Throughout November Shelly has been featuring recipes from across Canada. She began in British Columbia, where she now lives. Last week she wrote about the prairies, where she was raised.  This week she asked me to guest post, since my family is originally from Southern Ontario before we headed west to BC. We love the west coast, but still cherish our French Canadian heritage, especially the tradition of serving our family’s version of tortière for Christmas.

I’ve met people from many different ethnicities and religions and each one has its own traditions. Often these traditions involve a fabulous food favourite. Like many French Canadian families,  our tradition is to serve tortière, a spicy meat pie, at Christmas dinner. This year marked the eleventh year that pie day took place in my home. Before that, my parents made the tortière for the family from memory; nothing had ever been written down. They had watched their parents make the pies, and replicated that process each year. About fifteen years ago my wife was determined to get a written copy, so we participated in pie day, making careful, detailed notes on each dash of pepper, and sprinkle of sage. Ever since we have followed that recipe. When my dad passed away in 2003, my mom joined forces with us to cook all of the pies for the big Christmas feast. Now that my wife too has passed, it is just my two teenagers, my mom and me keeping the tradition alive.

Usually we make the pies on Remembrance Day, and freeze them. My mom would come over in the morning, we’d watch the ceremony from Vancouver on television and observe the minute of silence for those who gave their lives for our country. Then we would spend the next eight or nine hours cooking. This year, my son was participating in a concert on Remembrance Day so we rescheduled and made the pies on Saturday the ninth instead.

We look forward to this day all through the fall so when it arrives we really make it special. I usually begin by making banana muffins for breakfast. They only take about 10 minutes to prepare and are really good with a cup of coffee in the morning. For the kids this year, I made a pancake breakfast, with homemade strawberry syrup. My kids don’t get pancakes often—I don’t like them. Whenever I break down and make pancakes, I take a few extra minutes to prepare this syrup. It’s really easy, and much better for them than store bought.

Strawberry syrup

1 to 1 ½ cups of fresh strawberries
1 tablespoon of sugar
½ cup cold water

Clean and slice the strawberries, and place in pan with the water. Bring to a boil for a few minutes until pink foam covers the top. Skim off the foam and discard it down the sink. I usually repeat this boiling and skimming a couple of times. After about 10 minute of boiling, strain the strawberry pulp, keeping the liquid. Return to the stove and reduce for about five minutes. Add sugar gradually to taste—the actual amount will depend on the sweetness of the berries and how sweet you prefer to have the syrup.

Banana Muffins

Ingredients: 1 egg beaten
3 ripe bananas
1/3 cup melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ½ cups flour
½ cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2/3 cup chocolate chips

Directions:
Mix wet and dry ingredients separately, then add the wet to the dry. Stir to combine, but don’t over do it. Distribute into 12 baking cups and bake for 20 minutes in 350 degree oven (just until they are brown on top.) These muffins always work out and taste really good. On pie day they help hold off our hunger, which would otherwise build as the house becomes filled with the spicy aroma of tortière.

 

 


The actual ingredients for the tortière are pretty basic:

Ingredients: 10 lbs ground beef and 4 lbs ground pork
4 lbs onions
1 whole celery heart
5 lbs potatoes
Spices: (these measures are mere guidelines as the taste will determine if more or less is needed.)
3-4 tablespoons each garlic salt, salt, pepper, sage

Directions:

1/2 cup poultry seasoning

I picked up the meat on the morning of pie day. Although our recipe uses beef and pork, there are many variations across the country. My butcher, Cory at Meridian Meats in Maple Ridge, says that his family is from New Brunswick and their recipe came from his grandmother, and only uses veal.

Put the meat in a prepared pot – I use a very large cast iron pot, preheat it, then coat the base and sides with oil. Once the oil is hot I add the meat. Preparing the pot properly ensures that the meat will not stick: it’s not fool-proof, but it does keep sticking to a minimum.  You could also use a large non-stick pot if you wanted.

The meat will cook on medium heat for at least half-an-hour to be thoroughly brown. At that point we start adding the vegetables. The onions, celery and potatoes are cleaned (we don’t peel the potatoes) and roughly cut. These are chopped fine in a food processor. I don’t use this machine too often, but it is invaluable when you have a job like this one. I highly recommend getting one of these, especially if you have to finely chop a large amount of vegetables.

The vegetable are added to the meat and mixed well. I add about 1/3 of the spices at this point and let it simmer for an hour before adding another 1/3.  The mixture has to be stirred every twenty minutes or so. We usually have a lot of time to catch up with my mom, play some music or watch a movie together. This year, my mom and kids read some of the great articles on our blogs, including the French counterpart to this blog. They are all very musical and especially enjoyed reading the music articles about guitars.

After a few hours we tasted and added more spices as needed. It always takes time to get the taste to be just perfect. The final flavour is balanced, with the pepper and sage dancing pleasantly on the back corners of your mouth after you swallow.

Once the meat filling is correctly spiced, we begin to make the pie shells and build the pies. My dad was always in charge of making the pie shells, and that role has fallen to me. Some people say you need cold hands for the shells to consistently turn out well, and I guess I inherited this from my dad, since I never struggle with this process. I don’t follow his methods though: he used a food processor to mix the dough, I use my hands.

I follow the standard Tenderflake pie recipe, not too concerned with exact measurements, preferring to rely on the look and feel of the dough to know when to stop adding liquid to the flour-shortening-salt base. Each box of shortening yields about five 8-inch pies, tops and bottoms. These go in the oven at 350 degrees for about a half-hour, until lightly browned.

We always enjoy one pie for dinner on pie day. The pie we chose this year was baked in a special Wilton Excelle Elite Tart Pan that I brought home from work to test (Best Buy has a selection of baking pans online). The base separates from the sides, sort of like a spring-form pan. The sides are nicely fluted too, as you can see in the picture.

We ended up with 15 pies this year (as shown in the image at the top, plus the one shown here, which we ate.) Some years we get more, some less. They are all accounted for, with a few going to long time friends. Most of them will stay in the freezer until Christmas Eve.

Leave a comment if you have a traditional meal that you prepare weeks in advance, or if your family’s tortière is a lot different from mine?