Local Vancouver chefs share how to take the stress out of baking this Christmas
The holly-jolly season is, for most of us, much more about the food, especially the sweets, than the gifts. No other holiday evokes quite the same yearning for all that is sugary. But in these time-crunched days, whiling away hours in the kitchen producing numerous batches of Christmas treats is not always an option.
What does work is prepping and baking ahead of time, so that whipping up festive treats doesn’t become yet another holiday stress but rather something to be enjoyed.
We asked seven local chefs to share some of their time-saving recipes and tips for staying festive while making sensational seasonal goodies. And in the spirit of the holiday season, we asked what they would like to receive as a treat.
1. Chef Karen Barnaby
Chef Karen BarnabyFor award-winning chef, cookbook author and Vancouver Sun columnist Karen Barnaby, it’s her mother’s and grandmother’s shortbread cookies that spark Christmas memories. They are also one of the many types of cookie doughs that freeze well and can be made well in advance. Butterballs, melting moments, Mexican wedding cakes, gingerbread, sugar cookies and thumbprint/bird's nest cookies are doughs that can be frozen, Barnaby advises.
“Anything that is basically butter, flour, sugar and has a sturdy texture [freezes well],” she says. “Most bars will freeze well. Make sure that whatever you freeze is well wrapped before it goes into the freezer. Anything with a delicate or specific texture will not freeze well. Anything caramel usually will not freeze well.”
Being organized is the key to streamlining the holiday baking experience Barnaby says.
“Create a list of the items you want to make way ahead of the holidays, then make a list all the ingredients you need,” she suggests. “Purchase dry goods like flour, sugar, chocolate, sprinkly stuff, nuts, baking powder and baking soda a few weeks before you intend to bake. If you have freezer space, buy butter as well. All you have to do last minute is purchase eggs and dairy as you need them.”
Keep it simple and “non-fiddly,” she advises. Fudge, chocolate bark are good examples, and anything that can be just “melt and pour.”
As a holiday treat for herself, Barnaby welcomes a bag of dark-roast coffee beans.
Four Way Chocolate Crackle
Makes 40 pieces
For the crackle:
- 40 salted saltine crackers (about 1½ sleeves)
- 1½ cups (375 mL) unsalted butter
- 1½ cups (375 mL) light brown sugar (packed)
- 1 tsp (5 mL) pure vanilla extract
- 2 cups (500 mL) bittersweet chocolate chips or disks
For the toppings:
- ⅔ cup (160 mL) toasted almonds, coarsely chopped
- 2 tbsp (30 mL) gold stars and 2 tsp (10 mL) gold sanding sugar
- ½ cup (125 mL) toasted pumpkin seeds mixed with 1 tbsp (15 mL) finely chopped cocoa beans and ½ tsp (2.5 mL) coarsely ground cassia or cinnamon bark
- 3 tbsp (45 mL) multicoloured sprinkles
- Heat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Line a 11-by-17-inch (28 x 43 cm) rimmed baking sheet with foil and the bottom with parchment paper. Lay out the crackers with the edges touching, covering the pan completely. Don't worry if there’s a little space around the edges.
- In a heavy, medium sized pot melt the butter and brown sugar over medium heat. Stir until the mixture boils, turn the heat to medium low and continue stirring and boiling for 3 minutes
- Stir in the vanilla and immediately pour the mixture over the crackers and spread evenly. Bake for 15 minutes, watching carefully for browning. Reduce the heat to 325ºF (160ºC) if it starts browning too quickly.
- Remove from oven and immediately sprinkle with chocolate chips. Let stand five minutes to melt the chocolate then spread evenly across the caramel. Let cool slightly.
- Measure and mark off 4 quadrants. You can use tinfoil or parchment paper to protect the other 3 areas while decorating. Sprinkle with one garnish then move to the next area until all 4 are completed. Let stand at room temperature until completely hardened.
- Cool and lift the entire confection out of the pan using the foil. Cut or break into individual crackers. Store in an airtight container.
2. Chef Alessandro Vianello
Holiday Lemon Shortbread SliceFriends working together can be a way to make holiday baking a fun social occasion rather than a solitary arduous task. That’s one of the ways Alessandro Vianello, executive chef at the Kitchen Table Restaurants group, recalls his mother preparing for Christmas.
“My mom would always have her friends over and make big batches of biscotti to give away as gifts to friends and family,” he says. “My favourite are her chocolate and hazelnut ones. I love dipping them in cappuccinos.”
