Holiday snacks can be way more than crackers and Philadelphia Cream Cheese tossed with a few festive sprinkles.
To prove it, we asked three of Toronto's top chefs to share their tastiest - and most easily executed - recipes guaranteed to wow a crowd. No weird ingredients or time-consuming techniques. And the results are delish.
Rachelle Caldwell's Caramel Corn
Husband-and-wife team Scott Vivian and Rachelle Caldwell's Beast is widely recognized as one of Hogtown's better snout-to-tail bistros, but ex-JKWB pastry chef Caldwell's desserts are just as celebrated. Here's her dad's family recipe for the perfect holiday snack. But where's the last-minute drizzle of liquified bone marrow?
"That's something only Scott would do," laughs Caldwell.
1/3 cup popping corn, popped (makes about 10 cups)
½ cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
¼ cup corn syrup
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp baking soda
½ tsp vanilla
¾ cup pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds)
¼ tsp cayenne
Toss the pepitas with a half-teaspoon vegetable oil, salt liberally and toast on a baking sheet for five minutes in a preheated 350°F oven. In a pot that's large enough for four times the amount, bring butter, brown sugar, corn syrup and salt to a boil and continue to boil for five minutes.
Place the popped corn and pepitas in a large metal bowl in a 250°F oven to keep hot while mixture is boiling, so everything mixes together easily before the caramel hardens.
When the five minutes are up, turn off the heat. Using a wooden spoon, quickly stir in baking soda and vanilla. The mixture will rise in the pot (hence the large pot). Immediately pour onto hot popcorn and mix with a wooden spoon, remembering to be careful - hot sugar can burn. Once thoroughly mixed, turn onto a parchment-lined tray, breaking up the larger pieces as much as you can. Cool completely. Serves 10.
Nuit Regular's Deep-fried shrimp toasts (ka nom pang na goong)
Nuit Regular certainly likes to keep busy. Not only does she oversee the kitchens of both Sukhothai restos and spinoff Sabai Sabai, but the ever-enterprising chef is about to launch Pai on Duncan next month. Here's her Thai take on classic cocktail shrimp toasts. To get the texture tight, Regular says it's imperative to use stale bread.
"In Thailand, we don't throw anything away!"
1 cup shrimp, minced
2 tsp oyster sauce
2 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp sugar
Large pinch of white pepper
1 tsp garlic, minced
1 tsp coriander stalk, minced
Coriander leaf to garnish
8 slices of white bread
Cut the crusts off the bread and cut each slice into four small squares, or use a festive cookie cutter. Let air dry. Combine the oyster and soy sauces and stir in sugar. Add the garlic, coriander stalk, white pepper, shrimp and egg. Stir and marinate for 30 minutes.
Spread each square with the shrimp mixture, pressing lightly so it sticks to the bread. Press a coriander leaf into each. Heat canola oil to medium-high and deep-fry both sides, starting with the topping side, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Serves eight, with cucumber relish.
Cucumber relish (R-Jad)
1 cup water
4 tbsp white vinegar
4 tbsp sugar
Large pinch of salt
4 tbsp cucumber, seeded and diced
2 tbsp shallot, diced
2 red bird chilies, chopped
Bring water, vinegar, sugar and salt to a boil. Set aside to cool and then add cucumber, shallot and chilies.
Sukhothai, 274 Parliament, at Dundas, 416-913-8846; 52 Wellington East, at Church, 647-351-4612, sukhothaifood.ca
Stephen Gardner's Vegan stuffed phyllo bites with cranberry chipotle chutney
Grasslands' Stephen Gardner doesn't do dairy. So it's no surprise that his holiday-themed phyllo bites are completely free of animal products.
"Just because they're vegan doesn't mean they can't be rich," says Gardner. "Cheese-lovers will never know the difference."
For the almond-basil cheese stuffing:
1½ cup skinned almonds
1 bunch of fresh basil, chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves of garlic
½ tsp salt
¾ cup water
Put everything except the basil into a blender and blend on high until smooth and rolling. Add the basil and blend until mixed, drizzling in more oil if required.
For the phyllo bites:
8 sheets of phyllo pastry, thawed if frozen
Working with one sheet of phyllo at a time, keeping the rest covered with a damp towel, brush with olive oil. Add a second layer of phyllo and brush again with olive oil. Spread ½ cup almond-basil cheese onto bottom half of the dough. Dollop ¼ cup pesto on top of cheese. Starting from the bottom, tightly roll the pastry. Brush again with olive oil. Cut roll on the bias into eight pieces. Repeat three times. Place on baking tray and bake for 12 minutes in a preheated 375°F oven until golden brown.
For the chutney:
2 cups cranberries
1 cup pineapple, finely diced
1 small red onion, finely diced
2 canned chipotle peppers, minced
¼ cup sugar
½ tsp salt
1 tsp fresh ginger, peeled and minced
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
Zest from ½ orange
In a medium sauce pan, bring everything except the zest to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes until the cranberries break down. Stir in the orange zest and cook for another five minutes. Cool.
All photos by Steven Davey