Christmas in November: Make-Ahead Entertaining with Chef Michael Allemeier and Final Thoughts

The whirlwind didn’t stop on our last day at Christmas in November. Mack and I were atypical early risers that morning on the promise of a behind-the-scenes kitchen tour. And even when we discovered that we had been misinformed (no tour had been scheduled on the final day), like dialing 55 for any other need, we were soon met by one of the chefs to make it happen regardless.

Christmas in November

The cooking never stops

It was a quieter time, to be sure, with preparations for the final brunch buffet yet to be underway. Still, the staff we encountered were contributing to the well oiled kitchen machine.

Christmas in November Christmas in November

One man controls all of the alcohol and foodstuffs

We were surprised to learn that the capacity of the hotel dropped so significantly after the departure of the last Christmas in November guests, but in a way, it explains why they pull out all of the stops for the event in what would otherwise be a very slow period.

Christmas in November Christmas in November

How about some stock?

It was a brief peek behind the curtain of a kitchen that did a wonderful job over the course of our stay – bravo!

Christmas in November

And did someone say wine?

Our last session of the weekend was with Chef Michael Allemeier of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. It was obvious that Chef Allemeier was not only comfortable in the teaching role, but excelled at breaking seemingly complex dishes down into a series of manageable steps.

Chef Michael Allemeier

Chef Michael Allemeier

His entertaining philosophy revolved around preparing as much as possible ahead of time. In his ninety minute demonstration, he managed to work through an appetizer, a main course and a dessert. Although each dish was composed of multiple components, most could be made ahead of time and reheated just before serving. A little planning can go a long way!

Unlike some of the other menus we’d encountered over the weekend, Chef Allemeier’s was much more finessed, with restaurant-quality touches and plating suggestions. The fennel-cured salmon with horseradish mousse, creamy beets and pickled quails eggs sounds fussy at first, but it was definitely a starter with a wow factor.

Christmas in November

Fennel-cured salmon with horseradish mousse, creamy beets and pickled quails eggs

Some of his tips:

  • Using previously frozen fish is fine, and even recommended as the idea is to dry out the filet, and in the process of thawing out, it will continue to lose moisture;
  • Keep the skin on, as the layer of fat helps with the development of flavour, and makes it easier to carve;
  • When the fish feels like a medium-rare steak to the touch, it’s done;
  • This process could also be used with halibut, but it will require a few more days.

Chef Allemeier’s recipe for cardamom clove glazed ham with ginger snap crumb was much more familiar, but was paired with a unique twice baked souffle instead of the usual scalloped potato. His trick for hams (the majority of which are already cooked and more easily dried out) is to keep the temperature low and to build a delicious glaze.

Christmas in November

Cardamom clove glazed ham with ginger snap crumb

The blueberry sour cream cake and chantilly sour cream, lemon curd and sponge toffee featured recipes that could be replicated individually and work equally well paired with other sweet endings. Chef Allemeier called the sour cream cake the “unsung cheesecake”, and said that it was a dessert that reminded him of Manitoba.

Christmas in November

Blueberry sour cream cake and chantilly sour cream, lemon curd and sponge toffee

Some tips:

  • By lightly flouring the blueberries before mixing them in the batter, they won’t sink;
  • The cake is even better the next day – let it sit in the fridge overnight before serving.

Chef Allemeier was keen to answer questions all throughout, but never seemed condescending. It was clear he was used to working with audiences who ranged in knowledge and abilities, and even factored in the need for the crowd to snap photos of the final product – each dish was plated, garnished and put forward for the paparazzi.

Thanks to Chef Allemeier for a thorough and informative session; I felt inspired to try at least one of his complex dishes at home!

After the final session, we returned to the main reception hall for our farewell brunch. Talk about overindulgence – in addition to the dozen chafing dishes overflowing with breakfast and lunch favourites, there were omelette and carving stations to choose from.

Christmas in November

Omelette station

It was a good chance to wind down, and enjoy the last meal with those we had befriended over the weekend.

Sharon

My last Christmas in November meal!

As a whole, Christmas in November provided a great opportunity to get away from the city. No question, it’s a luxurious trip, but one that combines learning and food in a wonderful setting. I could see why it has been a formula that has been successful for twenty six years.

