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VISIONS OF SUGARPLUMS: Host a holiday cookie party or baking day

It's holiday baking season, time to gather your friends or family and bake up some of those nostalgic family favourites — a holiday miracle!




Even if, like me, you’re one of those people who rarely bakes, the holiday season always calls for dusting off the old family recipes and creating cookies, cakes and sweets to celebrate.

It’s all about family traditions — making some of those nostalgic treats that your mother or grandmother always made for Christmas, and passing those recipes down to another generation.

It can be a great way to spend a day with family and friends, far from the malls and commercial side of Christmas, creating traditions and warm holiday memories.

In our house, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without shortbread cookies, fruit cake and stollen, chocolate truffles and nutty date balls rolled in coconut.

Chocolate Truffles

It’s the time of year when we love those warm winter spices — cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg in gingerbread and sugar cookies to decorate and share.

And it’s the season for nuts and dried fruits — whether raisins or currants of cranberries — that turn up in Christmas cakes, puddings and tarts, mincemeat and flakey butter tarts.

Many of these recipes have British or European roots, but cookies and sweetmeat cross all cultures, whether Mexican wedding cookies (almond shortbread balls rolled in icing sugar), Chinese almond cookies, or tender tapioca flour and coconut milk cookies from Malaysia.

Think about making a kind of cookie that’s significant for your family, an ethnic recipe passed down from your grandmother or just a family favourite.

Sicilian Christmas cookies



But all of that holiday baking takes time and it’s best to share the work, and the joy of holiday baking.

You can set aside a day to bake with your family or friends. A baking bee, to create two or three treats, is a great family tradition. Get the kids involved mixing and rolling out cookies, and cutting them into festive shapes with reindeer or Santa Claus cookie cutters.

Sugar cookies are easy to roll and cut for decorating with colourful icing and sprinkles. If you really want to get fancy, you can outline shapes in royal icing, then thin it down and flood the cookies, for that smooth, shiny look.

Royal icing is a mixture of icing sugar, water or milk, and meringue powder or stiffly beaten egg whites, and dries hard so its good for cementing gingerbread houses together, too.

Or make a batch of gingerbread people and shapes for your kids to decorate with icing in an array of colours (recipe below). Just put the royal icing into a squeeze bottle or a plastic sandwich bag and snip off the corner to make a simple piping bag for decorating cookies.



A cookie swap is another great way to get a wonderful selection of cookies —. hosting a cookie party lets you celebrate the season with friends at the same time.

Just invite a group of friends to bake and gather for a cookie exchange. If there are six invitees, everyone makes seven dozen of their favourite holiday cookie recipe — six to exchange and one to share with everyone at the party.

You can scale up or down — just make a dozen cookies for every participant to take home, plus extras to taste at the event. If there are eight bakers, make nine dozen cookies. You get the idea.

Christmas cookies are small, and many recipes make 3-4 dozen, so it's not too daunting. But keep the number of attendees manageable.

Participants can package up their cookies in individual bags, or everyone can just bring their own containers to take their collection of cookies home.

You can make it as simple or elaborate as you like, but the host should make sure everyone makes a different kind of cookie, so you get an interesting selection of goodies. It’s always nice if everyone brings copies of their recipe to share with everyone so you go home with both cookies and some new baking ideas.

 The trick when you’re making Christmas cookies is size — small is better because Christmas cookies are supposed to be the kind of dainty morsels that you can combine on a sweet tray for a buffet, or to pass after a big meal.

When you’re planning your holiday baking, imagine that tray and make a variety of items — something buttery, something chocolately, something nutty. It’s also a good time of year to create homemade candy, nut brittles, hand-rolled truffles and even homemade fudge or marshmallows are welcome on a sweet tray.

An assortment of holiday cookies makes a great gift. Get some nice cellophane bags at a hobby or party store and tie up a mixed bag of cookies, or deliver them in a pretty tin or box.



Shortbread is a classic cookie at this time of year and it’s super simple to make — just three ingredients, butter, flour and sugar.

Shortbread is all about the butter — the shortening (a.k.a. fat) that makes this simple cookie “short” or especially crisp.

Mom's Scottish shortbread

My mother’s Scottish shortbread is the snappy style (recipe follows), cut into thick bars and baked until golden. It’s a perfectly portable, utilitarian treat, pale squares, unadorned save a punctured pattern made with the tines of a fork.

Just three ingredients combine to create its simple, buttery goodness — sugar, butter, and flour — in the perfect 1:2:3 ratio.

