Christmas en Croute
Fuel for the frozen north

I remember going to Woolworth's -- which sported its year-round but especially seasonal red-and-gold shop sign -- on the rue Des Forges in Trois-Rivieres, and casing the racks of Christmas cards. I had 50 cents, so I had to settle for robins and holly. The two-dollar assortment, so out of reach for a seven year-old on an allowance, gleamed and glittered and glammed. I wanted that box -- it showed the landscape from my bedroom window as I pressed my nose against its lacy ice-etched pane, waiting for Santa.

The sky was deepest midnight blue on those cards, plastered with foil stars, the snow a dusting drift of metallic sugar. Lights peeped from the windows of steep-roofed cottages. All was cold, all was bright.

There's no describing the cold of those Christmas Eves. I’ve lived in Chicago for 30 years, and, by comparison, I'm living in Palm Springs. When we were courting, my Chicagoan husband waited at a bus stop with me in Montreal in January and we wrapped ourselves around each other against the stunning cold. He breathed on my face to warm me up "like the animals did in the stable, breathing on the Baby" -- and Montreal was a sultry microclimate away from my home town.

Christmas Eve snow stood five-foot deep, glassy and hard as a Caspar David Friedrich sea. A child could walk on that polar continent until she crashed through the crust and felt the shards bite the exposed inch between boots and snow pants like the fangs of a white shark. It hurt, that crust. But as Christmas Eve turned to early Christmas Day, it shone gold from the bungalow lights of my neighbors (French Canadians returning from midnight mass to break fast at the reveillon). Just like the snow on the two-dollar box.

The reveillon is an early Christmas morning fete, traditional in Quebec after midnight mass. It was a right whoop up: The Cinqaunte and Ex flowed; so did the Canadian Club highballs. Oysters on the half-shell, viandes without number, desserts and music -- happy families packing calories against the cold. (Christmas Eve was a day of both fasting and abstinence -- no snacking between meals, no meat.) The tiny Anglo population in our town woke early for stockings and shortbread and Santa, rested and refreshed, except for the Dads who crashed at four a.m. after hours of dollhouse wrangling. Our French Canadian neighbors slept in later, checked out the cadeaux Pere Noel had left, and rested up for le Jour de L'an -- New Year's Day, which remains the true Quebec family holiday. But I’m willing to bet the contents of my stocking that they were eating at two a.m. what we’d polished off at suppertime: that sublime carb-and-pork antifreeze called tourtiere.

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Tourtiere is a double-crust ground pork pie -- and it's my vote for the national dish of French Canada, not just because you can find mass-produced versions in any frozen food aisle or bakery counter, but because it’s such an old dish. The seasoning -- that whiff of allspice, nutmeg and clove -- testifies to its seventeenth-century origins, the age of the first great push of Norman and Breton settlers to Voltaire’s "few acres of snow." These immigrants brought with them the heady spices of the late Renaissance cooking, flavors we associate with eggnog. French chefs in the eighteenth century began to play with the herbs we use in modern French cooking, but in far-away Quebec, the seasoning for tourtiere changed little. I'm not saying that tourtiere tastes or smells like a porky pumpkin pie: there's the mere hint of nutmeg and clove that can't compete with the onion, and that pinch of sauriette (savory, winter or summer) that flourishes on farms and in kitchen gardens all over Quebec.

There's argument about the etymology of tourtiere: some say it refers to a French meat pie made from a dove-like bird called a toutre, a pigeon so witless and slow it begged to be massacred along with its dim extended family. Others trace the dish to the old iron cooking vessel of the same name: a tourtiere hunched on the hearth on short legs and had a heavy concave lid, into which coals were poured -- our New England brethren would have called it a spider. There are regional recipes and traditions too: the tourtieres of Lac St. Jean or the Mauricie or Quebec City may differ in big ways, like using chunks of game instead of pork mince, or including ground beef and veal. Quebec City’s ancient tourtiere was thickened with oatmeal, not potatoes, the culinary legacy of the Highland regiments who stayed on in Quebec City after 1759, marrying the local desmoiselles and producing descendents who rejoice in names like Jean-Marie MacDuff, the boss machine tender on number three machine at the CIP newsprint mill in Trois-Rivieres.