Mountain Sheep in Jasper

Wildlife in Jasper

It’s hard to argue against the option of a Friday to Sunday package, especially to accommodate those who could only take one day off work (myself included), but given we only had about two hours of “free time” not spent in sessions or in meals, if we returned, we would definitely opt for a three-day package. It was really only on Sunday afternoon after the last meal that Mack and I had the chance to go for a walk and enjoy the surrounding outdoors.

Jasper

One of the picturesque paths around the Jasper Park Lodge

Based on the current website, and the desire for the event to attract a younger demographic, I’d recommend organizers release a detailed presenter and session list in advance. For those unfamiliar with the quality of the event, it would be difficult to justify the expense without knowing the content of the sessions. Also, the one page in the program that listed the names of the presenters for each of the packages would have been a great summary to refer to online – although information on each presenter was available, it was cumbersome to navigate.

It was also not clear to us beforehand just how much food and drink would be included over the weekend. The evenings featured free flowing alcohol (wine and sponsored spirits), and we were never in want of food. Between the lavish meals and the samples provided in the cooking sessions, it felt like we were eating non-stop. The extent of that value was definitely not apparent in the website description of the packages.

For small parties looking for a joint escape (like many of the ladies groups, stagettes or coworkers we encountered), Christmas in November is a timely way to do so before the season takes over with other engagements. The cost for an individual or couple would definitely have to be weighed against another similarly-priced trip to other destination, but as I’ve described over this series of posts, those who enjoy food and love to entertain will see the value for their dollar.

Christmas in November

Thanks for the memories, Jasper Park Lodge!

Thanks again to Gastropost for sponsoring a lovely weekend, allowing Mack and I to experience the magic of Christmas in November firsthand.

To learn about some of the other Christmas in November sessions, and for more recipes, check out the Gastropost CIN site.

Christmas in November: Cocktails with Bob Blumer and a “Chopped” Reception

Before our gala dinner, we joined a small group inside the clubhouse kitchen for a VIP session with Chef Bob Blumer. Known as the energetic host of shows such as Glutton for Punishment and World’s Weirdest Restaurants, we were hoping Bob’s humour and enthusiasm would come through. In the end, we thought he had planned the perfect cocktail hour session, featuring recipes for both a drink and a nibble.

Bob Blumer

Bob’s caesar twist

Bob’s cocktail of choice was a caesar, made with a lemon vodka and a special rim. For additional kick, Bob recommended using honey and freshly grated horseradish. Mack, who is definitely a caesar fan, gave it a thumbs up.

Bob Blumer

Mack eagerly accepts a taste

For his cheeky shrimp on the bar-b, Bob continued the spicy theme with pan-fried chipotle-rubbed shrimp. Served with a cilantro dipping sauce, it was a tasty one-bite appetizer. And how is the dish related to its name, without reference to a grill, you ask? Simply serve the shrimp accompanied by what else – a Barbie doll.

Christmas in November

Shrimp on the Bar-B

For his final trick, Bob attempted to sabre a bottle of champagne, a trick he had taught fellow presenter Chef Lynn Crawford earlier in the week. Unfortunately, he must have had a faulty bottle, as his several attempts failed. It was a little nerve wracking to watch – a few of us were convinced the bottle would shatter before the end.

Bob Blumer

1…2…3!

Thanks to Bob for a fun start to our Christmas in November evening!

We headed back to the main lodge for the gala dinner. With everybody dressed up, it was a good time for photo ops.

Mack & Sharon

Gorgeous Christmas decorations

Santa was even on hand to make sure adults weren’t left out of the seasonal pose.

Christmas in November

With Diana, Vincci and Brittney (aka the Gastropost crew)

Jasper Park Lodge had pulled out all of the stops, decking out the reception hall in sumptuous linens and holiday colours.

Christmas in November

Gala décor

They had also organized great entertainment. The Willows, a trio based out of Toronto, sang a series of retro-inspired Christmas songs that lent a classic lounge feel to the room.

The Willows

The Willows

Dinner, unfortunately, was a little less consistent than our banquet lunch earlier in the day. The mountain foraged mushroom ravioli was pretty good, topped with braised beef short rib, but the buttermilk brined Alberta pork tenderloin was dry for most around our table (though I recognize tenderloin would be a difficult cut to prepare well for such a large crowd).

