Exploring Land With Canadian Desserts
Buckle up, kiddos, we’re going on a road trip! Explore the diverse and significant histories of some of our favourite Canadian desserts. From the Pacific Ocean, through the Rockies, to the coastal lands of Canada, we’re tasting it all. Strap on in!
Mountains of Canadian Desserts
The landscape for the Western parts of Canada is filled with beautiful rolling mountains. Let’s start off our road trip with debatably one of the most famous Canadian desserts, the Nanaimo bar. Nanaimo bars are an iconic no-bake bar that consists of three layers, each more delicious than the last. The whole thing starts at the bottom with a dense chocolate nutty coconut fudge. This fudge sits beneath a thick custard icing, and the topping is a chocolate ganache with perfect consistency.
The first appearance of the Nanaimo bar was in a cookbook in 1953 and was called a “London fog bar,” perhaps as a tribute to the silky beverage. Coming from the area of Nanaimo town on the Vancouver Island (BC), the bar became much known as a Nanaimo bar. The town of Nanaimo got its spelling from anglicising the name “Snuneymuxw.” The Snuneymuxw (First Nation) currently and originally had stewardship of the land. Famed as one of Canada’s best-known desserts, the Nanaimo bar is premium fuel for the tank before we head to the Prairies.
Many First Nations especially across the North-West enjoy sxusem as a traditional dessert. Pronounced, “zoosum”, sxusem is a whipped soapberry dessert. When whipped (video), the berries create a lather that becomes an ice cream-like consistency, without the brain freeze! It usually will include sweet berries or even cane sugar. Sxusem is said to have first been created in the Interior Salish lands of British Columbia and Washington state by the Nlaka’pamux Peoples. In small quantities, this dessert can help with digestion and is important all across the country.
The Northern part of our road trip has a wealth of beautiful treats. Bannock is a flatbread that is popular in many cultures across the world. In Canada, it was traditionally sweetened with tree syrups. Today, many people make bannock with the ingredients that were available during food shortages during colonisation. Many Indigenous cultures, including Inuit, view bannock as an important symbol of resilience for these reasons. It provided nourishment through difficult weather, as well as coping with continued results of colonisation.
Although bannock is important across the country, it’s included here because there is still food insecurity happening in northern Canada. The reduced rights to hunt, limited access to vegetables and fruits, and the extremely high prices of food make living conditions difficult. Some additional causes are to blame, including climate change impact, intergenerational effects of colonisation, and social isolation. In early 2022, the government of Canada launched a food infrastructure initiative funding existing food security initiatives in northern communities.
Something you might’ve noticed on our road trip so far is that Canada has some beautiful trees! But they’re different depending on where you are and the North-West doesn’t really have any Maple trees. So what do they put on their pancakes? Well, birch syrup of course! Birch syrup isn’t as sweet as maple, but many northerners wear their enjoyment of birch as a badge of honour. Similar to maple, it is delicious in birch recipes such as crême brulée, birch syrup pie, and even salad dressings and beer!
The Prairies are known for their sprawling grasslands, flat plains, and gorgeous sunsets. They are rich with resources with many delicious Canadian treats to offer, including the immensely popular flapper pie, a signature dish of Manitoba. This is a delectable combination of graham cracker with an ooey-gooey custard topping and wears a crown of meringue. The popularity of this pie skyrocketed in the late 1920s and 30s because of its simple and inexpensive ingredients during the Great Depression.
Another delectable Manitoban dessert is the schmoo cake. Flakey light angel food cake gets slathered in thick whipping cream icing for this dessert popularised at Bar Mitzvahs. “Schmue” is a saucy Yiddish word for uterus, but was originally meant to signify the bounty of the earth. A perfect name for a dessert that came out of the Prairies!
Alberta gets the best of both landscape worlds because although it is part of the prairies, it is home to few of the most beautiful park in the rockies. This is where the iconic puffed wheat squares were created. In a similar time in history to the flapper pie, puffed wheat squares were created out of scarcity and innovation. Molasses replaced sugar, puffed rice replaced traditional grains, and a delicious new candy confection burst onto the scene!
