Winnipeg’s Best Imperial Cookie: Part 1

April 1st, 2009 by Emma Durand-Wood

As someone who loves the experience of “going for coffee” (but couldn’t care less about the quality of the coffee itself), I like checking out local coffee shops in different cities I visit. And what I find really interesting are the treats that make it into the snack section – I remember being amazed at seeing doughnuts in a dessert case at Starbucks in Seattle. I read somewhere that Nanaimo bars, a true Canadian classic, became popular in the US because Starbucks started carrying them!

My feeble and hobo-style attempt at making Imperial cookies at home.

My feeble and hobo-style attempt at making Imperial cookies at home.

Anyway, when I moved to Winnipeg, I noticed the coffee shops carry all the usual suspects: cookies, muffins, bars, etc. But a delightful-looking cookie kept catching my eye. A sandwich cookie with a white glaze and a little red dot in the middle. I quickly learned they’re called “Imperial cookies”. Winnipegers must love them, because they’re EVERYWHERE: at chain shops like Second Cup & Timothy’s, as well as at smaller independent shops like Finales. And, unlike honey dill sauce, this is one Winnipeg favourite I can seriously get on board with, because man, they’re DELICIOUS!

I thought it was quite telling that in a Free Press article, Matthew Rankin describes a scene at the McNally Robinson Jackson in New York: “The Tea Room isn’t quaking with River Heights sycophants, queue-cutting for the last Imperial cookie. Rather, it is filled with calm, young New Yorkers, gazing industriously into their laptops.”  Need further proof? Local radio celeb Ace Burpee  wrote a salute to the Imperial cookie on his blog.  And it seems there’re certain standards that these little beauties have to live up to: of the Imperial cookies at the Fyxx on Broadway, one blogger wrote, “Nope. I’m not sure what it was but that was not raspberry jam in there.” So there you have it. Of all the dainties* this city’s fine residents love, Imperial cookies must be among their favourites.

Where did this little piece of heaven come from? So far as I can tell, the Imperial cookie originates from the “Empire Biscuit”. If you believe the information cited on Wikipedia:

Empire biscuits have a layer of jam in between two biscuits, the top is covered with white water icing, usually decorated with a glace cherry in the centre. They are derived from the Austrian Linzer Torte.[1] The biscuit is smaller than the Linzer Torte, with the same top and bottom. The biscuit was originally known as the “Linzer Biscuit”, and later the “German Biscuit”. With the outbreak of World War I it was renamed to Empire biscuit, and is also known as the “Belgian biscuit”.”

Other sources say Empire biscuits are a traditional Scottish recipe –either way, it’s funny how a city so influenced by Ukrainian and Icelandic culture wound up with it! At any rate, when it comes to Imperial cookies there are many things to discuss. First, the shape. Mostly, I’ve seen round ones with a fluted edge. But I’ve also had heart-shaped ones (I know it can’t be true, but the heart-shaped ones seem to taste better). The icing: it can be pink or white. The little red dot: I think it’s traditionally a bit of maraschino cherry, but I’ve also had a mini cinnamon heart.  (Though upon consideration, the heart shape, pink icing, and cinnamon heart may just have been Valentine’s Day variations.)  Just as interestingly are all the synonyms. They can be called imperial, diplomat, empire, empress, and Belgian cookies.

We three Winnipeg newbs have decided to embark on a selfless and delicious quest: to find Winnipeg’s best imperial cookie!

Do you have any other suggestions? What makes a good Imperial cookie? Where do you get your favourite? Let us know and we’ll add your criteria and suggestions to our checklists.


*What on earth are dainties? Let me tell you, because I think it’s charming. The Manitoba Book of Everything describes dainties as “Small dessert squares, slices and sweets usually prepared for community events, bridal showers or church gatherings.” It’s a term for a group of what the rest of Canada calls squares, bars, tarts, goodies, etc., individually.  I’m told that what makes a dessert a dainty is its inclusion in an assortment of small pieces of dessert. And yes, there were dainties a-plenty at last week’s decidedly upscale social!

49 Responses to “Winnipeg’s Best Imperial Cookie: Part 1”

  1. Karen says:

    I make my own Imperial cookies, although it’s been a while since I’ve baked. I’ll have to make some for you!