Julian Armstrong, in her 2001 book, A Taste of Quebec explores these variations for the filling:
  • Tourtiere de Quebec: straightforward ground pork, onions and aromatics, with the aforementioned oatmeal.
  • Tourtiere de Charlevoix: One inch chunks of pork, beef and potatoes.
  • Tourtiere Leboutiller from the Gaspe – two to one ratio ground beef to ground pork.
  • Tourtiere de Fleur-Ange, from the Laurentides: ground pork once again, but a cup and a half of celery and celery leaves and: Tabernacle! -- a half cup of parsley -- a renegade tourtiere for vegetarians. In truth, things green and leafy were items conspicuous in their absence at la table de Noel -- the vegetable accompaniments to tourtiere were as traditional as the sides at Thanksgiving: pickled beets (store-bought -- we ate them once a year) baked beans (I pimp a can of Campbell’s these days like any traveling pit master) and a big dish of chowchow or piccalilli.
Some fine modern cooks may roll the crust from puff pastry, pate brise or phyllo, for all I know. It's tempting to fiddle with the filling: my mother bought a caribou and cranberry version from a fine charcutier last year. There’s nothing the matter with these tourtieres nouvelles, but they’re the products of professionals with too much time on their hands. Tout le monde understands that a tourtiere is a bland pork pie, encased in pale flaky pastry made with vegetable shortening or lard, cut in with a pastry blender or subjected to the gentle frottage of deux mains.

Last December my daughter Honor called from Los Angeles, mildly bummed by her first balmy Christmas -- there's something so wrong about stringing lights on palm trees. But she made me dictate my mother's tourtiere recipe, so she could duplicate her traditional Christmas Eve dinner for some in-laws. When I asked her how it turned out during our Christmas Day chat, she sounded discouraged.

"Well, it kinda stank. My pastry was hard and tough (too much water, I thought – she’s a novice pastry chef) and it all looked grey and depressing. The crust never got really brown. The beans were good, though."

Well, my tourtiere never browned up nicely either, though decades in the kitchen guarantee me a flaky crust. I was thinking of the box office suicide of Honor's LA tourtiere when I dragged the November/December 1986 issue of "The Pleasures of Cooking" from its hallowed sticky stack. Jehane Benoit, "the Canadian Julia Child" and a medical student in 1920s Paris of Edouard de Pomiane, wrote about "The Night Before Christmas in Quebec." Tourtiere, of course. A golden-crusted beauty. The filling was straightforward: ground pork, grated potato and onion, big pinch of clove. But what rocked me was the pastry recipe: boiling water, baking powder, lemon juice, an egg -- all whizzed about in the Cuisinart along with the salt and the flour. Could it be edible?

Remembering her chapter in Christmas Memories With Recipes (Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1988) I checked out the recipe for the crust. She uses a pastry blender for the crust, and ice water. The leavening is there: baking soda this time, and the lemon juice. She tosses in a quarter teaspoon of savory -- sure, why not? Her method may be conventional in this version but one ingredient sure isn't: "A pinch of turmeric?"

A pinch of turmeric wasn't going to add a whole lot of flavor, so this must have been Mme. Benoit's cagey solution to my daughter's dismal grey dilemma. Genius.

Presented with a pastry recipe as counterintuitive as the one in "Pleasures of Cooking," not to mention a set of whacky ingredients, I decided to push the tourtiere season up a couple of weeks. I had a lovely tub of lard in the fridge (the supermercado down the road renders its owns -- no hydrogenation happening here), a Penzey's a few miles away to provide a fresh stash of savory, and a pound and a half of ground pork.

