These Christmas treats will take you back to sweet memories of holidays past
Growing up, my mother wasn’t as much into baking as she was into eating baked goods. We had bags of Dad’s Oatmeal Cookies in the cupboard and fresh doughnuts from the bakery on Fridays, but anything made at home usually came from a mix. It wasn’t until my 20s that it occurred to me that banana bread didn’t come from a box.
But Christmas was the one time of year when that changed. Thanks to my friend Louise’s Scottish grandmother, my mother baked homemade shortbread for the holidays. With four cups of flour, a pound of butter and a cup of brown sugar, this was a labour-intensive recipe without a KitchenAid mixer. Thankfully, I now have a mixer to make it quick work to whip up multiple batches of these family (and friend) favourites.
During the holidays, sweet treats consume us as much as we consume them. And as a country of immigrants, we are rich in so many tantalizing, culinary holiday traditions.
BCLiving asked six local chefs to share some of their favourite family holiday recipes...
1. Soft-baked Gingerbread Cookies
Minami Restaurant’s lead pastry chef Nikki Tam grew up in Hong Kong where her family celebrated Christmas in a big way food-wise. “Every year, we would bake and build our own gingerbread houses, decorate them with all sorts of colourful candies and chocolates, and display them throughout Christmas at home.”
Tam still makes the recipe for gingerbread cookies that her family baked at Christmas when she was growing up in Hong Kong. “We would make these soft-baked gingerbread cookies to enjoy while admiring our own works [of gingerbread houses].”
- ⅔ cup unsalted butter, softened
- ⅔ cup unsulphured molasses
- ¾ cup light brown sugar
- 1 large egg, room temperature
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 3½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1 tbsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tbsp ground ginger
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
- ½ tsp ground cloves
- ½ tsp salt
- Beat butter for one minute with the electric mixer’s paddle attachment until completely smooth and creamy. Add the molasses and brown sugar and beat on medium-high speed until well-combined. Add egg and vanilla and beat on high speed for 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
- Combine flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and salt in a separate bowl and whisk together until combined. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients while mixing on low speed.
- Place dough onto a large piece of plastic wrap and wrap it up tightly while flattening the dough into a disc shape. Chill the dough for at least three hours.
- When the dough is ready, generously flour your working surface and rolling pin and roll out the disc until it's a quarter-inch thick. Cut the dough into shapes and place them at least one inch apart from each other on baking sheets. The dough scraps can be combined and re-rolled until all of it is used.
- Bake cookies at 350 F for 8 to 10 minutes depending on the size of your cookies. Cool the cookies for 5 to 10 minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack.
- Decorate as desired!
Gizelle Paré, head chocolatier at East Van Roasters, and her family may have had frozen profiteroles when she was a child, but now that she's all grown-up, she makes her own. She tried to get her mother involved in baking with her as an adult, but it didn’t quite work out as she envisioned.
“A couple years ago, I decided to teach my mom how to be a more efficient baker. I was so excited to teach her the tricks of the trade, how to streamline, and how to work fast and clean,” Paré explains. “By the end of it, she was so stressed out that she accused me of not baking with love. It was pretty funny. Now she just wants me to do it all because she sees how easy it is for me and she tells me I’m the better baker.”
- ½ cup water
⅓ cup whole milk
¼ cup unsalted butter
- 1 tsp salt
- 1½ cups bread flour
- 4 to 6 eggs, plus one more for egg wash
- Very sparingly butter two cookie sheets. Make sure they are evenly coated.
- In a medium saucepan, bring the water, milk, butter and salt to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer.
- With the heat on medium-low, add all the flour to the liquid and start mixing with a wooden spoon. The paste will come together very quickly and start to stick to the bottom of the pan. Do your best to scrape the film from the bottom of the pan to avoid burning. This is actually beneficial to your final dough. Mix for 2 to 3 minutes.
