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  • Michele Genest

From the Vault: A Scattering of Yukon Desserts

Updated: Oct 10, 2020

Labrador Tea, Lowbush Cranberries and Birch Syrup are the superstars in these delectable northern sweets

Archbould Photography

If you asked a Yukoner to name the quintessential Yukon dessert, any money they'd say berry crisp, pie, or crumble. It's what we bake, it's what we bring to potlucks, it's what we know how to do.

Wild berries have always provided Indigenous people in the Yukon with that satisfying sweet-sour kick. In the 2008 publication, Plant Use in Gwich’in Territory, Vuntun Gwich’in Elder and Anglican minister Ellen Bruce, who died in 2010 at the age of 98, remembered eating sweets out on the land: “When we went to Crow Flat after the snow melts, we looked for cranberries around the lake…. At that time we never saw fruit or sweets, only sugar and flour. We picked the cranberries, boiled them: this is what we had for sweets.”

Some of the earliest settler desserts in the Yukon were pies, puddings, and simple cakes made with the limited staples on hand and dressed up with jams, jellies, or fresh berries. Those simple desserts had staying power--in 1942, passengers on the SS Klondike II travelling the Yukon River to Dawson tucked in to Bonanza Plum Pudding with Hard Rock Sauce, Sourdough Blueberry Pie or Cheechako Apple Pie.

In North America, dessert as we know it today was a long tme coming, a relatively recent invention closely tied to the history of sugar. Honey, plant or tree syrups and sweet fruits like dates and figs were probably the world's first sweeteners, but sugar really upped the dessert ante.

Sugarcane was cultivated in New Guinea as long as 8,000 years ago and first refined in India before 500 BCE. Granulated sugar became a trade item, reaching Macedonia by 300 BCE and China by 600 CE. Sugar continued to roam the world, carried by the expansion of Arab cultures to the Mediterranean and into Europe via Spain, Portugal, and crusading northern Europeans, who brought sugar home with them. In 1493, Christopher Columbus took sugarcane seedlings to the New World. Enter the shameful modern history of slavery and the gradually increasing production of sugar.

While the spread of sugar in Europe resulted in the invention of bizarre dishes we’d raise an eyebrow at today (marzipan stuffed with eel, lampreys served in sweetened blood), dessert as a separate course at the end of the meal didn’t take hold until the 18th century. Michael Krondl, the author of Sweet Inventions, A History of Dessert, posits that with the advent of salons in Europe, where refined people gathered to exchange ideas (and gossip), chefs invented small individual servings of sweets to be taken with tea. The growing fashion of Russian service, whereby dishes were served in succession rather than all at once, completed the evolution. Dessert became the final course in the houses of the wealthy.

But sugar wasn’t available to any but the wealthy (and those who served them, who could sneak a taste in the kitchen) until the Industrial Revolution when mechanization led to the democratization of dessert and the explosion of dessert recipes for the home cook.

In the meantime, in Canada, Indigenous people were drinking birch sap as a tonic and turning maple sap into syrup. Early Canadian desserts reflected those influences. Chef Wayne Morris, who owned the former Boralia Restaurant in Toronto, found inspiration for his dishes in recipes from Canada’s Indigenous and settler history. He served a version of pouding chômeur (poor man’s pudding)— a simple cake batter cooked in maple syrup—based on a late 18th-century recipe.

The word dessert is derived from the French desservir, to clear away the table. My grade eight English teacher taught our class a trick for remembering how to spell dessert—one s or two? She said you would only want to cross the desert once (one s), but you would always enjoy two desserts (two s’s). She also told us, on another occasion, that the three most important words in the language were not “I love you,” but “Maybe you’re right.”

She was right about dessert—most of us would enjoy two. The two desserts assembled here are inspired by historical fare and Yukon ingredients. Each one is designed as a clutch of complementary elements, but those elements can easily be mixed and matched. So you could try making Birch Syrup Shortbread and Labrador Tea Gelato ice cream sandwiches, for example, or pour Toffee Sauce over Cranberry Mousse. When it comes to dessert, if it tastes good, it’s right!

Cranberry Mousse With Chocolate Pâté and Birch Syrup Shortbread

Archbould Photography

Cranberry Mousse

This is a three-step recipe. The first step is to make an Italian meringue. Persevere!

Italian Meringue

1 cup granulated sugar

½ cup water

¼ tsp cream of tartar

4 egg whites (use large eggs), at room temperature

1. Have the stand mixer or hand mixer and bowl of egg whites set up and ready to go beside the stove. Whisk sugar, water, and cream of tartar together in a small saucepan. Bring to the boil over medium-high heat. Insert thermometer.

2. Once the sugar mixture reaches 238F start whisking the egg whites at medium speed. When the sugar reaches 248F, remove from heat, turn speed on mixer to high and pour sugar slowly into the eggs while machine is running.

3. Leave machine running until meringue has cooled to room temperature. (Test temperature by feeling the outside of the bowl.)

Pipe into decorative shapes as a garnish for cakes and other desserts, use as a topping for custard tarts or pies, or carry on and make a cranberry mousse.

Makes about 4 cups.


1 cup lowbush cranberries

2 Tbsp sugar

4 cups Italian meringue

1. Combine cranberries and sugar in a small saucepan, bring to the boil over medium heat and cook for 10 minutes, until the consistency is like jam. Cool to room temperature.

2. In a medium-sized bowl, fold cranberry mixture into a half-cup (125) of meringue. When thoroughly mixed, fold in remaining meringue.

Stop here for a dairy-free mousse, or continue to step three.

