Food is one of those things that has the power to evoke very specific and detailed memories for all of us. When it comes to celebrating holidays, it’s even more true. For my family, tourtiere is the flavor of the season.
No matter what holiday you and your family celebrate, or where you’re from in the world, I’m sure there’s at least ONE symbolic holiday dish or meal that comes to mind without hesitation. It might be something that’s passed down through countless generations. For some, it might even be something as simple as ripping open a package of cookie mix and doctoring it up.
The majority of my early childhood memories revolve around my mom cooking and baking. She was always happy to let us help in the kitchen with small tasks like measuring and mixing. As we got older, she gave us more dangerous (and fun) responsibilities like chopping and using the stove.
One of my favorite things that my mom taught me to make is a dish that takes the top spot in all French Canadian holiday dinners: tourtière.
For those of you uninitiated types, tourtière is quintessential Québec cuisine. The story of its origin is cloaked in some mystery, but it’s generally believed that the recipe came to North America in the 1600s. The foundation of a good tourtière is a flaky pie crust. And the filling? Well, there are as many variations as there are geographical regions in Quebec, but you need to have meat or seafood, potatoes, and spices. Every French Canadian family I know has their own secret recipe. Some use different ratios of ground beef and pork. Others, especially near the coast, use salmon. Still others use wild game. Anything goes in tourtière!
Traditionally, after midnight Mass, families would go home for the reveillon, which is an elaborate feast. Let me rephrase that: in the middle of the night, we sit down to what can be likened to a full Thanksgiving dinner. But instead of turkey, tourtiere is the star. Some families serve it with gravy, but I like mine with a little bit of ketchup and some dill pickles on the side.
Making tourtiere in my house was a weekend-long labor of love.
My mom comes from a large French family, so she always made about a dozen tourtiere pies of varying sizes. She would make the pie dough on Friday night, and off it would go into the refrigerator to chill overnight. Then, on Saturday morning right after breakfast, Mom would start putting the magic ingredients together for the filling. The filling needed to simmer for a few hours, so by lunchtime we were all salivating and trying to sneak small tastes without Mom seeing. After lunch came the assembly, and that’s when we got to pitch in: spooning the filling into the dough, fluting the two crusts together, and watching the pies get golden brown in the oven. Any leftover dough was set aside for my sister and me to cut and bake into cookies.
These days, I don’t spend quite as much time on my tourtiere as Mom did, and I don’t make as many pies. I may or may not have cut a few corners in the past with a premade pie crust (please, if you run into my mom, DON’T TELL HER). My ratio of spices is different than hers, and I’ve been thinking of trying a tourtiere with venison instead of beef this year. But the important things won’t change: the smell of the filling simmering on the stove; the “help” from the little ones; and the first bite that confirms that it’s Christmas time again.
I love finding out more about other families and the things that make up part of their holiday traditions. In that spirit, and with Maman Gisele’s permission, here is our family’s recipe for tourtiere. If you try it, let me know how it is!
Maman Gisele’s Pie Dough (translated from French so pardon any mistakes)
- 1 lb shortening
- 4 cups flour
- 2 eggs, separated
- Pinch of salt
- 1 cup cold water
- 2 teaspoons vinegar
- Mix the flour and the salt. Add the shortening and blend, then add water and vinegar.
- Beat egg whites until they form stiff peaks; add to the shortening mixture and blend until the dough is stiff.
- Separate the dough in two. Wrap in Saran Wrap and place in freezer for 45 minutes, or in the refrigerator overnight. Once it’s chilled, roll it out to form the crusts.
(Mom’s PS: Save the egg yolks to brush onto the pies before baking.)
Maman Gisele’s Tourtière (also translated from French)
- 2 pounds ground beef
- 1 pound ground pork
- Medium potato, grated
- Small to medium onion, diced
- Salt, pepper, cinnamon, cloves to taste
Brown the meat in a stock pot and drain. Add the potato, onion, and spices. Add water (mom was a little vague on the amount, but I usually add enough to cover the meat), and simmer for at least 45 minutes. Let cool and place between 2 pie crusts, vent and flute the crusts and brush with leftover egg yolks. Bake at 375℉ for 30-45 minutes or until crust is golden brown.