For many people, nibbling on holiday treats is one of the top things to look forward to this season — right after receiving gifts, of course. And with all of the party planning and attending (as well as gift-giving) that happens this time of year, chances are you might be doing more than just eating them. If you've got some holiday baking to do, why not really wow your loved ones with some crowd-pleasing classic holiday desserts ... with a twist?
“My childhood memories during the holidays, whether it’s Hanukah or Christmas, were filled with sweets: ice box cakes with chocolate and coffee lady fingers, homemade fudge, and brownies, and this has followed through into my adult life," says world-renowned chef Susan Feniger. She and Mary Sue Milliken, her business partner and co-owner of Border Grill, agree that nothing beats a nostalgic and indulgent dessert this time of year. However, there's always room to put a twist on a classic, which is something the duo — who recently received the 2018 Julia Child Award from The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts — always try to do on the menu of their popular modern Mexican restaurants and food truck. For example, a brownie infused with coffee or a pear pie spiked with fresh ginger instead of going with a classic pumpkin option are all easy ways to mix things up this year.
For Laurel Gallucci and Claire Thomas of whole foods baking company Sweet Laurel — which includes a cookbook, a brand new bake shop in Pacific Palisades, California, and a blog full of wholesome recipes — a twist on holiday desserts comes in the form of their signature healthy approach. All of their recipes and goodies in the shop are grain-free, dairy-free, and refined sugar-free, so if your holiday baking must follow some dietary restrictions, their outlets are great resources for creating a dessert that's as beautiful and delicious as it is healthful.
Whether you're looking for a treat to gift someone on your list this year, or need an impressive dessert to serve at an upcoming holiday dinner, these culinary pros have a ton of inspiration to offer. Ahead, find a few of their suggestions for seasonal sweets that are worth giving a whirl.
Cranberry Walnut Cake
Created with almond flour and sweetened with date paste (in lieu of refined sugar) this tart, nutty loaf is a wholesome and welcome departure from some of the standard seasonal breads like pumpkin or apple. “One of our favorite things about this cake is that it makes a great flavor refresher after weeks of super yummy, but at times a bit heavy food," explains Sweet Laurel's Laurel Gallucci, "It also works nicely as a gift to bring for a New Year’s party because it's easy to transport.” Find the full recipe here.
If you're a fan of traditional English toffee but have been trying to mind your sugar intake, this treat will be right up your alley. Somewhere between a bar and a bark, this dessert also makes a perfect gift, as it can easily be chopped into bite-sized pieces and beautifully wrapped up. "We love sharing this with family and friends for the holidays,” says Gallucci. Create Sweet Laurel's exact version by heading here.
Pumpkin Spice Caramel Cake
Pumpkin aficionados will love this paleo layer cake, the recipe for which can be found in the Sweet Laurel cookbook. But if you're in proximity and not in the mood to bake, you can also order the cake as well as the vegan caramel.
“Christmas is about cookies and eggnog [...] at my house!” shares Millikan. A no-fail favorite is her Pajas cookie, which is actually incredibly simple to make, and can be adjusted with ingredients you've already got. It also happens to be gluten-free. "Just use sweetened condensed milk to bind your favorite dried fruits and toasted nuts, drop onto parchment lined cookie sheets and bake!" she instructs. If you want to follow the exact recipe, you can find it here.
Apple Cream Cheese Bread Pudding
Bread pudding always seems to offer the rich decadence most people love in a holiday dessert. “Bread pudding is a rich, unfussy dessert that can be scooped out and served in bowls or festive martini glasses along with a dollop of fresh cream," mentions Feniger. Border Grill's spin on the classic, called "capirotada," includes toasted walnuts, Granny Smith apples, and creme fraiche.
Pear Ginger Pie
If you're ready to give pumpkin and apple a break in favor of a slightly different flavor for your holiday dessert, try this Border Grill favorite, which boasts pears, freshly grated ginger, and nutmeg. Follow the recipe here.