Christmas in November

Mountain foraged mushroom ravioli

Christmas in November

Buttermilk brined Alberta pork tenderloin

Dessert was an elegantly presented callebaut milk chocolate cup containing vanilla panna cotta.

Christmas in November

Callebaut milk chocolate cup

Before the dance closed out the evening, guests were treated to an “impromptu” Chopped-style competition, with teams drawn from attendees and presenters.

Christmas in November

Chef Dale MacKay advises his team

Chef Lynn Crawford (dressed as Santa) was the judge, and as the competition progressed, she narrated the proceedings for the crowd’s amusement. As you would guess, it was more than a little chaotic, but I had to respect the contestants. Cooking under the tenure of celebrity chefs isn’t easy, and they did it with good humour and grace under pressure. The winner of the contest was the team led by Charcut Chefs John Jackson and Jessica Pelland (the latter of which has actually won Chopped Canada).

Christmas in November

Chef Corbin Tomaszeski works with his team

A live band came on to close out the night, but Mack, Brittney and I had other ideas. We had spotted a games room in the basement of the lodge, and had time for a few rousing games of air hockey.

Brittney vs. Mack

Brittney vs. Mack

Back in our room for the night, we realized the staff of the hotel had been by for turndown service. It was the first time we’ve experienced this service, and though it wasn’t necessary, the Jacek truffles were a sweet surprise.

Christmas in November

Sweet dreams

It was a fun day full of learning, food and big personalities. We were glad to rest up for the last day of sessions.

Christmas in November: Cooking with Chefs Dale MacKay and Lynn Crawford

The title of this post is a bit of a misnomer, as hands-on cooking with the presenters only seemed to happen incidentally. The focus was on demonstrations, and though in some cases, this was the only way to address a large crowd, in other instances (like with Chef MacKay), they missed an opportunity to offer more tangible learning sessions.

Although I was gunning for Albertan chef Connie DeSousa to win the first season of Top Chef Canada, it wasn’t a surprise that Dale MacKay pulled through in the end. And though his television debut is perhaps still his claim to fame, more recently, his year-old Saskatoon restaurant Ayden placed on EnRoute Magazine’s Best New Restaurants list. I actually didn’t know that Dale had relocated from Vancouver back to his hometown, but its great to hear other “back to the Prairies” stories – Toronto and Vancouver doesn’t have it all!

Unlike some of the other presenters, Dale focused on preparing a single dish of spinach & ricotta ravioli with brown butter sage sauce. This meant he could more thoroughly share his guidelines on fresh pasta dough, forming ravioli, and assembling the final plate.

Chef Dale MacKay

Dale preparing fresh pasta

If I walked away with anything at all from the session, it was how making fresh pasta isn’t all that difficult at all. He recommended making up batches to freeze in smaller single portion servings for quick emergency meals that would take twenty minutes to thaw (enough time to throw together a sauce) and three minutes to cook.

Some of Dale’s pro tips:

  • The gauge if you have the right thickness of pasta for tortellini, pass your hand underneath the dough – if you can see your fingernails, stop rolling.
  • To force the ricotta filling into the end of your piping tube, grasp the top and swing around the bag, rodeo style!
  • Make sure to force all of the air out of the half-moon pasta shapes, to ensure the filling stays in place during cooking.
  • Only use fresh herbs for the sauce – dried herbs will burn. As a bonus, the fried sage can be used as a garnish on the final product.
  • To filter out the brown butter sauce, use a coffee filter – its easier and cheaper than cheesecloth.
  • Toss your cooked pasta together with the sauce in a bowl instead of in the pan – it is gentler on the pasta!

Dale was no doubt one of the more low-key presenters, but his technical knowledge and skills were obvious. At times, I did find that he made assumptions about the audience’s level of understanding, but he was always open to questions and was one of the few presenters to build in a hands-on opportunity to assist (in this instance, with pasta folding). Given his detail-driven nature, it would have lent itself well to workshop-style delivery so attendees could feel the thickness of the pasta, and practice the shaping on an individual basis.

Chef Dale MacKay

Gastropost Alberta Community Manager Brittney Le Blanc (centre) learns how to fold tortellini

After the demonstration, we had the chance to taste the final dish (Dale had brought a total of nine hundred frozen tortellini prepared in the Ayden kitchen along with him to Jasper). The pasta was simple but delicious.

