Leave Room for These 4 Local Holiday Desserts

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Local chefs and pastry experts share recipes for some of their favorite holiday desserts

By Matthew Lardie | Photography by John Michael Simpson

If ever there was a time of year to indulge in desserts, it’s now. Cookies, cakes, pies – OK, now our sweet tooth is aching just thinking about all the sugary possibilities that accompany this festive season. Rather than fantasize, though, we figured we’d reach out to a few of our local bakers to see what they’re whipping up for the holidays. Read on for some tasty treats, complete with recipes so you can try your hand at making your own holidays a touch sweeter this year.

holiday desserts
Bonnie Lau of Miel Bon Bons

Bûche de Noël

It’s safe to say that Bonnie Lau, with her more than 18 years of experience as a pastry chef, knows how to whip up a tasty holiday treat or two. She started her bakery, Miel Bon Bons, in Carrboro in 2008 before moving to a location on University Drive in 2013. In 2019, Bonnie opened up in a small storefront with an equally modest-sized garden patio adjacent to Brightleaf Square, and she’s been a delicious part of the downtown food scene ever since.

Bonnie offers her customers exquisitely designed desserts ranging from cakes and cookies to pies, macarons and, of course, a wide variety of chocolates. The sweets at Miel Bon Bons look as though they leapt off the dessert tray at the Ritz Paris, and Bonnie has created elaborate macaron towers and stunning trays of bonbons for weddings and events across our area.

One holiday treat that Bonnie particularly treasures is the gorgeous bûche de Noël, or Yule log. The dessert likely originated in France, but it has since been popularized across central Europe, Canada and the United States. A fluffy chocolate sponge cake and whipped cream filling are transformed into a roulade resembling a fallen woodland log, replete with “bark” made from a luxurious chocolate ganache. Bonnie’s version includes rich mascarpone cheese and chestnut paste (or cooked chestnuts) in the filling for an even more decadent touch. This cake takes a bit of effort, but the end results are well worth it for a cake that is as beautiful to look at as it is to eat.

(Note: You’ll need a kitchen scale for this recipe.)

holiday desserts
CHOCOLATE CAKE

200 grams all-purpose flour
80 grams Dutch-process cocoa
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
155 grams buttermilk (room temperature)
½ cup butter, melted
2 tsp. vanilla extract
6 large eggs, divided
320 grams granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line an 18-by-13-inch sheet pan with parchment paper, leaving an overhang of a couple inches on each side, and spray with nonstick vegetable or ghee oil spray. Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt together in a medium bowl and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the buttermilk, melted butter, vanilla extract, egg yolks and 220 grams of sugar. Whisk together until well combined. Add the dry ingredients and gently whisk together until well combined, then set aside.

Add the egg whites and 100 grams sugar to a large mixer bowl and whip on high speed until stiff peaks form. Gently fold about ⅓ of the whipped egg whites into the chocolate cake mixture to loosen up the batter. Add the remaining egg whites to the cake batter and gently fold together until well combined.

Spread the cake batter evenly into the prepared pan and spread into each corner with an offset spatula. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove the cake pan from the oven and, working quickly, carefully lift the cake out of the pan using the parchment overhangs and gently place on the countertop.

Starting at one of the shorter sides of the cake, slowly roll the cake, keeping the parchment paper on. Place the rolled cake seam- side down on a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.

CHESTNUT WHIPPED CREAM FILLING

5 cups heavy whipping cream, cold
⅓ cup sweetened chestnut paste or cooked chestnut
1 tsp. vanilla extract
⅛ tsp. salt
12 oz. mascarpone cheese, softened
¼ cup granulated white sugar
2 tsp. cognac (optional)

Add the heavy whipping cream, chestnut, vanilla extract and salt to a large mixer bowl and whip on high speed until soft peaks form. Fold the mascarpone cheese into the whipped cream by hand until smooth and combined.

In a small saucepan, combine the ¼ cup sugar with ¼ cup water. Place the pan over medium heat and stir until the sugar has fully dissolved. Remove from heat, add the cognac (if using), and let the syrup cool while you continue.

WHIPPED CHOCOLATE GANACHE

10 oz. semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
2 cups heavy cream

Add the chocolate to a medium-sized bowl and set aside. Heat the cream in the microwave (or in a small pan on the stovetop) just until it begins to boil, then pour it over the chocolate and whisk until smooth. Let the ganache cool to about room temperature, then transfer to a large mixer bowl. Whip on high speed until lightened in color and thick enough to spread.

