Eric Akis: Cookbooks — and recipes — to celebrate the season

Reviews of three Canadian cookbooks, plus a recipe from each: an appetizer, an entree and a dessert

Eric Akis

Tis the season for cookbook giving. After writing about the recently published Wickaninnish Cookbook this past Sunday, today I’ll let you know about three other Canadian cookbooks that also have a celebratory theme.

My reviews of them are below. I’ve also included a tasty recipe from each book; one is an appetizer, one an entrée, and the other a dessert. All are suited to holiday entertaining, in that you can make them ahead and they’ll hold well, in the case of the chicken, can be reheated, in the case of the meatballs, or be baked ahead, in the case of the dessert.

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All books can be bought or ordered from Vancouver Island bookstores.

1205-wood2005461.jpgDavid Wood Cooking for Friends (Whitecap Books, $34.95)

Many know David Wood as the owner of the Salt Spring Island Cheese Company, which has produced fabulous cheese since 1996. But before moving west and running that business, he was the owner of the David Wood Food Shop, a gourmet’s destination in Toronto, and 30 years ago, he published his first book, David Wood Food Book, a best seller.

In other words, David knows a lot about fine food and how to prepare it, and that is reflected in his new 250-page book. In it he features recipes that will keep you cooking throughout the day, with chapters including topics such as breakfast, soups, salads, pasta, before dinner, seafood, chicken, meat and everyday desserts.

One thing that Wood has learned is that a great-tasting dish does not need to be to overly complicated, or use a fridge full of ingredients, to be divine. In the book, there are many recipes showcasing that, such as his essential green salad, spaghetti carbonara, panko-crusted halibut served with a tasty lemon ginger mayonnaise and chicken wonderful, a dinner for two Wood says makes an excellent late-night supper.

Some of the many other must-make recipes in the book include duck breast with cassis and crispy potatoes, ginger garlic short ribs, Belgian endive with bacon and cream and a wicked dessert simply called “birthday cake.” The latter layers hazelnut meringue with orange buttercream and chocolate ganache. Yum!


Set for the Holidays with Anna Olson: Recipes to Bring Comfort and Joy (Appetite by Random house, $40.00)

I have many of Anna Olson’s books in my library, and all have similar qualities. They’re well written, beautifully designed, packed with concise recipes you want to make, and offer many practical preparation tips.

In her new, lovely-to-look-at, 335-page hardcover book, Olson offers all of the above and more, by also including such things as special-occasion menus and by providing “helpful hints” sidebars that anticipate and answer questions readers might have about a recipe.

Olson says this book will help add sparkle and take away stress from your holidays. To achieve that, the book is smartly divided into two main sections: menus and meals for the holidays, which has eight chapters, and baking for the holidays, which has nine chapters.

In those chapters you’ll find recipes for such things as festive brunches, entertaining a crowd, cozy suppers and more dressed-up occasions, such as Christmas dinner and New Year’s Eve. Crème brûlée eggnog, lobster mac and cheese squares, vegetarian tourtière, whole-roasted turkey with caramelized onion and apple stuffing and gingerbread white chocolate mousse cake offer just a taste of the splendid recipes you’ll find in the book.

Although the book is called Set for the Holidays, many recipes will also work for other times of year. For example, Olson’s recipes for croque monsieur bake, or pecan butter tart cheesecake, will taste just as a fine served in June as they would in December.

New_c3-1205-sweet.jpgAll the Sweet Things: Baked Goods and Stories from the Kitchen of Sweetsugarbean (Touchwood Editions, $39.95)

This 245-page, photo-rich, hard cover book by Saskatoon food blogger ( and pastry chef Renée Kohlman was actually published in 2017. But I wanted to draw attention to it again because it recently won gold at the Taste Canada Awards in the single-subject cookbook category. That’s quite an achievement, considering this is Kohlman’s first book, and you can tell by its title that single-subject she focused on was sweet things.

To do that in a comprehensive way, Kohlman divided her book into nine chapters filled with recipes for such things as cookies and bars, cakes, tarts and pies, custards and puddings, and pastries. In those chapters you’ll find recipes for such things as chocolate espresso crackle cookies, spice apple skillet cake with streusel topping, key lime pie and baklava parfaits.

The book even has a chapter on desserts for breakfast, where you’ll find recipes for such things as strawberry rhubarb mascarpone crepes. There’s also a chapter with recipes perfect for holiday gift giving, such as almond and orange macaroon truffles, and maple pumpkin seed brittle.

To assist home cooks, the book also provides plenty of preparation tips, a list of pantry essentials, and suggests useful tools and equipment to have. And, if you don’t feel like baking, you can also simply curl up in chair with this book and read one of Kohlman’s sweet, food-rich essays, which are scattered throughout it.