But some shortbread recipes aim for tender cookies — made by adding other ingredients such as icing sugar, cornstarch, finely ground nuts or eggs.

Mexican Wedding Cookies made with ground nuts and icing sugar

The Mexican Wedding Cookie or Viennese crescent cookies fall into this category. Some of these shortbread cookies are rolled into balls before baking or pressed into pretty shapes with a cookie press.

Or there’s the shortbread thumbprint cookie with a depression on top to place a candied cherry or fill with jam.

And there are modern variations on the holiday shortbread theme — shortbread flavoured with orange or lavender, even savoury shortbread made with cheese.

Of course, fruit cake, steamed puddings loaded with dried fruits, stollen and pannetone, German and Italian fruit-studded breads, are all seasonal classics for bakers, along with spiced gingerbread for cookies or gingerbread houses to decorate.

Pies and tarts — mincemeat and butter tarts, savoury pork pies and tourtiere — are also popular holiday bakes.

Ice box cookies are super easy to make for beginners. The cookie dough is made, rolled into a log and chilled, then sliced into rounds to bake, and there are many variations and extras you can add (spices, dried fruits, nuts, chocolate chips) to change up the recipe.



I like to make a pecan and cranberry tart — like a giant butter tart — a serve wedges with a cranberry and fresh orange compote to end a holiday meal.

This year, I’m going to make a Basque cheesecake — the simple caramelized souffle style cheesecake — and serve it with a similar fruit sauce.

Or you can get a pretty glass bowl and make my easy but spectacular holiday trifle with layers of poundcake, custard, fruit and whipped cream (recipe below). Very festive and easy to do, even starting with poundcake from the supermarket bakery, then sprinkle with brandy and layer with peaches, raspberry sauce and custard sauce.

Tiramisu or trifle makes an impressive no-bake holiday dessert.

Tiramisu is a variation on that theme, a layered dessert made with lady finger cookies, coffee liqueur or rum, whipped mascarpone and cream — you don’t even need to bake to create this kind of impressive finale.

Or just offer your guests a selection of your holiday baking, in small bites, on a pretty platter — it’s really all you need to finish a big turkey dinner.



If all else fails, you can get some great holiday treats from local bakeries — Victoria has some of the best bakers in the country.

Martha’s Delectables in Fairfield is the place to get shortbread (in several tasty flavours like lemon and orange brandy), and Peckish Café next door (formerly Deer & Dough) has traditional Christmas treat boxes with almond and chocolate snowball cookies, truffles and butter tarts. Patisserie Daniel specializes in gingerbread and tourtiere. Go to Wild Fire Organic bakery for a yule log, butter tarts or Scottish Dundee cake, and Fry’s Bakery makes exceptional German-style stollen.

The Dutch Bakery downtown has stollen, spicy speculaas cookies, dark fruitcake and sweet party trays.

Ottavio Italian Bakery makes beautiful cookies and has a great selection of imported Panettone in a variety of flavours (think classic, pistachio, limoncello, chocolate, salted caramel, candied chestnut, and vegan chocolate).

Fol Epi organic bakery bakes beautiful panettone, cranberry shortbread and maple walnut butter tarts, too. And there are eggnog custard danishes at Working Culture Bread.

Goodside Pastry House is the place for that show stopper holiday pastry or dessert, think pannetone brioche or savoury turkey, cranberry and brie croissants.

For great gluten free treats there’s Origin Bakery, where you’ll find shortbread, gingerbread, fruitcake, biscotti and meringue treats, all made without gluten.


Make sure you plan to take a whole day for holiday baking.  Choose two or three favourite recipes, gather together all of the ingredients and equipment you need, then make a pot of spicy mulled apple cider, play some Christmas carols and let it snow.

By the end of the day, you’ll have several batches of delicious cookies to eat, or give away, and some nice warm holiday memories.




This is my family’s recipe — classic fingers of traditional shortbread, just like my Scottish grandmother made. It’s all about the technique.

Shortbread in the oven

1 pound (450g) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup (250 ml) granulated sugar

4-5 cups (1-1.25 L) all-purpose flour, sifted


With electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until fluffy.

Gradually add flour, mixing with a spoon, until crumbly - dough should be very stiff and barely hold together.

Avoid using your hands or warming mixture, as cookies will be hard.

Dump dough onto work surface and, using a wide knife, pat into a square, about 3/4 inch thick. Cut into 3/4 X 2 inch bars.

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Using a spatula, lift cookies onto sheet, placing 1/2 inch apart. Poke top of each cookie lightly with a fork.

