25 Gifts of Taste: A #yegfood Gift Guide

We’re just over two weeks away from Christmas, if you can believe it! I’m typically the type that squirrels away gifts all year, so I’m not usually in a panic at this point, but I know there are many who leave things to the last minute. But – if anyone on your list loves food, you’re in luck, as there are so many locally-sourced options available.

A basket of goodies we put together a few years ago

Here are some ideas to consider:

Stock Up the Pantry

A little can go a very long way, and for me, that often means taking the time to put together a gift basket filled with my favourite items from local producers. Some of those include:

  • Gold Forest Grains has gift-ready bags of some of their most popular products, including their Pancake Mix and Sturgeon River Cereal. Find them at the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market every Saturday.
  • Irvings Farm Fresh is no longer a well-kept secret in Edmonton – more than a dozen restaurants including Tzin and Canteen serve their products, and their bacon is legendary. Pick up an Irvings gift certificate to treat a loved one to some quality meat (available at the Salisbury Greenhouse and Old Strathcona Farmers’ Markets).
  • Allan Suddaby started his labour of love, McKernan Food Works, earlier this year, but they’ve already launched two products: apple cider and mead vinegars. You can find them at Little Brick, which will provide you with a great excuse to visit the café and general store for yourself.
  • Also at Little Brick, pick up something sweet from the Red Balloon Pie Company. They have seasonal caramels in festive flavours like egg nog and gingerbread!

Stock up the Bar

For the amateur bartender, there are a few local options to help progress the festivities:

  • Eau Claire Distillery, Alberta’s first craft distillery, offers vodka and gin for the discerning palate. For the holidays, they have also produced a special Christmas Gin, featuring the botanicals of frankincense and myrrh.
  • It seems bitters are sold at every kitchen and food specialty shop, but only one is made locally: State Motto. Their handcrafted products include Earl Grey, lilac and orange bitters.
  • There are a number of local fruit wines available from the Edmonton region, including Shady Lane Estate, and Barr Estate Winery.

For Those Who Love to Cook

There is no shortage of cooking classes and cookbooks for those seeking some tips or inspiration in the kitchen:

  • Gail Hall of Seasoned Solutions began the original series of farm-to-table cooking classes, but she offers so much more, including ideas for entertaining and menus based around holidays. Pick up a gift certificate for one of her hands-on classes or express cooking tutorials.
  • Kathryn Joel’s Get Cooking features an array of guest chefs who specialize in global cuisines. The classes are held at a brand new facility at MacEwan University. It doesn’t look like the 2016 calendar is up just yet, but you can pick up a gift certificate for classes that start at $139 per person.
  • For more topic-specific classes or basic skills, consider Metro Continuing Education. They have a great selection of sessions, including knife skills, an introduction to sushi making, and bread making. Courses start at $89.
  • Calgary food tour operator Karen Anderson released her first cookbook, co-written with Noorbanu Nimji. A Spicy Touch features 200 Indian recipes in a full colour 320 page book. Join Karen at the Edmonton launch of the book on December 20, 2015.

Tableware and More

There are some local gems that can help you add some class – or some fun – to the kitchen of someone you love:

  • On Our Table makes some of the most beautiful cheese and cutting boards I’ve ever seen, and have even been featured in Bon Appetit Magazine. They are showstoppers, and worth the investment.
  • The mugs from Mod Pots Ceramics are well-used in my house – I love their classic but playful design, and the fact that they are the perfect size for a warm drink in the winter.
  • Everyone needs a bit more #yeg: this can be in the form of a screen-printed tea towel with images of our most cherished landmarks, including the Hotel Macdonald and the Alberta Legislature. Find these at Fine Mesh.