ASSEMBLY

Carefully unroll the cooled cake roll, leaving the cake on the original parchment paper. To enhance the cake’s flavor, brush the syrup over the exposed top of the cake. Spread the filling evenly onto the unrolled cake, then carefully roll it back up, keeping the parchment paper on the outside of the cake. Carefully place the cake seam-side down on a pan or platter, and refrigerate for 4-6 hours to firm up.

To decorate the cake, gently cut off the end piece of the log. Make the cut with a slight diagonal. Spread the chocolate ganache all over the cake, then use a fork to create bark-like lines all over it. Use some of the chocolate ganache to attach the small end piece to the side of the larger log, leaning it against the larger log with the cut side exposed, as if it had just fallen over in the forest. Refrigerate the cake for 2 hours until ready to serve.

holiday desserts
Stephen Kennedy of Afters Dessert Bar

Gingerbread, Bourbon Whip and Cranberry Curd Trifle

Stephen Kennedy, with his two decades of fine dining experience at places like Chapel Hill’s Bin 54 and Durham’s much-missed Four Square, and his wife, Lindsey Kennedy, are now the driving forces behind Afters Dessert Bar in the Durham Food Hall. Stephen most recently honed his dessert chops as the pastry chef at both Pizzeria Toro and Littler, and he’s poured all that experience into a menu that features high-end takes on classic sweets, like ice-cream cake, brownies and cookies. Don’t worry about having to choose just one – Afters offers a dessert flight option so you can indulge in three different sweet creations all on one plate.

Stephen’s gingerbread, bourbon whip and cranberry curd trifle is a festive take on a crowd-pleasing and visually stunning dessert. Tangy cranberry curd and a whipped topping that gets a kick from a hefty glug (or three) of your favorite bourbon are sandwiched between gingerbread cake layers to form this “Great British Bake Off ”-worthy dessert. “Trifles can be elegant and cozy at the same time,” Stephen says. “The cranberry evokes nostalgia for squishy canned cranberry sauce. Its tartness balances the spicy gingerbread while the boozy whip ties it all together. Components can be prepared on different days, eliminating some of the holiday scramble.”

holiday desserts
CRANBERRY COMPOTE

12 oz. fresh cranberries, rinsed
¼ cup water
1 orange, zested and juiced
Pinch of salt

In a small saucepan, bring ingredients to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. After reaching a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Take off heat, let cool. Refrigerate until ready to assemble.

BOURBON WHIP*

¼ cup favorite bourbon
1 package gelatin
2 cups heavy cream
¼ cup sugar

Mix bourbon and gelatin in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, whip heavy cream and sugar until soft peaks form. Bring a couple inches of water to a simmer in a medium-sized saucepan, then place the bowl with the gelatin-bourbon mixture on top of the saucepan and stir until the gelatin is dissolved (watch out for steam). Once dissolved, remove from heat and fold into whipped cream. Chill until it is time to assemble dessert.

*To simplify, fold in ¼ cup bourbon into 1 container of Cool Whip topping.

GINGERBREAD CAKE

5 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder
4 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. nutmeg
¼ tsp. salt
1½ sticks unsalted butter
¾ cup sugar
2 large eggs
1¾ cups molasses
1½ cups water

Preheat the oven to 325 F. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans and line both with parchment rounds. Grease parchment in pans and set aside. Mix dry ingredients and set aside.

Mix together the butter and sugar in a stand mixer until pale yellow. With the mixer at low speed, add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add molasses and mix to combine. Add approximately of dry ingredients to the molasses mixture; mix well. Add additional of dry ingredients, mix well until combined. Add the last portion of dry ingredients; mix well to combine. Pour cake batter evenly into baking pans.

Bake for 25-30 minutes. Allow cakes to cool completely in pans set on a wire rack.

ASSEMBLY

In a trifle bowl, add 1 cake layer. Spoon ½ of bourbon whip onto cake, spreading to create an even layer. Dollop cranberry curd evenly on the bourbon whip layer. Gently place the second cake round on cranberry curd and repeat bourbon whip and cranberry curd layers. Garnish with segmented oranges.

Shayda Wilson of Sweets by Shayda
Shayda Wilson of Sweets by Shayda. Photo by Sarah Martin, Fancy This Photography

Orange-Glazed Madeleines

A lifelong lover of sweets, Shayda Wilson’s career in accounting just wasn’t satisfying her passion for confections, so she set off for Paris. After training at the famous Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and a stint in one of the city’s most renowned éclair shops, Shayda returned to the Triangle and started Sweets by Shayda in 2014. In January 2021, she went from selling at local farmers markets to opening her very own brick-and-mortar shop at 105 W. Morgan St.