Bake at 325°F for 30-40 minutes, until edges barely colour. Cut squares apart while still warm. Cool on racks. Makes about 4 doz.



At Christmastime, everyone loves gingerbread. Corral some kids and make gingerbread people to hang on the tree or get really ambitious and build a gingerbread mansion.

This recipe makes gingerbread suitable for cookies or houses. It’s a traditional German recipe that needs to mature for several days before baking, so start your gingerbread project a few days before you plan to bake. And if you’re using the gingerbread for making houses, substitute margarine for the butter – it makes a crisper, drier and sturdier gingerbread.


3/4 cup (175 ml) dark brown sugar

2/3 cup (150 ml) butter

1 egg

3 tablespoons (45 ml) milk

1/2 cup (125) molasses

4 cups (1 L) all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) baking powder

2 teaspoons (5 ml) ground ginger

1 teaspoon (5  ml) cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon (1 ml) allspice

1/4 teaspoon (1 ml) ground cloves

Decorative Icing:

2 cups icing sugar

1 egg white

1 teaspoon white vinegar or lemon juice


In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to cream sugar with butter until fluffy. Add the egg, milk and molasses and beat until well mixed.

In another bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, allspice and cloves. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture, mixing by hand to combine well.  The dough should be stiff – if it’s sticky, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time. Wrap dough in plastic wrap or waxed paper and refrigerate overnight or up to 2 weeks to allow flavors to meld. This is the secret of great German-style gingerbread. With maturation, the dough gains added depth and flavor.

The cold dough will be hard to roll – either let it warm to room temperature before rolling or cut it into thick slices and roll between pieces of waxed paper. Roll out to desired thickness, about1/8 to1/4 inch for cookies, and cut into gingerbread men shapes. Use a cookie cutter or make a cardboard stencil (paper doll style) as a guide. If you want to hang your gingerbread people on the tree, use a drinking straw to punch nice even holes near the top before baking.

You may also use this gingerbread for the walls and roof of a gingerbread house - roll it a little thicker for bigger slabs, measure and cut carefully using templates.

Bake gingerbread on a greased and parchment- lined baking sheet at 350°F for 8-12 minutes, depending on thickness.  Touch the top – if it springs back, it’s done. Cool gingerbread on wire racks.

To make the decorative icing, beat egg white with an electric mixer and gradually add the sugar, beating until the mixture starts to stiffen. Add the vinegar and beat until stiff. Use this icing right away as it hardens fast – good for gluing houses together or to cement candy decorations in place. Put the icing in a heavy zippered plastic bag, squeeze out the air and snip off a small corner for a fast and disposable piping bag.

Makes 6 dozen gingerbread cookies, four small houses or one large gingerbread house.


Make these on a December afternoon when the shopping is done and you’re in the mood to contemplate Christmas. Buy some of those pretty miniature foil cups and some funky boxes (look for cookie tins or even those cardboard Chinese food container with little wire handles) and make some edible gifts to tote along wherever you visit. Christmas card boxes (with the clear plastic lids) tied with pretty ribbons, also make nice container for these dead easy homemade chocolates.


1/4 cup granulated sugar

zest of 1 orange

1 cup shelled hazelnuts, toasted  and skins removed (

1/2 cup unsalted butter

12 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate (Valrhona or Callebaut)

3 tablespoons orange-flavored liqueur or brandy (like Cointreau or Grand Marnier)

1/2 cup Dutch process cocoa powder


In the food processor, combine the sugar and orange zest and process until finely minced.

Add the hazelnuts and pulse until the nuts are finely ground.

Chop the chocolate and put it in a small glass bowl with the butter. Microwave on medium power for 1 minute, stir, then continue to microwave, a minute at a time, stirring until the chocolate is melted. Add to the food processor along with the liqueur and whirl to combine.

Put the truffle mixture into a bowl, cover and refrigerate until firm.

Place the cocoa in a shallow bowl. Scoop out the chocolate mixture and roll into small balls. Roll each ball in cocoa to coat on all sides, then set in a foil cup. Refrigerate or freeze. Makes 50 or 60 truffles.


This is a simple cookie that my grandmother made every year for Christmas. The recipe has Easternl European roots, but is also very similar to the Mexican Wedding Cookie. You can make these tender little cookies start to finish in a food processor, or grind the pecans in a blender and combine by hand.