3. 2 cups cold 35 percent cream

Whisk cream until stiff peaks form and fold into the cranberry meringue mixture until colour is uniform.

Use as a filling between layers of chocolate cake, in baked tart shells, or freeze to make a delicious ice cream.

If you want to get really fancy, fit a pastry bag with a star nozzle and pipe decorative swirls onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Place in the freezer for several hours. Serve cold with Chocolate Pâté and Birch Syrup Shortbread.

Makes about 5 cups mousse without the addition of cream, or 7 cups with.

Chocolate Pâté

A great way to use up yolks after making Italian Meringue.

5 oz dark chocolate, at least 70% cacao.

4 oz butter

4 egg yolks

½ cup sugar

2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

¼ cup Yukon Spirits Two Brewers whisky

1¼ cups 35% cream

1. Melt chocolate with butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Let cool to lukewarm.

2. In a medium-sized bowl, beat egg yolks until thick and lemony in colour. Beat in sugar, followed by cocoa. Beat in cooled chocolate mixture. Stir in whisky.

3. Whip cream into stiff peaks and fold into chocolate mixture.

4. Line an 8 x 4-inch loaf pan with parchment paper. Spoon in the chocolate mixture and smooth the top, pressing gently into the corners. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, but preferably overnight. If you’d like a firmer pate, freeze for a couple of hours and serve very cold.

5. To serve, unmould pate onto a plate or cutting board. With a sharp knife, cut into half-inch slices. Serve with cranberry mousse and birch syrup shortbread, garnished with fresh or frozen cranberries.

6. Wrap leftover pate in waxed paper and store in the the fridge for up to 7 days and in freezer for up to 2 months.

Makes one 8 x 4-inch loaf, enough for 12 servings.

Birch Syrup Shortbread

[Adapted from The Boreal Feast]

Archbould Photography

Crisp shortbreads add a welcome element of crunch to creamy chocolate pâté.

4 oz butter

¼ cup sugar

1 Tbsp Uncle Berwyn’s Pure Yukon Birch Syrup

½ tsp baking soda

1 cup plus 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour

1. Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.

2. Add birch syrup to butter-sugar mix. Add dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.

3. Pat dough into a circle, wrap in waxed paper, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

4. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Divide dough in half. Roll each portion between sheets of waxed paper to ¼-inch thickness. Cut with floured, decorative 2-inch (6-cm) cookie cutters, gathering, rolling, and cutting scraps until all the dough is used. Transfer to prepared baking sheets.

5. Bake for 12-15 minutes at 325F (160C), until crisp. Store in a tin in a cool dark place for up to 2 weeks.

Makes about 30 2-inch (5-cm) cookies.

Boreal Ginger Cake with Toffee Sauce and Labrador Tea Gelato

Archbould Photography

4 oz salted butter

½ cup sugar

1 large egg

2½ cups all-purpose flour

1½ tsp baking soda

1½ tsp ground ginger

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp ground juniper berries

½ cup candied ginger, finely chopped (optional)

½ cup Uncle Berwyn’s Pure Yukon Birch Syrup

½ cup Yukon honey

1 cup hot water

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Butter a 9 x 9 x 2-inch pan.

2. Melt butter in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Let cool to room temperature. Beat in sugar, and when blended, beat in egg.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk dry ingredients together, including candied ginger, if using. In another bowl, whisk together birch syrup, honey, and hot water.

4. Add dry and wet ingredients alternately to butter mixture until blended, being careful not to overbeat. Pour into pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Serve with toffee sauce and Labrador Tea Gelato.

Makes one 9 x 9 x 2-inch cake, enough for 12 servings.

Toffee Sauce

4 oz unsalted butter

1 cup packed brown sugar

1 cup 35% cream

1 Tbsp Yukon Spirits Two Brewers whisky

Combine all ingredients except whisky in a medium saucepan and bring to the boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in whisky and remove from heat. Pour over ginger cake while still warm.

Makes about 2 cups, enough for 12 servings.

Labrador Tea Gelato

1½ cups 2% milk

1½ cups 10% cream, divided

2 Tbsp dried Labrador tea leaves

½ cup sugar

2 Tbsp cornstarch

1 egg yolk

1. Combine milk, half the cream, and Labrador tea in a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat until bubbles appear around the edge of the saucepan and mixture is about to boil.

2. Meanwhile, whisk remaining cream, sugar, and cornstarch in a medium bowl until thoroughly combined.

3. Remove saucepan from heat and stir in cornstarch mixture. Return saucepan to heat and cook, stirring frequently, until sugar dissolves and mixture thickens slightly, 8-10 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat.

5. Whisk egg yolk in a medium bowl until slightly thickened. Pour 1 cup (250) of the hot milk mixture into the yolk, whisking constantly, then gradually add mixture back into the hot milk mixture in the saucepan, stirring with a wooden spoon.

6. Remove from heat and set aside to let cool, stirring often, then cover and refrigerate for several hours. Strain out Labrador tea leaves.

7. Process in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's directions. Alternatively, pour into a shallow baking pan and place in freezer, whisking every 30 minutes for 2½ hours to incorporate air and break up ice crystals. Allow to freeze for a further 4 to 6 hours. Remove from freezer 20 minutes before serving.

Makes about 3 cups, enough for 12 x ¼-cup servings.

Oh, the Yukon fall! Photo by Archbould Photography

From the Vault is a series of stories and recipes that originally appeared in Yukon, North of Ordinary Magazine, in my cooking column, Boreal Chef. They have been modified and updated.

Food shots by Archbould Photography. Thank you Cathie!

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