By Anna Brooks
Photography by Ingrid Kuenzel and Dong Kim

It’s holiday season, which means it’s the time of year to unabashedly indulge in desserts.

The crisp crunch of gingerbread, the warm spice of a freshly baked fruitcake… there’s nothing more comforting than home baked goods. We tend to stick to tradition when it comes to seasonal desserts, so this month, we asked four local pastry chefs for some tips and tricks on how to spice up our holiday treats.

For Jinnee Lu, pastry chef and owner of Reinette Café & Patisserie in Edmonton, the best desserts are like unwrapping a gift and finding something surprising inside. Lu recommends Galette de Rois, otherwise known as King’s Cake, one of her favourite holiday cakes to make.

 A puff pastry filled with sweet almond cream, this dessert also has a lucky charm – usually a bean or an almond – hidden inside. “According to tradition, whoever finds the small token hidden inside the pie will become king or queen of the day,” she says. “Not only do I love this tasty treat, but it’s also fun sharing this tradition with my family.”

A yule log is another festive dessert Lu says is easier to make than it looks. A chocolate sponge cake rolled with vanilla whipped cream and topped with red berries; this cake is simple, elegant, and also works as a great centerpiece.

If you want to start small, try Lu’s recipe for a French favourite – mini raspberry almond cakes.

You want to pull out all the stops during the holidays to spoil your friends and family, but sometimes you don’t have the time (or the know how) to whip up a double-layered crème tart topped with fresh macarons. Benjamin Griffon, pastry chef at Espresso Café in Calgary, says when it comes to baking, the emphasis should first and foremost be about flavour, not extravagance.

“For home cooking, the easiest thing for bakers to do is make a simple pastry with one or two very special ingredients. It could be a very good French chocolate, or something like a syrup made with high quality whiskey,” he says.

Griffon says you can always jazz up your dessert afterwards with decorations like edible gold foil or chocolate truffle shavings. If your holiday wish is chocolate, try out Griffon’s recipe for a decadent chocolate tart!

If you’ve ever mistaken salt for sugar, you’ve learned the hard way that baking can be unforgiving.

The baking bible warns never to stray from a recipe, but Jennifer Stang, executive pastry chef at La Boule Patisserie & Bakery in Edmonton, says there are some shortcuts – like cooking cake bases ahead of time and freezing – that can save you time and stress during a holiday baking marathon.

“A recipe may not show it, but a lot of elements can be done piecemeal—you don’t need to do everything at once,” she says. “Pastries freeze really well, so you can make your cake on one day, your jelly on the next, and then just put everything together the day of. It also gives you a better chance to focus on making one thing at a time.”

And if your masterpiece doesn’t look quite the way you want it to, Stang says a dusting of icing sugar works as a perfect holiday cover-up. Try out Stang’s spin on a classic, with her mouth-watering citrus and cardamom-spiced madeleines!

One of a baker’s biggest challenges, especially when everyone’s home for the holidays, are food sensitivities. Longtime pastry chef Marie Ghesquiere, owner of online patisserie She Bakes Bouquets, has a new favourite holiday dessert that’s both easy to make, and just about anyone can enjoy.

“Marshmallows are something new we do that have less sugar and are gluten-free,” she says. “They are fun to make and you don’t even need to cook, it’s just heating sugar and that’s it!”

Some of Ghesquiere’s more festive marshmallow flavours are chai latte, chocolate and fresh mint, and lemon meringue.

Homemade marshmallows may sound daunting, but Ghesquiere says all you need to do – as every baker should – is follow the steps. For a light dessert or a treat to pair with hot chocolate, try Ghesquiere’s top-selling recipe for eggnog marshmallows.

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