1 1/4 cup whole pecans (about 1 cup ground)

1 cup icing sugar (powdered sugar), plus extra for dusting

1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

2 cups all-purpose flour


In a food processor, combine the nuts with half of the icing sugar and pulse until the nuts are finely ground. Cut the butter into large cubes and add to the processor along with the remaining sugar and whirl until the butter is smooth. Add the vanilla and flour and pulse just until the dough comes together.

Chill for 1 hour then form into crescents using about 1 1/2-2 teaspoons of batter for each cookie. Roll by hand into a sausage shape, with slightly pointed ends, then form a moon shaped crescent and set on a parchment-lined cookie sheet (alternatively, roll into small balls).

Bake at 350ºF for 15-20 minutes, until the cookies are just light golden.

Slide the cookies, parchment paper and all, onto racks to cool for 5 minutes, then dust heavily with icing sugar (use a flour sifter or simply put the icing sugar into a small sieve and tap to dust the cookies). Keep them in a cookie tin - separate the layers with parchment.

Makes 4 to 4 1/2 dozen. 



This is an impressive and easy, no-bake dessert — the non=baker's Show Stopper. 

Get out that crystal trifle or punch bowl, or, if you’re doing dinner at home, layer the ingredients in pretty individual parfait or stemmed wine glasses. A classic ending to a very Dickensian soiree — and you can do it all a day before your holiday dinner. Sweet!


1 pound cake, sliced thinly, or 2 packages soft ladyfingers, halved

3/4 cup sweet sherry, divided 175 ml

3 cups canned peaches, drained and sliced (about 12 peach halves) 750 ml


Raspberry Sauce:

1 package (300 g) frozen, unsweetened raspberries

1/4 cup sugar 50 ml

2 teaspoons cornstarch 10 ml



3 cups hot milk or half-and-half cream 750 ml

4 egg yolks

1/4 cup cornstarch 50 ml

1/2 cup sugar 125 ml

3/4 teaspoon vanilla 4ml


1 cup heavy cream, sweetened and whipped

Fruit (fresh raspberries or peaches)  and mint leaves to garnish


To make the raspberry sauce, use a spoon to press the thawed raspberries through a sieve set over a saucepan to extract the juice and pulp, and remove the seeds. Set the fruit puree over medium heat and stir in the sugar and cornstarch. Cook, stirring constantly, until just boiling and thick. Remove from heat and cool (may be made 2 days in advance)

To make custard, start with a saucepan that has been rinsed out with hot water but not dried – this prevents the milk solids from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Heat the milk until bubbles begin to form around the edges. Do not boil.

Beat the egg yolks with sugar and cornstarch until smooth and slowly whisk in hot milk. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, for 3-5 minutes or until custard has boiled for about 1 minute and is quite thick. Remove from heat and place in a bowl. Stir in the vanilla and 1/4 cup of the sherry. Cool slightly then cover with plastic wrap, placing the wrap directly on the surface of the custard, and refrigerate up to 2 days.

Slice peaches. Reserve a few slices of peaches for garnish.

Line an 8-cup glass trifle bowl or individual dishes with a layer of pound cake or ladyfingers. Sprinkle a little of the remaining sherry over the cake layer and top with 1/3 of the custard. Arrange about 1/3 of the peaches over top, making sure you press some of the pieces close to the glass so they’ll show. Drizzle with 1/3 of the raspberry syrup.

Repeat layers of cake, sherry, custard, peaches and syrup, ending with a layer of cake, sherry and custard. Cover the trifle tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours or over night.

Before serving, whip the cream with a couple of tablespoons of sugar to sweeten it. Use the whipped cream, fruit and mint leaves to garnish the top of the trifle. And bring it to the table in the serving dish to serve so that everyone can ooh and aahh (it doesn’t look half as impressive after it’s been scooped out but it tastes divine). Serve in your prettiest dessert dishes. Serves 8.


My aunt used to make marshmallows for the holidays — and I know a chef who scents his with aromatic herbs.

Try adding a drop of food colouring to the mix, for mint green and pink marshmallows.

Or, after you've poured the mixture into the pan, simply drop some red food colouring randomly over surface and pull a table knife through to create a swirl pattern over top.


2 ½ tablespoons unflavoured gelatin

1 cup water, divided

1 ½ cups sugar

1 cup corn syrup

¼ teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

food colouring (optional)

cooking spray and icing sugar


Use cooking spray to lightly grease an 8-inch square cake pan. Heavily dust the pan with icing sugar, shaking the pan to make sure all of the base and sides are coated with sugar. Set aside.

In a big stand mixer, with a whisk attachment, combine the gelatin and ½ cup of water. Let stand 20 minutes to soften.