Michael’s Super Meatballs

This recipe is from Set for the Holidays with Anna Olson. Olson says her chef husband Michael loves making a pan of meatballs when ever they are having a crowd over. She says it’s a simple dish to make, and people know what to do when they see the pan of meatballs and a dish of frilly toothpicks or appetizer forks next to it. Have cocktail napkins ready, or a basket of buttery soft dinner rolls (there’s a recipe in the book for them, too), to make quick little meatball sandwiches.

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 30 minutes

Makes: three dozen meatballs

3 cups good-quality tomato sauce
2 lb fresh ground pork, veal and beef mix
1 cup dry breadcrumbs
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 large eggs
1 clove fresh garlic, minced
1 Tbsp chopped Italian parsley
1 tsp fine sea salt
1 tsp black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Pour the tomato sauce into a large ovenproof sauté pan or other ovenproof pan with a lid. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, uncovered, while you prepare the meatballs.

Combine the ground meat, breadcrumbs, cheese, eggs, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper until well blended (using your hands is easiest). Use a small ice cream scoop or spoon to shape the mix into 36 meatballs, shaping them between your palms. Drop them into the gently simmering tomato sauce (they will only be partially submerged), spoon the sauce over to baste them and cover the pan.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until fully cooked, basting again halfway through cooking. Serve warm.

Make ahead tip: Meatballs are an ideal make-ahead dish. You can refrigerate baked meatballs in their sauce in an airtight container for up to three days, or freeze them for up to three months. Thaw frozen meatballs overnight in the fridge and then gently reheat them in their sauce in a saucepan over medium-low heat until warmed through, about 20 minutes.

Beyond the holidays: For a hearty winter supper, serve the meatballs and sauce over spaghetti, or make them into hot meatball sandwiches by stuffing them into crusty rolls.

Chicken Thighs with Fennel, Olives and Lemon 

This recipe is from David Wood Cooking for Friends. Wood says this dish is a good choice for a party because it holds well, even when guests take their time coming to the table.

Serves: six to eight

1 lemon, sliced in 1/4-inch rounds
3 Tbsp olive oil, divided
12 chicken thighs
1 Tbsp butter
4 large fennel bulbs
Small pinch saffron threads
1/2 tsp salt + extra as needed
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup green olives (preferably pitted)
2 Tbsp flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Arrange the lemon slices on a baking sheet, preferably on parchment paper. Sprinkle lightly with salt, and bake on the top rack of the preheated oven for 12 minutes. Remove and set aside; turn the oven down to 350 F.

In a large pan, cook the chicken in 1 Tbsp oil and butter until the skin side is well browned and the underside lightly so; remove from the pan and set aside.

Trim the fibrous stalks from the fennel, set a bulb upright on a board, and cut it into 4 slices, each about 1/2 inch thick and held together at the root end. Cook the fennel slices over medium heat in the same pan as the previous step, until they are nicely browned on both sides, adding more oil if necessary. Set the fennel aside and wash out the pan-the dark pan scrapings will discolour the sauce.

With a pestle and mortar, grind the saffron and 1/2 tsp salt to a fine powder. Pour the chicken stock into the pan, bring to a boil, add the saffron, and cook for 1 minute. Add the chicken, skin side up, arrange the fennel around and on top, and spread the olives and lemon slices on top. Transfer to the centre of the preheated oven and bake uncovered for 30 minutes.

Sprinkle the chopped parsley on top. Serve with couscous, orzo, or rice, and a green salad.

White Chocolate Rosemary Cranberry Blondies

This recipe is from Renee Kohlman’s book, All the Sweet Things. She says she makes these blondies every year around the holidays, and with one bite, you’ll know why.

Makes: 24 blondies

1 1/3 cups chopped (1/2-inch pieces) white chocolate
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened and cubed, plus more for greasing the pan
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp finely chopped fresh rosemary
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups fresh cranberries
Icing sugar, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Place the rack in the centre of the oven. Line the bottom and sides of a 9_13-inch baking dish with parchment paper overhanging the sides. Butter the parchment.

In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the chocolate and butter together, stirring constantly until smooth. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the sugar and rosemary. Mix until smooth. Pour this mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat on medium-high speed until smooth, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl. If it seems to split, that’s fine. It will smooth out once the flour is added. Add the flour, baking powder and salt, and beat on low speed just until incorporated and no dry bits of flour remain. Fold in the cranberries and scrape into the prepared pan.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the top is lightly golden and a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack before cutting into evenly sized bars.

Dust with icing sugar before serving. Keep the bars in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, or freeze for up to 2 months.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks, including seven in his Everyone Can Cook series. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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