Shayda is trained in all manner of French patisserie, but her specialty is the beloved macaron. She offers a wide variety of flavors at Sweets By Shayda, like birthday cake, tiramisu and – in a nod to her Southern upbringing – red velvet cake. Macarons can be notoriously fickle to bake, however (which is why you should probably pop over to her shop and just buy some instead of making them at home), so this holiday season, Shayda is sharing a recipe for another one of her favorite French treats: the madeleine.

“One of my favorite things to make are madeleines, with their iconic shell shape and elusive ‘hump’ that demonstrates a well-made madeleine,” Shayda says. “Anyone can whip these up with the proper preparation. These tea cakes are super simple and are made with basic ingredients we all typically have on hand.” In a nod to the season, her recipe uses punchy orange zest and warming cardamom to make a madeleine that will have your guests saying “oui, oui” when you offer seconds.

(Note: You’ll need both a scale and a madeleine pan for this recipe – many professional bakers measure ingredients by weight rather than volume for accuracy; it will be a welcome addition to your kitchen!)

Holiday dessert from Sweets by Shayda
Photo by Sarah Martin, Fancy This Photography
MADELEINE BATTER

(Makes 15-18)
125 grams all-purpose flour
8 grams baking powder
140 grams melted butter, hot
2 eggs
90 grams sugar
40 grams whole milk
½ orange, zested
½ tsp. ground cardamom

Sift the flour and baking powder together in a bowl. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and set aside. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, milk, zest and cardamom. Add the flour mix to the egg mixture, combine thoroughly. Slowly add melted butter, stirring constantly until everything is incorporated. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put in the fridge overnight or for at least 2 hours.

When ready to bake the madeleines, preheat the oven to 360 F, butter and flour the madeleine pan, and tap out any excess flour. Fill each madeleine indentation just to the top with batter, and bake for 8-10 minutes until nice and golden. (The top should puff and create that iconic hump.) Tilt the pan and gently dump the madeleines onto a tea towel once they are out of the oven. Allow to cool completely before continuing.

GLAZE

300 grams powdered sugar
70 mL orange juice
40 mL oil

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Dip the cool madeleines into the glaze and bake them in the oven for 2 minutes until the glaze is dry. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Jasmine Michel of Dreamboat Cafe
Jasmine Michel of Dreamboat Cafe

Haitian Confiture

Dreamboat Cafe is the culmination of Jasmine Michel’s goal to fuse her love for the meals of her South Florida youth with her quest for a more equitable foodshed. Jasmine describes Dreamboat as “a multidisciplinary small food business dedicated to community pop-ups and food journalism in themes of social fairness, mental health and heritage.” Through her community dinners and zines with titles like “Pickled Mango” and “Medjool,” Jasmine fuses the foods of her West Indian and Haitian background with poetry, essays and more.

Jasmine’s recipe descriptions flow like poems themselves, as in her recipe for Haitian confiture, a staple condiment across the worldwide Haitian diaspora. “I don’t know when in transit of this classic Haitian tradition did we start adding tomatoes, but I’m glad that as a people we did,” Jasmine writes. “Traditionally, Haitian confiture is made with grapefruit and almond essence, nutmeg and brown sugar. A variety of tart fruit from the tropics can show up in recipes. It’s as filling and simple as grains of rice and plumped beans.”

Jasmine suggests serving this confiture warm over vanilla ice cream or combine it with butter and flaky Maldon sea salt, and gobble it up by the spoonful. Her father likes to top Haitian-style Pullman bread or Caribbean water crackers with the confiture, and it would even make an excellent addition to leftover holiday turkey or ham sandwiches. “Feel free to substitute the acidic components for whatever is most seasonal and accessible,” Jasmine adds. “In a very Dreamboat custom, [it’s] an easy recipe to use with much space for exploration.”

HAITIAN CONFITURE*

2 cups red plums, quartered
4 cups of Roma tomatoes, quartered
8 cups of fresh, young pineapples, diced (can substitute canned pineapples, drained and rinsed)
1½ cups white sugar
1½ cups brown sugar
5 cinnamon sticks (cracking the sticks makes for a spicier confiture; if you’d like a little less sting of cinnamon, try bruising the sticks by taking the back spine of your knife and gently scraping lengthwise against the skin of the stick)
3 pods of star anise
½ Tbsp. of vanilla extract
1 tsp. of almond extract
1 navel orange rind (try lightly roasting your rinds before adding them to the pot)
1 quart of water

In a very primitive but gentle fashion, add all ingredients in a large stock pot, using just 1 quart of water. Bring to a boil, and if you’re like my dad, you’d let this simmer and slowly candy for two days straight, but simmering for about 2 hours gets you there with this recipe.

*Jasmine likes adding blood orange, cardamom, tangelo juice with pineapples or a rum-soaked vanilla bean pod.

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