I prepared the filling and placed it in the freezer to cool. Then I assembled my pastry mise-en-place -- instead of my faithful four ingredients (flour, salt, lard, water), I found I'd acquired ten. I whizzed the dry ingredients in the Cuisinart, then pulsed in two-thirds of the lard. I added the rest of the lard, a teaspoon of lemon juice and a beaten egg to a third of a cup of boiling water and stirred well. Madame said "With the motor running, add to the flour mixture and turn off the motor immediately. The dough will be soft."

It was as shiny and soft as a baby's bottom, if the bottom in question had picked up a faint glisten from a turmeric self-tanner. I diapered it in Glad Wrap and tucked it into the fridge for a four-hour nap.

It rolled out like a dream -- I'd been afraid that its very suppleness would make for a scrappy, pieced together crust. I peeked into the oven after twenty minutes or so: the baking powder was doing its magic and the crust had puffed. When I pulled it from the oven, it glowed like the gams of a Brazilian supermodel.

I nabbed a nibble of the crust while I stirred the beans. Flaky it was not, but I'd known from the get-go that the boiling water would nix all possibility of flakes. Tender and crispy it was, sturdy enough to stand up to the filling and melting on the tongue -- it would be excellent for Cornish pasties or empanadas. Had I not made it myself, the flavor would have seemed mildly mysterious: meaty from the lard, a touch of tin (in a good way!) from the turmeric -- or maybe the lemon -- and savory from the savory.

Merci, chere Mme. Benoit, We from Chicago and the kids from Los Angeles are meeting at my parents' home in Ottawa this Christmas. I'll tote along the recipe with the Christmas presents, so Honor and I can make tourtiere together.

In my childhood neighborhood, every back yard, including ours, was glazed into a skating rink. Every school had a professional set up: lines, boards, center ice. Trois-Rivieres owned the farm team for the Montreal Canadiens; gods like Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau and Boom Boom Geoffrion had walked among us. As their parents partied on, serious boys tested out their new skates, a present from Grandmaman they'd begged to open early. No lights except the stars; no roughing, no slashing, no fighting, no high-sticking.

I like to think that my hoped-for grandchild will place a funky French Canadian pork pie on her Christmas Eve table, next to her paternal grandmother's spring rolls. But what she won't hear is the Christmas morning lullaby that once escorted me to dreamland: no singing, no talking. Just the icy slice of sharp new blades fueled by tourtiere, and the thwack thwack thwack of the puck against the boards.

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Tourtiere Belle Femme
Filling: Marilyn McArthur/Jehane Benoit Hybrid

1-1/2 lbs. ground pork
2 medium potatoes, grated
1 small onion, grated or chopped molecularly fine
1/2 t salt
1/4 t ground clove, or to taste
1/2 t savory
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of celery salt
1/2 C water

Combine the ingredients in a medium frying pan and cook for about thirty minutes. Grey the meat, do not brown it. Chunk up the pork with a spatula: you don’t want lumps, you want a fine uniform mix. Stick in the fridge to cool off -- room temperature minimum.

Pastry: Patched from two recipes by Jehane Benoit

2 C all purpose flour
1-1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
1/4 t celery salt
1/2 t savory
1-1/2 t lemon juice
1/4 t turmeric
1 large egg, beaten
5-1/3 oz (150 g) lard, cut into pieces
1/2 C boiling water

In a food processor, pulse the dry ingredients, herbs and spices until combined. Add 2/3 of the lard and pulse until it resembles coarse crumbs -- about 8 pulses. Add the remaining lard to the boiling water off the stove -- stir until melted. Beat in the lemon juice and egg. With the motor running, add to the flour mixture and turn off immediately. Knead briefly on a floured surface, wrap and refrigerate for at least four hours.

Roll out the bottom crust in a standard pie pan, preferably Pyrex. Smooth in the pork filling, spread the top crust thereon. Slash, decorate, and bake in a 350 oven for 35 to 45 minutes. Remove when the pastry is puffed slightly, golden and crispy. Let stand for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Joyeux Noel.

December 20, 2006