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!
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. 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!