The Gift of Taste

We’re very fortunate in Edmonton to have some very knowledgeable and passionate food experts who are eager to share their learnings. Here are a few of them:

  • The Cavern on 104 Street hosts a Cheese School that teaches the basics of cheese varieties and wine pairings. Tickets are $75, with two upcoming sessions on January 17 and 31, 2016.
  • Transcend Coffee leads a number of coffee education sessions, including a coffee tasting and appreciation, a pour over basics workshop and a French press and Aeropress workshop.
  • I’ve attended a number of chocolate tastings put on by Jacek Chocolate Couture, and have enjoyed each one. Unfortunately, they don’t have any of their 2016 dates up just yet, but I’m hopeful they’ll have some tickets for sale in time for the holidays.

Gifts That Keep on Giving

Who says Christmas can’t be year-round, or at least prolonged? Choose a membership-based gift to bring cheer for a few more months of the year:

  • Farrow’s Bean Club is great for coffee connoisseurs. Every month, members are introduced to beans from a new roaster, some offered exclusively to club members and never put into Farrow’s rotation. Every 3, 6 or 12 month membership even comes with a free mug! Memberships start at $82.50. Transcend Coffee also has a similar subscription club, with beans roasted in-house.
  • Beer lovers in Edmonton flock to Sherbrooke Liquor, which has an incredibly extensive inventory of beers. But did you know they have a Beer Club, which entitles members to a monthly selection of beers and 10% discount off all beers for the duration of the membership? 3 month terms start at $175.
  • Sugared and Spiced’s Cake Club is perhaps most unique subscription in Edmonton. For $195, members are entitled to 3 cakes for pre-arranged dates through the year, with delivery included for those within city limits. Never be caught empty handed on special occasions again!
  • Who doesn’t love cheese? Cavern’s Cheese Club would be sure to please, with subscriptions starting at $55/month for a selection of cheese and a preserve accompaniment.
  • For a more practical gift, consider a grocery delivery service like The Organic Box or SPUD to make it more convenient for a loved one over the winter months.

Give Back to Those in Need

Many in our community go without at Christmas, so it’s also worth considering investing your gift in a charitable organization spreading cheer at this time of year:

  • The Christmas Bureau is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and with the economic downturn, expects to serve 67,000 Edmontonians this year. You can make a monetary donation of any amount, or donate a hamper for a senior or a family.
  • The Bissell Centre released their annual holiday gift guide, and you can provide meals to the homeless, the working poor, and young ones in their childcare centre.
  • Back again to bare all for a good cause, the 2016 Sexy Men of YEG Food calendar features over a dozen local personalities who posed in good fun to help raise funds for the Edmonton Food Bank. Last year, the calendar raised $19,500!

Happy Holidays!

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: 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!

Shop Local 2012: Favourite Gifts to Give or Get

If you are like Mack, you probably won’t think about holiday shopping until approximately December 22, but if you are like me, you are probably starting to feel that creeping feeling of stress that seems to go hand in hand with this time of the year.

Although I recognize that the holidays are about more than material goods, the reality for most of us is that we want to show our loved ones how much we appreciate them with a thoughtfully-chosen gift.

So in honour of Shop Local First Month, I’ve again compiled some gift recommendations from local personalities. I hope you find their answers to the question below as helpful as I have!

What is your favourite locally-purveyed item to give or get?

Mary Bailey, Publisher of The Tomato

CococoWe are fortunate to have several top-notch chocolateries in Edmonto: Cococo, Sweet Lollapalooza, Chocolate Exquisite, Chocophilia bars, Peter Johner and Jacek. But, if I had to pick only one sweet gift it would be the chocolate-covered cherries by Cococo. The combination of high-quality dark chocolate with spirity syrup surrounding the slightly chewy cherry on the stem is a seasonal favourite. Fresh BC Bing cherries are shipped from the Okanagan in season, then immersed in brandy for about two months. The spiked cherries are dipped in fondant, followed by a coating of Cococo couverture chocolate. During the curing, the brandy dissolves the fondant, leaving the cherry surrounded by sweet and mellow brandy. Delish!