Christmas in November

Spinach & ricotta ravioli with brown butter sage sauce

Dale was gracious enough to pose for a photo at the end of the session. I wish him continued success with Ayden! It’s also worth noting that Chef MacKay will be back in Edmonton in March, as one of the guest chefs at Edmonton’s newest food festival, Northern Lands.

Sharon with Chef Dale MacKay

With Dale (and no, the backdrop isn’t photoshopped!)

From Chef MacKay’s focused session, we transitioned to the other end of the spectrum. Having been invited to Christmas in November with Gastropost, we were also given the chance to attend a VIP session with Chef Lynn Crawford. Billed as the “headliner” of the event, most in the crowd that afternoon seemed to be fans eager for a chance to see Lynn live in person. As a result, I’m not sure the majority of the group minded that it was entertainment, not learning, that dominated the hour.

Chef Lynn Crawford

Cocktail hour with Lynn Crawford

Lynn was an energetic host, and played Pharrell’s “Happy” to lighten the mood. She also invited several audience members to assist her with the demonstration, including the preparation of a modified version of her Pitchin’ In cocktail, a combination of apple and lime juices, rum, carrot puree served in a brown butter-rimmed glass. I wasn’t sure about the carrot, but it seemed to add more colour than flavour.

Christmas in November

Pitchin’ In cocktails

The assembly of her fried chicken with lemon thyme honey (a popular dish at her Toronto restaurant, Ruby Watchco) was scattered, to say the least, and most of the actual cooking took place outside of the room and away from our prying eyes inside the Jasper Park Lodge kitchens. To their credit – we did each end up with a plate of the finished product, with a side of cornbread and slaw to boot.

I will say that Lynn did remarkably well in taking things in stride – when another class paraded into our room, music blaring, without missing a beat, she invited them all to stay for fried chicken. Given the group had just finished up their champagne tasting, she also seized the opportunity to show us a new skill she had gained that week – how to sabre a champagne bottle.

Chef Lynn Crawford

Off with the cork

It was all in good fun, but I will admit, it was a little too much of a whirlwind for me.

Mack and I had a bit of time to change before attending another session just before dinner – they definitely pack it in at Christmas in November!

Christmas in November: Tres Carnales and the Olsons, too

After breakfast, we started off our second day at Christmas in November with Edgar Gutierrez and Dani Braun, two of the three men behind Edmonton’s Tres Carnales and Rostizado. They shared their holiday traditions with the crowd, as a means of providing Mexican-inspired Christmas ideas.

Rostizado

Edgar Gutierrez and Dani Braun

Las Posadas is a nine-day celebration observed in Mexico. Preceding Christmas Day, Dani explained that Las Posadas recreates the experience of Mary and Joseph being turned away. After “actors” dressed as the couple are declined at two residences, they are welcomed into a third home. At that final destination, friends, family and neighbours would then gather and enjoy food and libations, which often would include ponche de frutas (traditional Mexican fruit punch) and tamales.

The ponche de frutas was relatively simple to make, with the only complicating factor being the need to source ingredients at a Latin American supermarket (such as Tienda Latina in Edmonton). The dark ruby colour of the punch was extracted from sorrel flowers (better known as hibiscus), which was described as a more versatile ingredient than I expected – Edgar often adds the hydrated petals into marinades, blends them into vinaigrettes, or adds them into quesadilla fillings. The punch was delicious, with a flavour deeper and richer than seemed possible. Mack especially enjoyed his rum-spiked version!

Christmas in November

Ponche de frutas

Consumed more as a snack than a meal, tamales can be sweet (filled with fruit) or savoury (filled with anything from potatoes to chickpeas or meat). Because they do take time to assemble, Dani and Edgar recommended doing so with others to make enough for the freezer – for them, tamales are a family affair!

Some tips:

  • Take time to soak the corn husks to rehydrate them – don’t be tempted to light them on fire!
  • The corn husks can also be used in place of parchment paper for en papiotte dishes to steam fish or pork.
  • If sourcing dried corn husks are difficult, banana leaves are a good substitute.
  • To determine if the dough mixture is ready – drop a tablespoon of dough in water. If it floats, it’s ready!