  2. Emma says:

    Ooooh! That would be awesome!! You know I’ll never forget you suggested it ;)

  3. Aaron says:

    Ooooh x 2! Get those utensils flying Karen, and perhaps your imperial cookie will top the charts. Ems – thank you for the history lesson. We can see why after being called a “German Biscuit” the allied nations would naturally rename it an “Empire Cookie”. Does this mean the Imperial Cookie has been culturally appropriated? :P

  4. D says:

    I’d have to agree with the article… the Fyxx (I prefer Albert St, feels more authentically “Winnipeg” – whatever that means) has the best imperial cookies I have ever had. Starbucks used to have them, and all of their stuff is made locally, but I never got to find out where they were from.

    I’ve never had one from High Tea Bakery (down Portage ave) but everything from there is utterly mind-blowing, so I would expect a damn good Imperial out of there as well.

    Good luck!!

  5. Emma says:

    Thanks, D! We’ll definitely check out the Albert St. Fyxx. I didn’t think Imperial cookies could get any more mind-blowing, and High Tea’s yellow pages ad says they have the best one in the city, so we’re definitely gonna check that one out!

  6. A says:

    DeLuca’s ‘used’ to have the best imperial cookies in town. Huge, buttery and oh-so-tasty. Sadly, they seem to have stopped making them.

    So I’ll second the recommendation for the Fyxx.

  7. Brenda says:

    I lived near High Tea Bakery…all the cookies are good. When they first opened they used to throw in a free cookie, when I bought an assortment. Think they stopped that…Also dainties is very Manitoban. I was knocked off my rocker, when I first heard it.

  8. Marianne says:

    Hi Emma! I LOVE imperial cookies, I’m racking my brain about where I used to get my favorites, when I think of it I’ll let you know. I also didn’t realize that non-Manitobans don’t call “dainties” dainties – I’m learning so much about my home province from you guys, I love it!

  9. ian says:

    Someone please do a comparison and report back!

    I didn’t thik these cookies were a Winnipeg thing.. maybe so.

  10. duck_jb says:

    High Tea Bakery. Second to none. That or the bubba who lived down the street from me when I was growing up…

  11. Travis B says:

    My wife LOVES the Imperial cookies from Harvest Bakery on St. Annes Road.

  12. LLK says:

    The Belgian Bakery on Corydon used to do the best Imperial cookies, but sadly it closed down. However, it was replaced by the Falafel Place, so it could have been much worse. Mmm, yam chips…

  13. Tiffany says:

    The best Imperial Cookies are from the bakery at Victoria Beach.

  14. Kara says:

    I’ve just discovered your blog and I’m laughing myself silly. I moved here in 99 from Ontario and hadn’t seen an Imperial cookie there, either. We got some from the Hartford Bakery on north Main Street. My 4-yr old was trying to pick the cookie with the most icing.

    I never heard the term “dainty” in casual conversation before I moved here, either.

  15. Mia says:

    I think it’s funny that you ask this because a few years ago I embarked on my own quest to find the best imperial cookie. The ones at Starbucks were too sweet, the ones at the Fyxx were too dry. The Manitoba Legislature cafeteria had great ones, but I can’t remember if I ever found out who made them.

    I love them. I grew up with the ones from the Belgian Bakery on Corydon Avenue and was always partial to their version so I was sad when they closed.

    I never really realized they were a Manitoba thing but it’s true I haven’t seen so much as a glimmer of one since moving away from my hometown last year.

    I was also told once that the best ones came from Central Bakery in Gimli. They were okay but it is worth the drive to Gimli just to go to Gimli. It’s one of my favourite places in the entire province.

  16. Emma says:

    Mia, great minds think alike! ;) Sorry to hear there aren’t many Imperial cookies in your life these days – that’s a shame!

    I’m thrilled to hear that Gimli has awesome ones, because I love that little town, too. Here I come!

  17. Marni says:

    The best imperial cookies can be found at Prairie Ink Restaurant in McNally Robinson Bookstore (Grant location). They are always baked fresh.. come in interesting shapes (hearts for Valentine’s Day.. ghosts for Halloween).. melt in your mouth and are reasonably priced for their size. The Belgian Pastry Shop on Corydon used to have excellent.. yet standard.. cookies.. but they have closed up shop in the last year.

  18. Leah says:

    Cottage Bakery – over by Vic’s Fruit off Pembina has some really delish Imperial Cookies.

  19. Miriam says:

    I’m an Imperial cookie addict. High Tea bakery’s cookie is pretty damned good, but I am oddly partial to McNalley’s as well. I also had a really good one in the Forks but I can’ remember from which shop . . . .

  20. S says:

    Gunn’s Bakery on Selkirk Avenue has the best!