Edmonton-based research and development chef Brad Smoliak has introduced an addictive condiment called Bacon by Brad — a sweet/savoury blend of bacon made from Alberta-raised pork, onions, maple syrup and spices, similar in texture to a jam or marmalade. Slather on a burger, layer puff pastry for a quick and easy hors d’oeuvre, or eat it on your toast. Find it on the deli counter at Save-On Foods, and at kitchenbybrad.ca.

Amy Shostak, Artistic Director of Rapid Fire Theatre

One Christmas, my baba asked for a corn broom to sweep the snow. I searched high and low, and finally found some from the Holden Colony at the Old Strathcona Farmers Market. Their brooms are seriously sturdy, with some old-school charm (not to mention the vendor asked me if I was a witch and needed it to fly away). They also have beautiful deerhide mittens for sale, and I picked some up for my Dad.

I have an awesome hand-dyed bag from Veekee Workshop (artist Victoria Wiercinski) that I found at The Royal Bison Art and Craft Fair. It is practical, yet flashy, and I think any of her hand-dyed objects are beautiful gifts to give and to get.

Ed Fong, owner of deVine Wines and Spirits

Being a person who loves and appreciates food, cooking and wine, I tend to surround myself with people who share the same passion. So, I would gladly give or happily accept gift certificates from the following locally owned businesses:

Tops on my list would be sending someone or dining at Corso 32. Just the thought of sinking my teeth into one of Chef Daniel Costa’s arancini filled with mushrooms, fontina cheese and red cabbage is enough to bring me closer to heaven. Second on my list is a trip to the Red Ox Inn for their decadent pork belly appetizer followed by the bacon wrapped pork loin. Double pork!

For the people on my list looking for cool kitchen supplies, I would give them a chance to check out my friends at Call the Kettle Black. I would send cookbook lovers over to the shelves of Audrey’s Books.

Food would not be the same without bottles of great wine. Hate to blow my own horn, but I’d send all my wine loving friends over to see me at deVine Wines & Spirits. We can help you find some great vino to pair with your special meal, cool beers and premium spirits.

Bruce Bevan, Economic Development Officer with the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation

DeVine'sYou should never give what you wouldn’t be happy to get and you can never go wrong with good food or wine. The Italian Centre in Little Italy is part of my regular Saturday morning shopping routine and the Beemster’s Extra-Aged Gouda is to die for; a great gift to go with port during those cold winter evenings. deVine Wines and Spirits (which is located in my favourite part of Edmonton – 104 Street downtown) is where I purchase my holiday libations and my latest discovery is a Portuguese Sparkling Rosé called Fita Preta “Sexy”; goes great with turkey.

Jeanie Andronyk, Co-organizer of The Royal Bison and metalsmith

I always recommend The Royal Bison for unique gifts (natch) but there are a billion awesome places all around Edmonton. You can never go wrong with music. Listen Records has everything for even the pickiest of music lovers; most of which you can buy on vinyl. Sweets are also a win, so if someone you love has a sweet tooth, buy them some roasted coconut marshmallows from Duchess Bakery. For the minimalist who is not a fan of presents, I recommend going to Padmanadi‘s Vegetarian Restaurant for a delicious I-can’t-even-tell-it’s-not-actually-meat treat!

Graham Hicks, Weekly Dish Columnist for the Edmonton Sun

Christmas drives me a little nuts as I don’t like shopping but like to give useful, meaningful gifts to the special people in my life, but can never think of a useful, meaningful gift to give.

Solution: Buy a bunch of one or two cute little gifties, to which can be attached gift certificates for favourite, locally-owned, community-minded restaurants (I’d send anybody to Tzin, Dadeo’s, Parkallen or New Asian Village).

For cute little gifties in the $10 to $15 range, I head to farmer’s markets for inspiration, or gift shops at public institutions like The Art Gallery of Alberta, Muttart, Royal Alberta Museum or TELUS World of Science.