If the process sounds daunting, not to worry – Rostizado serves them with salsa roja and queso fresco.

Rostizado

Assembling the tamales

For dessert, the flan de queso was introduced as a great make-ahead dessert, intended to be served cold from the fridge. A cream cheese flan, the velvet-smooth custard was topped with a beautiful caramel, sure to wow your guests.

Christmas in November

Flan de queso

Ever the enthusiastic hosts, the hour or so with Dani and Edgar flew by. It was clear they were both passionate about their food, and were so proud to share some of their family traditions with us. It was a fun way to start off my Christmas in November experience!

There was no question I was most looking forward to seeing Chefs Anna & Michael Olson at Christmas in November. Back when the Food Network featured more cooking than competitions, I loved Anna Olson’s shows Sugar and Fresh with Anna Olson. She always made daunting dishes seem straightforward, even when they weren’t so on paper. I was hoping she was as lovely in person as she seems on TV – as it turns out, she was even sweeter (heh, heh).

I didn’t know much about her husband beforehand, but after watching Michael ham it up on stage, it’s obvious he’s the life of the party. That said, the two together would make great television, playing off one another, telling stories and exchanging bad jokes.

Anna & Michael Olson

Anna & Michael Olson

The theme of their session was a winning menu – because, as Anna mused, “Isn’t Christmas about winning and showing up your sister-in-law?” In conjunction with Alberta Pork, they had developed four recipes ideal for entertaining.

The Olson’s mini pork schnitzel sliders could easily fit on the menu of any upscale casual establishment in Edmonton. Designed as an appetizer which holds (crispy, I might add!) in a warm oven, it would be a definite crowd pleaser for adults and kids alike.

Slices of pork tenderloin were pounded, then seasoned, breaded and fried (make sure to salt and pepper the fillets directly instead of using seasoned flour, to ensure each piece is seasoned well). The schnitzels were then topped with a creamy ranch dressing (which could double as a veggie dip) and served on dinner rolls.

Christmas in November

Mini pork schnitzel sliders

The sliders were so good, Mack ended up eating two!

Christmas in November

Amy and Tiffany enjoy their sliders

Next up, the three most practical tips to come from Anna’s classic tourtiere recipe were:

  1. Make it in a springform pan, making it easier to disengage and serve;
  2. Let your butter sit out for half an hour before making the pastry – it will combine better than ice cold butter; and
  3. Following her pie dough recipe, which, instead of factoring it in negatives (e.g., “don’t put too much water”, “don’t over knead”), she has written it in positives (and for those looking for a gluten-free crust recipe, click here).

The tourtiere can be made ahead and reheated, which would certainly make life easier during the busy holiday season. The final product was stunning, and though I didn’t get a chance to taste it, given how approachable the recipe was, I will definitely try my hand at it this Christmas.

Christmas in November

Classic tourtiere

Michael’s recipe for a brie and cranberry stuffed pork loin with maple onion cream was his alternative to a more standard roast. His method of stuffing the pork was also free from twine, and instead involved making a deep cut inside the loin and spooning the cheese and cranberry mixture in the crevice.

We sampled the finished roast and enjoyed the combination of the moist pork and its creamy centre. For smaller family gatherings this would definitely work well in place of a turkey.

Christmas in November

Brie and cranberry stuffed pork loin

Lastly was Anna’s bacon cheddar shortbread, a recipe she developed specifically for Christmas in November (the gluten-free version substitutes a 1/2 cup of tapioca flour and 1 cup of quinoa flour for the all-purpose). I’m not the keenest baker, but given the ease in which the dough came together in the food processor, I will definitely be trying my hand at these – they would make a great hostess gift!

Anna recommended making and rolling dough in advance, saran wrapping them and labeling them with the name and temperature at which they should be baked. Then, when they’re needed (as a gift or cocktail hour treat), you could simply thaw the dough and bake them off – genius!

Christmas in November

Bacon cheddar shortbread

We had a great time learning and laughing with the Olsons. The couple celebrated their tenth anniversary as Christmas in November presenters this year, and I could see why they’re welcomed back again and again – their warmth and knowledge makes them great ambassadors for Canadian food. I hope they will return next year!