    Lots of other places in the city resale Gunn’s cookies.

  21. Robyn Roscoe says:

    I’ve been longing for a good imperial cookie for sometime now. I was just in Scotland on holiday, and while I’d always assumed that was the ancestral home of the biscuit-also-known-as-Empire, sadly I did not see any and the locals looked at me funny when I asked for them. I grew up in Winnipeg, enjoying imperial cookies from Safeway (the one on Fermor and St. Annes) and also from the Dakota Bakery (Dakota and St. Mary’s Road). In recent years, I liked the ones from the Belgian Bake Shop, and am sad to hear that they have closed.

    Strangely, that Safeway used to excel in the Bakery department – their imperial cookies, bran muffins and a rare treat known as New York Slice (kinda like Nanaimo Bars, but not the same) were second to none.

    Enjoy your quest for the best dainties Winnipeg has to offer. :-)

  22. Ian says:

    We were in the city today and decided to try a few places that were listed. We weren’t able to make it to all the places but of the places we did go to we found that Prairie Ink Restaurant had the best ones.

  23. dre says:

    I would love to have the recipe. I am a huge fan of these cookies and remember getting one on my way to school once a week. If anyone has the recipe, please share.
    Thanks

  24. Emma says:

    Dre – the recipe I’ve used a few times is available here:

    http://www.whatsonwinnipeg.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=25173

    The testing notes are bang-on – you definitely have to let them sit overnight to soften up, and use a bit more almond extract than the recipe calls for.

    Happy baking!

  25. Diana says:

    I was looking for a recipe. While I am in Toronto, my vote goes for the best ever Imperial Cookies at the Gimli Bakery. My grandmother often took me there when I was young. I am almost 50 and they are still my favorite no matter where I have travelled.

  26. Estee says:

    The best ever Imperial Cookies that were carried by DeLuca’s, Second Cups on Corydon, Osborne, the Fyxx on Albert and several other places were actually all made by Java Jungle when it existed in the McIvor Mall on Henderson. I know ’cause I delivered them to all those places…mmmm good.

  27. Ashley says:

    gunns bakery on selkirk ave has the best imperials i’ve ever tasted. I know the park theatre sells them.

  28. Chief says:

    I too grew up in winnipeg eating the cookies and cinnimon buns from the belgian bakery. Now living in Ottawa found I can get the cookies from the scottish store in Lindsay ontario, exactly the same ones. I was dismayed to find the bakery in winnipeg though.

  29. […] Part 2 of the search for Winnipeg’s Best Imperial Cookie with Laurel when she visits in February during Festival du […]

  30. Isabelle says:

    I’d be in trouble working for a Cookie shop, when I worked in a fast food restaurant I would always give the starving kids who were crying in the line ups free cookies :P

    They’d wipe their tears and I felt complete, but really made no money giving away so many cookies to tired children who were tourists tired at the end of a day’s journey :)

    I won’t be minding anyone’s recipes in the comments segment if I ever get to Winnipeg I want the real deal.

  31. I write about the best Empire Biscuits in my novel, The Beech Nut of Big Water Beach, a humorous coming-of-age story set in Manitoba’s interlake in the 1970s. Big Water Beach is a pseudonym for one of our actual beaches, and excellent Empire Biscuits have been made at the beach bakery for years. However, watch for my website, which will be up an running this summer–2010–for the recipe for the best Empire Biscuits, as made by my Scottish grandmother, Jenny Munro.

  32. Lara says:

    The absolute best imperial cookie i have found is at the Central Bakery in Gimli, Manitoba.. The cookie is flaky and delicious. absolute heaven.. Too bad Gimli is so far from winnipeg

  33. Jynx says:

    These things are marvellous! I actually just had a run in with a boy today, while I was on the bus this afternoon. Ran into each other at the bus stop, then later at another bus stop after we’d gone our separate ways. We spoke while I finished my cookie, and then tonight he showed up at my work with another one! What a sweetie:)

  34. Crystal says:

    Gunn’s bakery has the best!

  35. Lynne says:

    Okay, I stumbled onto this blog today and wow! Learn something new every day! First, I had no idea that imperial cookies are a distinctly Winnipeg thing. I will say that the ones served at The Fyxx probably come from Gunn’s Bakery since I often see their truck stopped outside the Albert Street location on my way to work.

    Second, dainties? That’s a Manitoban thing? I had no idea. I just assumed it was a Canadian thing.