If there’s space, we ought to pack a Saskatoon berry pie while in the neighbourhood. The pie needs to be warm with a good dollop of ice cream to get the full effect. It’s a signature dish and the city of Saskatoon (in the province of Saskatchewan) actually gets its name from the little blue berries! Saskatoon berries taste sweet, earthy, and almondy and are an important food and medicinal resource. The Nêhiyawak’s (also known as Cree) word for the berries is “misâskwatômina,” which settlers anglicised to the current city name.
The Prairies are home to hugely diverse, self-governing, and unique First Nations and the Métis. An iconic Métis dessert is la pouchine au sac. Dried fruit, sugar, and beef suet (i.e., hard raw fat) are combined in cheesecloth and it simmers for hours. The name comes in a variety of forms but always translates from the Métis language, Michif, to “pudding in a bag.”
Landscape of Calgary, Alberta (Photo by Veronica Derby) and la Pouchine au sac (Louis Riel Institute)
Canadian Forest Delights
Anticipating the maple tree forests in Ontario and Quebec, we’ve specifically allocated car space to the pouding chômeur (jobseeker’s pudding) and tarte au sucre (sugar pie). Pouding chômeur is another dessert that was a product of the Great Depression. A cake drenched in rich Quebec maple syrup? We’ll take ten, thanks! The same applies to the tartes au sucre; we can’t ignore the whisper of more maple syrup and cream baked into a buttery crust. Bonus Quebec sweets include maple taffy and Grandpère (i.e., hot dumplings boiled in maple syrup and water). The rich and delicious butter tarts of Ontario also contain maple syrup as their base. They were adapted from French and Scottish recipes of small butter pies. Butter tarts are very similar in taste to maple or pecan pies but have their own place in the hearts of Ontarians.
Beavers have always been important animals to the land of Canada, representing resourcefulness, patience, and hard work. They also hold the status of being Canada’s national animal because of the role the fur trade played in the colonisation of the land. Once hunters removed the beaver’s pelt, they ate the meat and cooked the tail over an open flame. The tail then becomes rich and buttery and for centuries, it was a source of protein, as well as fat, for indigenous people. We want beaver tails! This history is where the beavertail dessert gets its name from. With the dessert, doughnut dough gets flattened out like the tail and baked, and you can go haywire with the toppings. The most popular beavertail toppings are cinnamon sugar, maple butter, or Nutella. Sometimes shared, sometimes not, beavertails are iconic Canadian desserts, definitely best eaten hot!
The Eastern land and waters of our road trip have an eclectic palate in their colourful architecture and Canadian sweets. This is home to chicken bones, which are bright pink, choc-filled cinnamon hard candies. Another treat is the figgy duff, a boiled pudding made from flour, raisins, molasses, and more, often served with fresh cream or fruit custard. Date squares, (also known as matrimonial cakes) are crumbles made from oats and dates and are the traditional dish of newfoundland!
The coastal provinces are also home to the blueberry grunt, which is a type of cobbler, and moon mist ice cream, which is a banana, grape, and bubblegum swirl, of course! Other goodies include moosehunters, a great name for cookies made with ginger, molasses, and cocoa powder. You can also find jam jams cookies that are sandwiched with plum or raspberry jam in between, a Saint John’s famous delight. Finally, there’s the incredibly intriguing bakeapple pie, which actually is not made of apples, but from the bright orange cloudberry, a distant relative to the blackberry.
The land we’ve explored today is the original and current home to diverse members of the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples. There are over 700 unique Indigenous communities across Canada, or what some First Nations call Turtle Island. The name “Canada” came from misuse of a word “kanata” in Wendat (also known as Huron) or Haudenosaunee (also known as Iroquois) which means “village” or “settlement.” If you are curious about whose land you are on, https://native-land.ca/ is a wonderful resource.
Our website, Dessert Advisor is based in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal on unceded Indigenous lands. The Kanien’kehá:ka Nation is recognised as the custodians of the lands and waters where our office is located. Because of the proximity to water, Tiohtià:ke is and has always been a gathering place and home to many Indigenous and other peoples.
With this blog on sweets and treats in Canada, our intent was to explore desserts discovered using the resources from this land. Thanks for tagging along on our road trip! Find some tasty Canadian desserts near you!