I’m thinking this year of small bottles of gourmet oils, specialty salts or unusual vinegars – from Evoolution, Italian Centre, high-end canola from Mighty Trio or truffle oil from Mo-Na, Sunterra or Planet Organic. That’s the kind of gift I like to get!

Janis Galloway, Fashion Blogger

One of the best gifts I ever received was a custom-made dress from local designer Bridget Smatlan of Fridget Apparel. It was a truly thoughtful present that allowed me to be included in the process of making something I absolutely cherish today. It wasn’t just an item, it was an experience too. This is great gift idea for the real fashionista in your life and a fabulous way to support local entrepreneurs.

I also love perusing the local craft/artisan markets that are plentiful this time of year. The Royal Bison is my fave and great for finding made-with-love gifts such as the beautiful crocheted scarves of The Pretty Knotty Sweatshoppe, uniquely flavoured treats from Heritage Baked Goods (perfect for the vegan in your life), and the charmingly crafted jewelry and vintage finds of Chaos and the Dark.

Happy Shopping!

Brittney Le Blanc, Capital Ideas Community Champion and all-around superwoman!

When I’m shopping for friends, I really try and embrace the November Shop Local trend! If you need some sassy cards and unique items, look no further than The Artworks, which I’m lucky to be located close to for work. Know someone who likes to display photos, send mail, journal, or more? Notables is the greatest when it comes to stationary. Know someone who likes kitchen supplies? You really can’t go wrong with Call The Kettle Black. Hop across the parking lot to the Tin Box on High Street for two floors of jewellery, funky hats, awesome toys for children and adult children in your life and some great Christmas decor as well! Looking for more knick knacks or home decor? You should cross the street and talk to the ladies at Henry’s Purveyor of Fine Things. Have a geeky friend? Stop by Wizards Comics on 109 Street and talk to Brandon. He can find a comic for anyone. You’ll also find a great selection of board games too! Although, if you have a really big board game fanatic I suggest heading to Mission Fun and Games in St. Albert – as an added bonus, their new location looks like a castle. And if you want to find unique items from local Edmontonians – head to The Carrot on Alberta Avenue. Grab a warm drink and look through the jewelry, crafts, and artistic works – and on November 24th they’re having an Arts Bazaar from 9:30 – 4:30pm. I realize I have listed a lot of places, but if you’re like me there aren’t very many one-stop-shops for your variety of gift-giving needs. Luckily, there’s a whole month left before the holiday arrives.

2012 Christmas on the Square Holiday Light Up

The weather was actually pretty cooperative for Saturday’s Christmas on the Square, with temperatures holding out at a very reasonable –5C. It was a far cry from last year’s event, where the crowd was all dancing to keep warm.

Holiday Light-Up on the Square 2012

Crowds gather

There were several vendors on hand to round out the festivities. It was good to see Big City Sandwich and Eva Sweet, but the biggest line was easily awarded to the mini doughnut trailer (I have to say I consider mini doughnuts a summer food, but given the salivating crowds, perhaps the WinterCity Strategy should specifically name this treat as a method of drawing crowds outdoors).

Holiday Light-Up on the Square 2012

Big City Sandwich

A new addition to the program this year was Booming Tree, a Japanese drumming duo. Although their act was mostly only tangentially related to the holidays (festive lights around the drums can only go so far), I really enjoyed their act. It was a pleasant change from the usual Christmas music.

Holiday Light-Up on the Square 2012

Here’s Santa

Speaking of music, when Mayor Stephen Mandel eventually retires, he should become a stage crooner. He was more than comfortable with the microphone in his hand, belting out a carol to welcome Santa to the city.

Though it has been a few years since they brought out the giant switch that “turns on” the lights on the Christmas tree, I kind of miss that over-the-top kitsch. Still, it’s also nice to be a part of a group to collectively marvel over the lovely displays.

Holiday Light-Up on the Square 2012

And it’s on!

As usual, the fireworks were timed to music, emphasizing style over the quantity of poppers. I’ve said this before many times, but I really wish other fireworks shows took a cue from this production – it is always so much more enjoyable than a seemingly random smattering of sparklers.