- Transfer the paste to an electric mixer bowl fitted with a paddle attachment. Mix the paste for at least 30 seconds on medium-high to slightly cool it before adding the eggs.
- Starting with half the amount of eggs, add them one at a time to the paste. Allow each egg enough time to absorb before the next addition. Mix for 4 to 5 minutes.
- To check the consistency of the batter, drag the paddle through the batter and pull up. If the batter creates a shaggy ‘V’ from the bottom of the paddle, it is ready.
- Prepare a pastry bag with a large plain piping tip. (Pro tip: With a round cookie cutter of your choice, create rings on the buttered tray that will serve you as a size guide.) Make sure to keep at least one-inch space in between.
- Hold the piping bag directly vertical and pipe a mound about one inch high, slowly releasing the pressure as you move up. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Brush the mounds with egg wash and pat down any pointy tops so that the tops are smooth.
- Bake at 400 F for 10 minutes, then drop the temperature to 350 F and bake for another 25 to 30 minutes. The puffs should feel light and dry. The dryer they are, the better they’ll be when filled. Let them cool completely. (Pro tip: These can be made weeks in advance and frozen in an airtight bag. To refresh them, pop them in the oven for 10 mins at 350 F.)
- To fill the puffs, slice them horizontally and fill with your favourite ice cream and top with warm chocolate sauce before serving.
East Van Roasters Warm Fudge Chocolate Sauce
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter
- 1 cup + 2 tbsp heavy cream
- ⅓ cup honey
- 3 tbsp cocoa powder
- ½ tsp salt
- ¾ cup chopped chocolate
- Chop up your chocolate and set aside.
- In a small sauce pan, bring the butter, cream, honey, cocoa powder and salt to a boil. Once boiling, bring heat down to low and add the chopped chocolate and whisk until melted.
- Remove from heat and it’s ready to use.
Note: Extra sauce can be refrigerated or frozen and used later on waffles, on a sundae or as a fondue. Simply reheat in a microwave in 20-second intervals or on a stovetop over medium-low heat.
3. Candy Cane Bark
Chez Christophe chocolatier Christophe Bonzon’s love affair with chocolate began early. As a child in Switzerland, his family made chocolate truffles to give as gifts. His best childhood Christmas treat memory is the chocolate cake his mother created—“similar to a molten cake with shredded coconut on top. Plus, a simple chocolate frosting.”
He still makes a number of traditional Swiss holiday cakes and cookies—like Biscôme, a traditional Swiss gingerbread made of honey, spice and flour—and some of those Swiss favourites are available at his bakery.
This peppermint chocolate bark is similar to a recipe that Christophe used to make with his mother in Switzerland. This year, the shop is carrying a DIY kit version, but if you can’t pop by the shop, here’s a super easy, at-home version to make.
- 2 cups 63.6 percent Montreux Custom blend dark chocolate
- 4 candy canes
- Microwave-safe container
- Rubber spatula
- Rolling pin
- Offset spatula
- Parchment paper/plastic bag
- Transfer sheets or parchment paper
- Cookie baking sheet
- Remove candy cane from packaging. Crush candy canes into small pieces using a rolling pin. Set aside.
- Place chocolate in microwave-safe bowl. Slowly start to melt it, 30 seconds at a time. Stir in between. Repeat process 2-3 times. Do not exceed 32°C. (Pro tip: Coming closer to 29°C, give it a two-minute break allow the chocolate to melt evenly.)
- Dip a metal spoon or piece of cutlery into chocolate. If your chocolate hardens after 3 minutes on a metal spoon, you are good to go!
- Pour tempered chocolate onto a parchment paper-line cookie sheet (if you aren’t using the DIY kit).
- Spread chocolate using an offset spatula to create a flat, even surface. Be careful to not overwork the chocolate when spreading.
- Before chocolate has time to set, sprinkle crushed candy canes evenly. Place it in the fridge. (Pro tip: Slide your bark onto a flat surface for the best results.)