  36. Kelly says:

    I grew up in Winnipeg have lived in Toronto, Halifax, Vancouver, and Whistler and travelled to almost every other city major and many smaller cities in Canada. I have NEVER seen an Imperial Cookie anywhere else and I was just trying to find out if you can freeze them for I make them at Christmas for my family and friends – the ex-Winnipegers love them! I also make the Red Velvet Cake for some ex-Winnipeger birthdays – it too seems to be quite the Winnipeg thing! Gunns was were I used to get them over 20 years ago when I lived there! Also “Dainties” made me laugh my mother calls squares/tarts etc that and I have never heard it from anyone except Winnipegers – and I thought only the ones over 60yrs… cute comments.

  37. Liz Simmie says:

    Just to clarify, Gimli Bakery used to have the BEST IMPERIAL COOKIES in the world. Sadly ownership changed in the last few years and the texture of the cookie is not the same. The originals never had almond extract, and were perfectly crumbly and addictive (very different than the other 20 types of Imperial or Empire cookies I have tried).

  38. Gregg says:

    Best Imperial cookies in Winnipeg are located at High Tea Bakery on Portage Avenue. This Christmas we tried to get some but they had so many orders they weren’t making any more till January!

  39. Rachel says:

    Cakeology in the Exchange – decadently buttery.

  40. MD says:

    Agree with Rachel…cakeology has ridiculously delicious imperial cookies with unique jam flavors like saskatoon berry and apricot.
    Only problem is that when you work closeby you end up going almost every day….

  41. Terry says:

    THE best imperial cookies are made by Goodies Bakery in Winnipeg…. Without a doubt!

  42. Lin says:

    I used to work a a cake decorater in Oma’s bake shop in the McIvor mall on Henderson Highway. As a decorater part of my job was to ice and fill Imperial Cookies……I loved Omas Imperial Cookies. Now I am looking for my a recipe to make and I have having trouble finding one. If someone could help that would be great….If you try Oma’s you may really enjoy them I know I did. And yes they are still open. If you happen to be there at Easter, they make awesome Paska as well.

  43. Emma says:

    Hi Lin, here’s a recipe that I’ve tried a few times! I’ll have to check out Oma’s next time I am in the area… it’s not too far down the road for me.

  44. Kari says:

    I have to agree that the best Imperial Cookies are from High Tea Bakery on Portage Ave in St. James. Make a special trip there just for the Imperials, in small or large.

  45. […] friends and it was done by 9 with some time to update my kindle software and check twitter and eat imperial cookies. Add another half hour or so when I got home for adding the braid and fixing all the ends and this […]

  46. T.M. says:

    Omg, this has made me so incredibly homesick! I was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and just recently moved to BC with my boyfriend. I had stumbled on your post accidentally when searching desperately for an Imperial cookie recipe, after learning that not a single person in this province had the faintest clue what the heck they were! :(

    We drove out here because we have two large dogs that could not get out here any other way, and stopped at countless places along the way. And it’s true! Between the Imperial cookie, the honey-dill sauce, and “dainties”, the only thing more distinctly Manitoban would be our drunken wedding socials with the Ukrainian dill pickles, cheddar cheese, and KUB bakery rye bread!

    I can tell you as a Ukrainian who grew up on these foods, the only two places to get REAL Imperial cookies are the tiny little Ukrainian bakery at the Forks that my grandma used to take me to, and the Gimli Bakery. Far and above, the only places to get them. I’d rather starve than eat knock-offs from any of the coffee shops.

    Thanks for giving me one more reason to come back to my hometown!

  47. Tammsin says:

    High Tea Bakery! Hands down!

  48. Melissa says:

    I’m from Winnipeg and have eaten Imperial Cookies from just about everywhere in the city. My favorites are from Family Foods Bakery on Portage Ave or St. Mary’s Rd. The cookies are not mass produced and baked fresh everyday. These are the only cookies in the city that even come close to Grandmothers’ recipe. The cookie is soft and rich and they use the perfect (and not too sweet) raspberry jam. The glaze is perfection. Check them out and you will not be disappointed.

  49. Debby says:

    I’m born and raised in Winnipeg, and this is the first time I have seen anyone refer to Winnipeg having a strong Icelandic influence. That would be Gimli and the Interlake, not Winnipeg. British, French Canadian, Metis, Germany, and eastern European influences abound and many, many other cultures both grace and influence our city. The Selkirk settlers were the first Europeans to establish a permanent settlement the area. Small wonder that a Scottish cookie has dominated our city as we tend to embrace the best of every culture.

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