Holiday Light-Up on the Square 2012

Fireworks!

The tree will be lit until early January – so even if you missed the light up, you have several weeks to pay it a visit.

Holiday Light-Up on the Square 2012

Christmas is near…

Kudos to the organizers for another great event!

A Christmas Fête at the Queen of Tarts

We’re nearly a month away from Christmas, and with American Thanksgiving now out of the way, I think it’s now appropriate to pull out the decorations to start making merry at home. It was also perfect timing for a Christmas fête at the Queen of Tarts.

Queen of Tarts

Sparking wine and sparkling lights

There’s a lot to celebrate at the Queen of Tarts – this will be their first Christmas at the storefront, and the space will allow the Queen of Tarts to have a greater selection of pantry gifts (including a special Greek olive oil called Parthena – pure and cold-pressed, a sample yielded a light, fruity quality, and a flavour that made it good enough to drink). They will even be putting together baskets to make it easy for the harried shopper!

Queen of Tarts

Gifts for the pantry

Queen of Tarts

Parthena Greek olive oil

The cafe is also kicking off regular dinner service on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights starting on December 1st. And of course, special seasonal items will now start to appear in the bakery cases!

Queen of Tarts

All decked out for the holidays

This evening’s open house was intended as a showcase for these delights, an opportunity to sample both sweet and savoury treats that will be offered over the next few weeks.

Queen of Tarts

The Queen herself, Linda Kearney

Alongside a glass of sparkling wine, we were invited to try nearly ten different delectable desserts and appetizers that any hostess would be proud to serve. Among the more traditional sweets were mincemeat tarts, fruitcake and stollen (the latter was already packaged and ready for patrons to pick up).

Queen of Tarts

Fruitcake and mincemeat tarts

Queen of Tarts

Stollen

The palmiers, a delicate savoury cookie made from buttery puff pastry, simply melted in my mouth. The olive tapenade was a sophisticated addition. As well, mini brioche buns stuffed with mushroom duxelle were also a new item, a wonderful two-bite hors d’oeuvre with the earthiness of the mushrooms (I loved that the shallots retained their crunch) and a touch of sweetness.

Queen of Tarts

Palmiers

Queen of Tarts

Mini brioche buns and Mack’s favourite gougères

One cannot pass up the dessert tray at the Queen of Tarts, and tonight was no exception. The sinfully rich brownies are always a crowd favourite, but the seasonal gingerbread Bundt cakes held their own. I’m not much of a ginger fan, but I enjoyed them, won over by their moist and fragrant interior.

Queen of Tarts

Thunder brownies

Queen of Tarts

Gingerbread Bundt cakes

A big change is coming though – as you may have heard, the Queen of Tarts had organized a contest earlier this fall to help them pick a new name. Linda has finally settled on “Dauphine”, which is the French term for the Queen in waiting. Look for a launch of their new identity soon.

Thanks again to Linda and her staff for hosting the festive open house – it definitely helped get me in the mood for Christmas!

Queen of Tarts Bakery & Bistro
10129 104 Street
(780) 421-4410
Tuesday -Friday 9am-7pm, Saturday 8am-6pm

Christmas on the Square Holiday Light Up 2009

I’ve been looking forward to the Holiday Light Up celebration for a while – with a fireworks show actually choreographed to music, and warmer temperatures than on New Year’s Eve, I wonder why it isn’t the city’s most popular event. And with family-friendly activities precluding the light-up, in addition to City Centre Market vendors, it makes for a great few hours spent in the core.

Christmas carollers on stage

Sleigh rides around City Hall were pretty popular with the children, and the Art Gallery of Alberta had a tent promoting their new logo and grand opening in January 2010. We also checked out the vendors on hand (whose heated tents were better spaced out this year).