Sharon with the Olsons

Doing “the Olson” with Anna and Michael

If the pork appetizers weren’t enough, the festive luncheon certainly did us over. Banquet meals for several hundred guests are not often executed well, but the kitchen did a fantastic job with lunch. I could have easily had a second bowl of the Twin Meadows red kuri squash soup (I loved the roasted pumpkin seeds incorporated for texture).

Christmas in November

Red kuri squash soup

The salt-brined Alberta free range turkey was equally delicious, served with buttermilk mashed potatoes and a dried fruit stuffing.

Christmas in November

Salt-brined Alberta free range turkey

The pumpkin cheesecake was perhaps a little too deconstructed for most at our table, but was beautifully plated.

Christmas in November

Pumpkin cheesecake

As full as we were, an afternoon nap wasn’t an option – we had several more sessions to attend before finishing up the learning portion of the day.

Christmas in November: The Welcome

I’ve been eyeing Christmas in November for the last few years, but because of the steep cost, I knew we’d have to save for it like any other vacation. And given just returned from our honeymoon in October, this year was a write-off. Enter Gastropost, who, through Postmedia (I am a part of the Gastropost Advisory Board), granted Mack and I the opportunity to attend as their guests, in exchange for documenting the weekend. We jumped at the opportunity, and away we went to the final package November 14-16, 2014. Although Mack and I have been to the mountains together before, this was our first trip to Jasper. We were looking forward to the fresh air, wildlife, and of course,  Christmas in November itself!

Christmas in November

Jasper

The moment we rolled into the Jasper Park Lodge, we felt immediately welcomed. All of the staff were eager to help and made sure we were well taken care of. We were eventually directed into our room – although I had expected a facility similar to the chateau-like Fairmont Banff Springs, I quickly realized this Fairmont property was made up of a sprawling complex of cozy cabins. Luckily, our cabin was located a stone’s throw away from the main lodge.

Christmas in November

Our cabin

We joined Brittney Le Blanc, Alberta Gastropost manager, and the rest of the “VIPs” in a pre-reception, and had a chance to meet some of the other attendees and presenters. It was nice to see some Edmonton representation (curiously, in Jasper, both Edmonton and Calgary talent were referred to as “local” presenters, I suppose to differentiate from the chefs visiting from other parts of Canada). It seems the majority of attendees were from Edmonton, though a smaller percentage make the trek from Calgary and the rest of the province.

Christmas in November

With Jacqueline Jacek

Upstairs at the welcome reception, the line-up of presenters were then introduced. It was clear that this was the kind of conference where rubbing elbows with these celebrity chefs was not only permitted, but encouraged.

Anna & Michael Olson

Anna and Michael Olson had fun with the camera

Surveying the attendee demographic, we were surprised with the range. We had been told to expect a large number of mature attendees, and mostly women. And although that was true for the majority, Brittney confirmed that this was the most diverse group she’d seen yet, in terms of age and gender.

Christmas in November

Mack (in front of an edible gingerbread house) wasn’t as outnumbered as he thought

After the brief program, we had access to unlimited food and drink. This included a few signature cocktails, such as the strawberry shortcake martini and a peppermint eggnog.

The Fairmont kitchen had prepared an amazing array of tastes, served at stations around the ballroom.

Christmas in November

Reception

We had fun sampling more than a dozen dishes, with Brittney providing us with helpful recommendations (it was her third buffet, as she had been there for the previous two packages). She pointed us to the poutine bar(!), which featured butter chicken sauce and braised short ribs. The flavour and heat level in the butter chicken gravy was particularly tasty, but it could have been warmer.

Christmas in November

Poutine

That was perhaps our one criticism of the buffet – most of the dishes just weren’t served at the ideal temperature, or, in some cases, had languished under heat lamps. There were a few exceptions to this, which elicited several return trips. The raclette – melty Oka cheese – was simple but decadent.

Christmas in November

Raclette

My favorite dish of the night was the mushroom risotto, made fresh throughout the evening, and served in a carved out parmesan wheel.

Christmas in November

Why yes, I’ll have seconds

Desserts were also a part of the evening, even though we were already more than full. The mincemeat pies were delicious, while Mack enjoyed his pumpkin and blueberry tart.

Christmas in November

Pumpkin and blueberry tarts

We weren’t ones to close out the reception, as we knew we’d have an early start the next morning. We were looking forward to what the presenters had to offer!