If you don’t want to do make-head doughs to freeze, Vianello advises that “the best treats that stay fresh without freezing are panettone, shortbread, biscotti and fruit cake.”
Even professional chefs opt for uncomplicated and quick recipes come the holidays.
“My easy go-to treat is lemon shortbread slice,” says Vianello. “The recipe is easy and includes very few ingredients. You can make them in advance and keep them in an airtight container for weeks. Alternatively, you can make them, freeze them and pull them out when you’re ready for them.”
His choice for a holiday treat is a traditional Italian panettone—but hold the dried fruit please.
Holiday Lemon Shortbread Slice
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 cup butter
- 4 eggs
- 2 cups (500 mL) white sugar
- ⅓ cup (80 mL) lemon juice
- ¼ cup (60 mL) all-purpose flour
- 2 tbsp (30 mL) corn starch
For the shortbread base:
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Combine all ingredients well.
- Press into a sprayed or lined 9x13 baking dish.
- Bake in the oven for about 10 min, until light golden brown.
- Remove from oven and set aside.
For the lemon topping:
- Beat the eggs, lemon and sugar in a stand mixer or with a hand beater until light and fluffy.
- Add the flour and corn starch, mix until there are no more streaks of dry flour remaining.
- Pour lemon topping onto baked shortbread base.
- Return to the oven and bake for an additional 20 min at 350°F or until the custard has set completely.
- Cool and slice.
3. Chef Roy Flemming
Chef Roy FlemmingIn Chef Roy Flemming’s childhood home, his mother’s fruitcakes were the start of holiday baking, weeks in advance of Christmas. And he says that making an early start of it, just like his mom did, is the key to keeping preparations calm.
“The holiday season starts about a week before Christmas in most people’s minds, but my mom would make her fruit cakes two weeks prior and hand them out as gifts,” recalls Flemming, co-owner of Tuc Craft Kitchen. “She would soak ours with a port or sherry for moisture and store in the fridge.”
Freezing, says Flemming, not only works well for cookie doughs, but also profiteroles (choux pastry) and puff pastry doughs. Candy barks, like peanut brittle and Almond Roca, stay fresh without freezing, he adds, and are easy to make with limited ingredients.
“Almond Roca [is] so easy to mix it up by adding different nuts, seeds and fruit. Easy to store and have sitting around for a quick bite or snack as people lounge during the holiday season!”
It’s also a treat he’s happy to receive and give.
“Almond Roca is what we hand out to our loved ones over the holidays,” Flemming says. “My mother-in-law started the tradition: she writes little tags with everyone’s name and wraps them up for gifts.”
Makes 12 servings
- 1½ (375 mL) cups almonds (coarse chop)
- 2 tsp (10 mL) kosher salt
- 1 cup (250 mL) brown sugar
- 1 cup (250 mL) unsalted butter
- 4 cups (1 L) semi-sweet chocolate (coarse chop)
- Spread almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet to toast in a pre-heated 350°F for 15 minutes. Don’t allow them to burn, stir often.
- Once toasted, butter a 7x11-inch (18x28cm) metal sheet pan. Sprinkle 1 cup of toasted almonds on the metal sheet pan.
- In a heavy saucepan at medium-high heat, melt butter, add the salt and brown sugar. Stir until gently boiling. Reduce heat to medium or medium-low and boil 12 minutes exactly, stirring constantly.
- Using a candy thermometer, check the caramel. Once it hits 300°F or 149°C, pull it off the heat when it has reached the hard-crack stage or when the mixture starts to separate.
- Remove the mixture from heat, stir well to mix, immediately pour the hot mixture over the almonds on the sheet pan. Place the chocolate on top. Allow it to melt, then spread chocolate around carefully. Sprinkle with the remaining toasted almonds, and gently press them into the chocolate.
- Cool completely, and then break apart into chunks with your hands. Store in a covered container.
4. Chef Bruno Feldeisen
Chef Bruno FeldeisenHe may be French-born, his accent is definitely a clue, but Chef Bruno Feldeisen had a German grandfather. And from there comes his fond memories of baking German and Scandinavian cookies in Christmases past.
These days his go-to for easy holiday baking are simple butter cookies. “They are always fun to decorate and, with some creativity, kids and family members will have a blast,” says the cookbook author and judge on CBC’s Great Canadian Baking Show.
Feldeisen advises that toppings and pie shells, in addition to cookie doughs, can also be made in advance and frozen. He suggests starting two or even three weeks ahead to take the pressure off.