Inside the Art Gallery of Alberta tent

Mack as Vanna White

At 5pm, everyone readied for the grand finale – two children, alongside Mayor Mandel and Santa Claus, flipped a giant light switch to power up the Christmas lights. The tree, from Whitecourt, AB, stands at sixty feet, and this year, features animated icicle lights that make it appear as if snow is falling from the tree – pretty neat.

The crowd for the main event

Ready for the light-up

All lit up

The light switch that made it happen

The fireworks that followed were fantastic as expected, with flares and sparks released in time to cymbals crashing and trumpets blaring. If you haven’t yet experienced the show, I would encourage you to attend next year.

Fireworks!

Notably missing this year were the small Bright Nights displays that have been a fixture on the Square during the holiday season for the past few years. I guess the cancellation of the Hawrelak Park Bright Nights also meant the necessary retiring of all related decorations. The few inflatable displays they had on the east side of the Square really weren’t the same.

I’m counting down the days to Christmas already, but this was a great event to help kick off the season!

You can see Mack’s photo set here.

The Cooking Chronicles: Pulled Pork Sandwiches and Affogato

While I can’t take credit for making Christmas dinner, I did plant the idea into my Mum’s head of using the slow cooker this year. A recipe for Pulled Pork Sandwiches in the most recent edition of Inspired by Compliments magazine caught my eye; I loved the idea of minimal effort to produce the evening meal.

As we didn’t have the recommended smoky applewood sauce on hand, my Mum substituted a bottle of barbeque sauce, which worked just as well. To accompany the meat, she made buns with the dough left over from the batch of breadsticks she had made the night prior – yum! Though the meat was a touch on the dry side, a heaping tablespoon of the generated onion-laced sauce flavoured the sandwich nicely. She served the sandwiches with roasted squash and sautéed mushrooms, but any type of roasted vegetables or even tossed salad would have made a fine side dish.

Pulled Pork Sandwich on a Homemade Bun

My Mum asked me to take care of dessert, but due to my lack of pre-planning, we didn’t have any cream in the fridge necessary to make crème brulee, which she was craving. We did, however, have ice cream she had been meaning to get rid of for some time, and after surfing around on the Food Network site, I came across Ina Garten’s simple Affogato recipe.

Easy as pie, I substituted the espresso ingredient for two strong cups of Starbucks’ Christmas Blend (which I figured was as close to espresso as we were going to get that night). Poured over a scoop of vanilla, I was done.

Affogato

There was something about the interaction of the hot coffee and cold ice cream that worked beautifully. And though I was afraid that the coffee would vaporize the ice cream too quickly, it wouldn’t have mattered if it did, as the melding of both in liquid form made a lovely, drinkable dessert.

Who says Christmas dinner has to be something to sweat over?

Food Notes

I hope everyone had a nice Christmas! I took a bit of an unplanned break from blogging, and while it was relaxing, it’s nice to be writing again. I’ll be catching up on quite a few posts over the next few days.

  • I could not help but laugh and relate to Marty Chan’s account of attempting to demonstrate his dim sum prowess to friends, published this week in the Journal.
  • Well-known Edmonton blogger Lex Culinaria wrote that she has relocated to Langley, BC. Her posts will also begin to focus more on recipes, as she raises her second child. Best of luck Lyn!
  • Via Brulee Blog, a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa is using garlic salt to de-ice their roads.
  • There are a ton of year-end roundups out there, but I like the scope of Chow’s Year in Food 2008.
  • Mack, being the thoughtful person that he is, made me a customized calendar for Christmas, featuring sixty of the food photos that we have taken over the last two years, food-related quotes, and important dates to remember. It will hang proudly in my office at work! He posted about his experience making the calendar here.

June 2009

  • As is tradition in our family, Christmas Eve meant a potluck with family friends. My Mum made her famous breadsticks, honed from a recipe she now has memorized. There was turkey, and then some.

My Mum’s fabulous breadsticks

The spread

My plate

Amanda’s plate

Happy New Year everyone!