- After 15 minutes, you can peel off the parchment paper and your bark is ready.
- Break into pieces.
- Store in a cool area away from the sun.
“I grew up in Hong Kong,” says Betty Hung of Beaucoup Bakery. “Whenever they celebrated a holiday, they would make these old-school, fruit-flavoured gelatin treats coated with shredded coconut. I would look forward to eating these colourful treats every year.”
Moving to Canada, Hung began a new holiday tradition of baking cookies. The first ones were peanut butter with the crisscross pattern on top. With the release of her first cookbook, French Baking 101, it’s clear that Hung’s repertoire has significantly expanded.
Kugelhopf is a light, festive Alsatian bread. “There are many versions of this delicious bread; my favorite is studded with plump raisins soaked in kirsch, coated with almonds, soaked in a rum syrup and dressed in sugar,” she says. She adds that a Bundt pan works well for baking the bread, unless you a Kugelhopf pan
Prep time: 1 hour
Makes one 8½-inch (22-cm) round bread
- ½ cup kirsch liqueur
- ⅔ cup golden raisins
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tbsp + ½ tsp granulated sugar
- 1½ tsp salt
- 2¼ tsp instant yeast
- ½ cup + 3 tbsp whole milk, room temperature
- 1 large egg
- 7 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
- ½ cup blanched sliced almonds, divided
- ½ cup + 2 tbsp sugar
- ½ cup water
- 2 tbsp dark rum
- 1 cup vanilla sugar (see tip)
- In a microwavable cup or bowl, combine the kirsch and raisins. Heat it in the microwave on high for a minute. Set it aside to cool and for the raisins to soak for 30 minutes. Drain off the excess liquid and reserve it for the dough.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt and yeast.
- In a separate measuring cup or bowl, whisk together the milk, egg and leftover kirsch. Pour the liquids into the flour mixture.
- With the dough hook on low speed, mix for 5 minutes until the dough comes together. Add in the softened butter and mix for another 5 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a scraper or a spatula. Mix it on low speed for 10 more minutes.
- Add in the drained raisins and mix for one more minute until the raisins are well distributed. Place the dough into a medium greased bowl, cover it with plastic and let it rise for an hour. After the initial proof, place it in the refrigerator overnight.
- The next day, generously butter the insides of the Kugelhopf pan and coat it with the sliced almonds, reserving 2 tablespoons. Set the pan and reserved almonds aside.
- Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and form it into a ball. With your thumbs, push the centre to form the dough into a ring. Place it on the bottom of the pan. Cover it loosely with plastic and let it rise in a warm place for 2 to 3 hours, until it is doubled in volume.
- When the bread has almost risen, preheat the oven to 400°F. Cover the top of the dough with the reserved almonds and place the pan on a sheet tray. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes until it is deep golden brown. The centre should read 200°F on an instant thermometer.
- While the bread is baking, make the syrup. Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until it boils. When the syrup has cooled, add the rum.
- Let the bread cool in the mold for about 15 minutes. Carefully transfer it to a cooling rack. While the bread is still warm, brush on the syrup, at least 4 to 5 coats. It will all soak in. Let the bread cool completely.
- Place the vanilla sugar in a large bowl and coat the exterior of the Kugelhopf all over with sugar. The Kugelhopf will last up to 2 days at room temperature in an airtight container.
Tip: Use the leftover vanilla-bean pod from another recipe to make vanilla sugar. Just place it in your sugar and let the flavor infuse for a week.
Reprinted with permission from French Pastry 101 by Betty Hung, Page Street Publishing, 2018
5. Russian Napoleon Cake
For Russian-born Elena Krasnova, owner of Mon Paris Pâtisserie, it’s the Russian Napoleon Cake that is still at the top of her Christmas sweets favourites—even after training as a pastry chef in Paris.