Meanwhile, combine the remaining ½ cup of water with the  sugar and corn syrup in a heavy saucepan. Stir over medium low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Then stir in the salt.

Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and increase the heat to medium. Bring the mixture  to a boil and simmer, for about 15 minutes, until the temperature hits 244°F. Watch carefully to make sure the syrup doesn’t burn or boil over.

When the mixture reaches 244°F, carefully and slowly pour it into the gelatin mixture in the mixer, with the machine running on low speed. When the hot syrup is completely incorporated, turn the machine to high speed, and whisk for 15 minutes, until the mixture is thick, white and nearly tripled in volume.

Add the vanilla, and one tablespoon of cold water, and bean to combine.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared pan. Shake the pan to even it on top. Let stand, uncovered, overnight.

The next morning, dust your cutting board with icing sugar and turn the marshmallow cake out of the pan, onto the sugared surface. Using a large chef’s knife, cut into 1-inch squares, dusting the cut surfaced with more icing sugar. They may be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 weeks. Makes about 64 pieces.



A cross between a cookie and a pastry, these tiny crescent rolls are addictive. I usually fill my rugalah (aka rugelach) with ground walnuts but I’ve seen recipes that include everything from pecans with cinnamon and cocoa, to raspberry jam. Make the dough and experiment with your own combinations. From The Guy Can’t Cook by Cinda Chavich.


1/2 cup (125 mL) cold butter

1 1/2 cups (375 mL) all-purpose flour

1 egg yolk

1/2 cup (125 mL) sour cream



1 egg white

drop of pure vanilla extract

1 cup (250 mL) ground walnuts or pecans

1/3 cup (75 mL) granulated sugar


1 egg white and granulated sugar to glaze


In a food processor, combine the butter and flour, and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk and sour cream. Add to the processor and pulse until the dough comes together. Dump the contents of the food processor out onto your work surface and gather into a ball. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

For the filling, lightly beat the egg white and vanilla, then stir in the walnuts and sugar.

Divide the dough into three pieces and roll each into a 10-inch circle, about 1/4-inch thick. Spread each round with filling, right out to the edges, and cut into 12 pie-shaped wedges.

Starting at the wide end, roll the wedges tightly. Bend the rolls into crescent shapes and place all on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, setting the cookies about 2 inches apart. Lightly beat the egg white and brush over the rugalah, then sprinkle lightly with sugar.

Bake in a 350ºF oven for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Makes 3 dozen.



This is one of those easy, old-fashioned, no-bake Christmas treats that you may remember  making as a kid – make some with your kid, or for the kid in you. These date and nut balls freeze and store well. From The Guy Can’t Cook by Cinda Chavich.


1/2 cup (125 mL) unsalted butter

1 cup (250 mL) packed brown sugar

1 1/2 cups (375 mL) chopped dates

1 egg, beaten

1/2 teaspoon (2 mL) pure vanilla pinch of salt

2 1/2 cups (625 mL) crispy rice cereal

3/4 cup (175 mL) chopped walnuts or pecans

shredded coconut or powdered (icing) sugar


In a saucepan, combine the butter, sugar, dates, and egg, and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture boils and thickens, about 6 minutes.

Cool to lukewarm and stir in the rice cereal, nuts, vanilla, and salt. Mix well and roll into small balls about the size of a walnut. (If your hands are wet the mixture won’t stick.) Roll balls in coconut or icing sugar to coat. Chill.

Makes 24 balls



One of my old friends – who always claims she can’t cook – makes this insanely addictive chocolate brittle bar for the holidays. It’s so easy to you’ll become addicted, too. Use the best chocolate you can find – and don’t say I didn’t warn you! From The Guy Can’t Cook by Cinda Chavich.


1 box graham wafer cookies

1 1/2 cups (3/4 pound/375 g) unsalted butter

1 cup (250 mL) brown sugar

3 cups (750 mL) chopped bittersweet Belgian chocolate (or real chocolate chips)


Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Cover the entire pan with a layer of graham crackers.

In a saucepan, combine the butter and sugar and bring to a boil over medium heat. Boil for 5 minutes

Carefully pour the hot sugar syrup evenly over the graham crackers (go slow, this is hot stuff!). Put the pan in the oven and bake for 5 minutes.

Pour a layer of chocolate chunks, or chips, over the pan and, as they melt, use a butter knife to spread the chocolate evenly over the entire sheet. Refrigerate. That’s it. Break up into pieces, like peanut brittle.


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

©Cinda Chavich 2023


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