“Topping, such as streusel, can be made and stored in an airtight container in the freezer,” he says. “Any sauces can be made and kept in the fridge for two weeks. Any fruit filling can be made 10 days ahead and refrigerated. Just assemble the day it is needed and bake your heart away while sipping on mulled wine.”
Another tip for freezing cookie dough for shaped cookies is to roll out the dough and cut out the shapes before baking. Then, it’s just popping them into the oven when you want fresh-baked goodies.
“Just make the dough, chill, roll or shape, cut. Then freeze on a parchment-lined baking tray,” he explains. “When the cookies are hard, place in an airtight container and place back in the freezer until needed. Depending on the quality of the freezer, those cookies are good up to 60 days.”
For himself, Feldiesen looks forward to receiving something sparkly—of the wine variety.
Lemon Poppy Seed Butter Cookies
Makes 2 dozen
- 1 cup (250 mL) unsalted butter
- 1 cup (250 mL) icing sugar
- 2 large eggs
- ½ tsp. (2.5 mL) sea salt
- ¾ tsp. (3.7 mL) baking soda
- 2½ cups (625 mL) all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp. (10 mL) lemon zest
- ¼ cup (60 mL) poppy seeds
- Preheat the oven to 360°F.
- In an electric mixer bowl, using the paddle attachment, cream the butter and icing sugar together. Mix until the colour is pale or about 6 minutes.
- Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure the mixture is smooth.
- Add the eggs and continue mixing until fully incorporated.
- Combine the flour, baking soda, salt, poppy seeds and lemon zest together and add to the butter mixture. Mix on low speed until the dough comes together.
- Turn the dough onto a floured work surface. Roll the dough into a 1-inch (2.5 cm) log.
- Wrap in parchment paper and refrigerate for 2 hours.
- Using a chef's knife, cut the log into quarter-inch (½ cm) thick rounds and place on a parchment lined baking tray, each cookie being placed half-inch (1 cm) apart.
- Using a small sieve, dust the top of each cookie with icing sugar.
- Bake for 15 minutes or until the edge of the cookies are light brown in colour.
- Place the baking tray on a cooling rack.
From Baking With Bruno: A French Baker’s North America Love Story, Whitecap Books, 2019.
Photo credit: Henry Wu.
5. Chef Noel Singh
Gingerbread Cake with White Chocolate Butter CreamTraditional gingerbread cookies are the signal that Christmas is in the air for Chef Noel Singh of The Teahouse. “The smell is so nostalgic and reminds me of the holidays instantly,” he says.
As a pastry chef, Singh whips all sorts of confections but says in recent years his easy, go-to holiday treat has been mulled wine. Though he says that chocolate chip cookies are always a favourite.
When it comes to receiving, Singh is thrilled when people give him any type of food gift. He’s just appreciative.
“It is so special and thoughtful when someone takes the time to cook or bake something for you,” he says.
Gingerbread Cake with White Chocolate Butter Cream
Makes 1 9-inch round layer (double the recipe to make a layer cake)
- 1 cup (250 mL) water
- ⅔ cup (160 mL) molasses
- 2 tsp (10 mL) baking soda
- 2 ½ (725 mL) cups of flour
- 2 tsp (10 mL) ground ginger
- 1½ tsp (7.5 mL) cinnamon
- ½ tsp (2.5 mL) nutmeg
- ½ tsp (2.5 mL) cloves
- ½ tsp (2.5 mL) salt
- 2 tsp (10 mL) baking powder
- ½ cup (125 mL) butter
- ⅔ cup (160 mL) sugar
- 2 eggs
- ¼ cup (60 mL) plain yogurt
White Chocolate Buttercream:
- ½ cup (125 mL) white chocolate
- 2 cups (500 mL) butter (room temperature)
- 2½ cups of powdered sugar
- ¼ milk (room temperature)
- ½ tsp (2.5 mL) salt
Candied cranberry garnish:
- 2 cups (500 mL) sugar
- 1 cup (250 mL) water
- Lemon peel
- Orange peel
- 1 tsp (5 mL) vanilla
- Combine water and molasses in a saucepan and bring to boil. Remove from heat.
- Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.
- Add eggs (room temperature) into butter mixture one at a time scraping down the sides.
- Combine all dry ingredients and stir together.
- Add butter mixture to dry ingredients and scrape down the sides.
- Slowly add the molasses to the mixture, again scraping the sides.
- Bake the cake at 325 for 40 to 50 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean.