“It is a traditional Russian cake to have during the holidays,” Krasnova explains. “Six to eight layers of puffed pastry dough are filled with vanilla custard. It is supposed to be made 24 hours in advance to allow the layers to be moistened by the cream… my mouth still waters when I think about this cake.”
“Traditionally in Russia, we celebrate New Year's more than Christmas, so all of our family festivities get moved to New Year's Eve,” she explains. “We make Napoleon cake as a family in celebration.”
- 1½ cups butter cold
- 2 eggs
- ½ cups water cold
- 5¼ cups all-purpose flour
- 4 tbsp vodka
- Pinch of salt
- In a mixer fitted with a hook attachment, add butter and flour. Work until butter is broken into smaller pieces. In a separate bowl, whisk the rest of the ingredients by hand. Pour the second mixture into the first flour mixture without stopping the mixer. Work until the dough starts sticking but not formed yet.
- Transfer the contents on the table and continue to work by hand.
- Divide into six equal parts. Shape each part into a ball. Cover with plastic wrap and put into the fridge for at least 6 hours.
- After 6 hours, roll each ball as thinly as possible (2 mm). Dust the surface if needed. Put on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and prick with a fork all over. Bake at 400F until golden in colour.
- 2 cups milk
- ½ cups sugar
- 6 egg yolks
- 7½ tbsp corn starch
- 3½ tbsp butter
- 2 cups 35 percent cream
- Heat milk in a saucepan on a stovetop.
- In a bowl, whisk yolks, sugar and corn starch by hand.
- When milk starts to boil, pour one-third over the yolk mixture, whisk and pour this mixture back into saucepan of boiling milk. Cook while continuously whisking until the mixture reaches a boil. Transfer immediately to a cold bowl and add butter. Mix until the butter is fully incorporated. Cover with plastic wrap and cool down completely.
- Whisk the whipping cream until soft peaks form.
- By hand, combine whipped cream with custard.
Assembling the cake
- Layer each cooked puffed pastry with vanilla custard until they are all stuck together. Cover the top and the sides of the cake with the remaining custard. Sprinkle top and sides with crushed leftover puffed pastry.
- Leave in the fridge for at least 12 hours.
6. Classic Pecan Pie
Mario Pelletier, pastry chef at Railtown Cafe and Railtown Catering recalls watching his mother, over the weeks leading up to Christmas, preparing the holiday food.
“I will always remember these little Christmas cookies and old-fashioned potato doughnuts that my mom used to make when I was a kid,” Pelletier says. “I’ve never had anything exactly like them again.”
His mother, he says, has been a great inspiration to him and has greatly influenced his career as a chef.
“Christmas is all about traditions,” he says. “I love making new traditions with my family. At our Christmas dinner, we have tempura prawns for an appetizer and either pecan pie or brioche and butter pudding for dessert.”
Slices of Pelletier’s pecan pie is on the menu at all four Railtown Cafe’s four locations in Vancouver throughout the holiday season, but you can also make it yourself.
Makes two pecan pies
- 3⅓ cups flour
- ½ cup ground almonds
- 1 cup butter
- 1¾ cup icing sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp salt
- Crumble all dry ingredients together except eggs in a mixing bowl.
- Slowly add eggs and combine until smooth.
- Line the base mixture in two 10-inch circle tart tins.
- Place tins in the oven at 170°C (roughly 340°F) and blind bake (using beans on top of the crust) for approximately 20 to 25 minutes until the crust is half cooked.
- 9 eggs
- 2½ cups demerara sugar
- 1¾ golden syrup
- ½ cup butter
- Pinch salt
- 9 cups pecans
- Preheat your oven to 175°C (roughly 350°F).
- Melt the butter.
- In a mixing bowl, slowly mix in the eggs, sugar and syrup.
- Incorporate the butter, salt and then the pecans.
- Divide the pecan filling between the two pie crusts and cook for approximately 30 minutes.
- Remove pies from oven and allow to cool before serving.