10 Must-Try Canadian Desserts
You'll want to hop on the next plane to try these iconic Canadian treats.
By Farrah Shaikh McLaren
Like many desserts, these Canadian sweets have humble beginnings. Made from easy-to-access ingredients and uncomplicated by simple technique, they’re made with love and care. When you have such vast space like Canada does, desserts become something regional. Someone could be born and raised in Vancouver and never once tried, let alone heard of, a flapper pie or a butter tart, two iconic Canadian desserts. So, let us introduce you to the super sweet, wonderfully indulgent world of Canadian desserts, all made with love and kindness.
1. Nanaimo Bar
Named after the city it was invented in (Nanaimo, British Columbia on the west coast of Canada), this no-bake dessert has been hailed as Canada’s most iconic treat. A layer of chocolate ganache sits atop of a layer of thick yellow custard that sits atop of a chocolate-graham-coconut layer creating a triple-threat dessert bar. The earliest published recipe is said to date back to 1953, but if you ask around town, locals will tell you stories of their grandmothers making them long before. The treat has transformed over the years to include a variety of flavors (mint, red velvet, peanut butter, mocha) and forms (ice cream, martinis, cupcakes, lattes, even spring rolls). You can even walk the Nanaimo Bar Trail for the ultimate sugar rush, which includes 39 stops to taste classics, modern takes and drinks, and even marvel at inedible tributes to the classic dessert.
2. Butter Tarts
Step foot into Canada, specifically on the East Coast, and you will find butter tarts everywhere. From the best bakeries in town to the corner store, butter tarts are a Canadian obsession. The handheld tarts are like a pecan pie (but without the pecans), are usually sweetened with maple syrup and have such a following that trails, tours, festivals and bake-offs are dedicated to the bite-sized treat. So, what makes a butter tart so special? According to Sarah Kerr, Communications Partner for the Kawartha Northumberland Butter Tart Tour, "it is part of [our] history and heritage. It brings alive an element of history, family and companionship. Butter tarts can offer a homespun feel of traditional Canadian. And everyone always remembers the butter tart their grandmother made for them."
The first published recipe was in 1900 but butter tarts were being made by the early settlers in the 1700s. Today, butter tarts can be gluten-free, in the form of cupcakes, ice cream, frosting, even beer.
3. Flapper Pie
This is a true prairie dessert. Ask someone from the east coast and they may not know what you are talking about. But a flapper pie is something of epic tastiness. A graham cracker crust is layered with a creamy custard filling, then topped with fluffy meringue. It is the ideal trifecta of dessert awesomeness. This prairie concoction, found in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, was the perfect pie to make from what farms had to offer and wasn’t dependent on any seasonal ingredients. But where did the name come from? Perhaps it is a reference to the time when it became popular in the 1920s and flappers were a new generation of women. Or maybe the name stems from the fact that the pie so simple to make it released bakers of the constraints of the kitchen. There isn’t a real definitive answer to the roots of the dessert’s name, but that will soon be forgotten when you take a bite of this incredible pie.
4. Blueberry Grunt
This is a Maritime classic. The Atlantic provinces of Canada were home to French settlers who would cook blueberries, which were abundant in the area, in pots over open fires. Grunt refers to the sound the blueberries make when slowly cooking and bubbling. The sweetened and stewed berries are topped with a simple biscuit or dumpling to make a spectacular summertime dessert. The warm treat is so grounded in Canadian history that there are stories of how the men who built the historic Prince of Wales Fort on Hudson Bay would indulge in the treat after a long day of work in the 1700s. These days it is found in restaurants, cafes and in the homes of many, and usually topped with a hefty scoop of vanilla ice cream.
5. Pouding Chomeur
One of the best names of any dessert, pouding chomeur translates from French to unemployed man puddling. Also known as poor man’s pudding, it was created during the Great Depression in Quebec by female factory workers. The simple, rich dessert takes basic cake batter to the next level by topping it with hot caramel, which settles through the cake to the bottom of the pan when baked. The result is an addictive, gooey upside-down cake which is now a French-Canadian tradition. Maple syrup is commonly used to as the sweetener in the caramel, making it a perfectly indulgent, easy-to-make treat that we would eat, job or no job.
6. Saskatoon Berry Pie
Saskatoon berries look similar to blueberries but tend to be smaller, nuttier and sweeter...and ridiculously delicious. The berry (also known as the juneberry, and the prairie berry) can be found across North America but are predominant in the prairies of Canada. The berries have also gained nutritional popularity in recent years due to its high levels of antioxidants. But let’s be honest, yes, antioxidants are good but pie is better. The pie is simple but the flavor is out of this world. Saskatoon berries hold their shape well and pack so much flavor in such tiny morsels. Although, Saskatoon berries season is only June through July, this pie is a winner all year round.
7. Tiger Tail Ice Cream
This frozen dessert is almost impossible to find outside of Canada. Orange ice cream is laced with ribbons of black licorice to create tiger-like stripes. The ribboned ice cream was popular at ice cream parlors throughout the mid-late 20th century (1950s-1970s), but is still sold by large retailers like Kawartha Dairy and Loblaws – not so much because of its popularity but because of the nostalgia.
8. Tarte Au Sucre (Sugar Pie)
Originating from the province of Quebec, Canadians can thank their French heritage for tarte au sucre. Brown sugar was rare, so maple syrup was the most easily accessible sweetener for the early French settlers of Quebec. Mix maple syrup together with some heavy cream, flour, butter and an egg and you get the Quebecois twist on the classic sugar-cream pie. Although available all year round, a holiday table wouldn’t be complete in French Canada without a tarte au sucre.
This hand-stretched fried dough made to resemble the shape of a beaver tail topped with cinnamon sugar screams Canadiana. Hey, it is even named after the national animal of Canada. The fried snack was trademarked in 1978 by Grant and Pam Hooker in Ontario and has been loved from coast to coast by Canadians for 40 years. Even Obama made a special stop on the way to the airport to get a BeaverTail on his official visit in 2009. BeaverTails can be sweet, with toppings like nutella, cinnamon, lemon or maple butter, or savory with ham and cheese, cream cheese and capers, even lobster!
10. Sweet Bannock
This staple of the Indigenous of Canada is the ultimate comfort food. With Scottish roots (explorers used to cook fry bread on a griddle called a Bannock Stone), bannock was adapted to fit the Canadian lifestyle. Use of available plants and corn flour made this fry bread easy to make for travelling even in the harshest conditions. The basis ingredients are simple, flour, water, salt, lard, and variations have arisen like bannock desserts. From simply being sweetened with cinnamon and sugar or cooked into a bread pudding with berries, you can taste the Canadian history in every bite.
Photos courtesy of iStock, Instagram and BeaverTails Pastry