White Chocolate Buttercream:
- Melt the white chocolate on a double boiler until fully melted.
- Whip butter until it is light and fluffy.
- Sift icing sugar into the butter mixture and combine.
- Add melted chocolate into the mixture.
- Add the milk, vanilla and salt to the mixture until fully combined.
Candied cranberry garnish:
- Bring sugar and water to a boil at a high heat until sugar is completely dissolved.
- Reduce to a simmer and add in the cranberries, lemon, orange and vanilla and allow to simmer on the lowest setting for 15 minutes.
- Strain the cranberries from the mixture.
- Toss the cranberries in granulated sugar.
- Once the cake is completely cooled, frost it with the buttercream and garnish with the candied cranberries.
6. Chef Nicholas Issel
Chocolate Bark When it comes to favourite Christmas treats, Nicholas Issel, executive chef at JW Marriott Parq Vancouver, is definitely not a foodie snob. He still relishes memories of his mother’s simple cookie-cake yule log made with only chocolate wafers and whipped cream. “Not fancy by any means,” he admits, “but simple and delicious.” That egalitarian attitude extends to other holiday treats too.
“I love all the boxes of sugar cookies, bags of mixed whole nuts and Christmas chocolates: After Eights, Ovations etc.,” he says. “They all come out at Christmas and disappear for the rest of the year.”
One of Issel’s favourite confectionaries to create is a super-easy chocolate bark: no baking and only a few ingredients but with a big flavourful payoff.
But for people who want to create more elaborate fare, he suggests following the five “Ps.”
“’Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance,’ basically summed up [it] means pre-plan, precook, pre-plate…”.
And take advantage that most cookie doughs can be frozen and just baked up when needed.
- 1 pound, just over (500 g) milk chocolate
- toasted almonds (your desired amount)
- pistachios (your desired amount)
- dried cranberries (your desired amount)
- Place the milk chocolate in a stainless steel bowl and temper over simmering hot water creating a double boiler.
- Gather all your dry ingredients, about a tablespoon each of dried cranberries, toasted almonds and pistachios.
- Once chocolate is melted pour over grease-proof paper on a baking sheet.
- Allow chocolate to sit for 3 to 4 minutes, then spread all the dry ingredients over top.
- Allow to the chocolate cool at room temperature.
- Once chocolate is solid again, simply break into smaller pieces and enjoy.
7. Chef Steven Hodge
Butter tarts Temper Chocolate & Pastry’s chef Steven Hodge is a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas food and drink, be it his culture or anyone else’s. He embraces all traditions.
“I love a good traditional gift from a different culture. I love to try new things and see what other people enjoy,” he says.
But he savours making his own rum and eggnog and shortbread cookies. Shortbread, eggnog lattes and peppermint patties are his iconic Christmas treats.
Hodge suggests, that if making cookie dough in advance doesn’t appeal, chocolate treats, caramelized nuts, and toffees are easy items to create that stay fresh without needing to be frozen.
Butter tarts are a staple on Temper’s menu. If you can’t be bothered to make them or anything else for that matter, Hodge cheekily suggests you know where to find them.
Makes 20 tarts
- 4½ cups (1¼ L) all-purpose flour
- ¾ cup (180 mL) pastry flour
- 2 tsp (10 mL) salt
- 2¾ cups (680 mL) butter
- ½ cup (125 mL) shortening
- 1 tbsp (15 mL) water
- 1¼ cups (310 mL) butter
- 2¼ cups (560 mL) brown sugar
- 5 eggs
- 1½ tbsp (22 mL) vanilla
- ¾ cup (180 mL) cream
- ½ tsp (2.5 mL) salt
- 1¼ cups (310 mL) maple syrup
- 1½ cups (325 mL) raisins
For the pastry:
- Combine cold butter into dry ingredients in pea-sized amounts.
- Add liquid to mix and shape into a round, mixing minimally. Cover in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
- Remove from the fridge roll out the dough on a floured surface to 1/8-inch (3 mm) thickness and cut into circles with a cutter.
- Place each round into muffin tin, refrigerate for 10 minutes before adding filling.
- Scoop about 2 tbsp (30 mL) into each muffin tin cup.
For the filling:
- Cream the brown sugar and butter together add vanilla extract and salt until light and fluffy.
- Add eggs and combine into the butter mixture.
- Add cream, maple syrup and raisins, and stir together.
- Pour into tart shells.
- Bake at 375°F and turn once at 10 minutes and bake for 10 minutes more.