joyeux Noël! What are some of the Christmas traditions in your household?