Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/5/2019 (262 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Yes, she owns and operates a British-flavoured tea room, but that doesn’t mean Belinda Bigold of High Tea Bakery has felt any added pressure lately to scan the headlines or watch the evening news to know precisely when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle become first-time parents.
That’s because every time a member of the British royal family does anything of note, be it pop the question, get hitched or, in the case of the Duchess of Sussex, give birth to a child who will be seventh in line to the throne, Winnipeg monarchists flock to Bigold’s establishment to toast the joyous occasion over an imperial cookie or three.
"When William and Kate had their second baby four years ago, people started calling before we were even open, wanting to know if our customized, royal imperial cookies were ready or not," Bigold says, adding sweet tooths from every corner of the city have associated her and her mother’s locale, steeped in charm as it is, with the royals ever since their hard-working staff turned out 6,000 imperial cookies — every last one inscribed with Her Majesty’s official crest — for a visit Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip paid to these parts in 2010.
"After that order for the queen, there was a three-minute feature about us on The National, which pretty much solidified us in royal watchers’ minds as the place to head to for their imperial cookie fix."
In case you’ve been living under a bag of icing sugar, imperial cookies are a local staple, not unlike honey dill sauce, fatboy hamburgers and Jeanne’s cake, three other foodstuffs enjoyed almost exclusively by Manitobans.
Hey, don’t just take our word for it; no less an authority than Wikipedia refers to imperial cookies as "an iconic dish in Winnipeg, Canada."
'When William and Kate had their second baby four years ago, people started calling before we were even open, wanting to know if our customized, royal imperial cookies were ready or not'
— Belinda Bigold of High Tea Bakery
Similar in appearance to Scotland’s empire biscuits and England’s jammie dodgers, imperial cookies traditionally consist of two shortbread cookies sandwiched with jam, usually raspberry, and topped with white icing and a candied cherry.
Although little in the way of evidence exists, many argue they originated at Victoria Beach’s Einfeld’s Bakery, where they’ve been billed as dream cookies for decades. (In a 2009 piece about the laid-back, Lake Winnipeg community, former Free Press editor Margo Goodhand gave a shout-out to Einfeld’s, lovingly describing its No. 1 seller as "two layers of shortbread, a schmear of raspberry jam in the middle, a shiny coat of white royal icing on top. One crumbly bite can make you six years old, instantly. It’s magic.")
Bigold admits it’s somewhat amusing her place of business has become so closely associated with the calorie-rich confections, given they weren’t on her or her mother’s radar when they opened their bakery in 2003.
"My mother is originally from Australia and I grew up in B.C., so no, we didn’t know what they even were, back then," Bigold says, seated inside her St. James premises.
"Then in 2004, about a year after we started, one of our customers told us imperials were far and away her daughter’s favourite cookie, and asked if we could make a bunch of mini-sized ones as giveaway favours for her upcoming wedding. Afterwards, we had extras left over, which we advertised for sale in the store.
"To make a long story short, our customers liked them so much, they kept requesting more, to the point imperials now outsell everything else we make by at least 10 to one."
High Tea Bakery (2103 Portage Ave.) offers two sizes of imperial cookies, large and small. The icing, which runs down the side of both layers, carries a hint of almond.
Bigold says deciding which brand of jam to go with for the middle section was an arduous process, to say the least.
"I spent close to three months testing different raspberry jams — everything from $100-a-jar-hand-picked-by-virgins jams to the cheapest jellies on the market — trying to figure out which one would work best. For people who store their cookies in the freezer, we had to make sure they didn’t turn to mush during the unthawing phase."
Besides being "absolutely delicious," Bigold figures another reason you can find imperial cookies in almost every commercial bakery in the province is because they’re not exactly the simplest thing to whip up, in the comfort of your own kitchen.
"There are quite a few steps involved, they’re a bit of a pain to make, for sure. It’s much easier to head somewhere else and say, ‘I’ll take a dozen, please.’"
At least once a week, more so during tourist season, an out-of-towner will wander into Lilac Bakery (920 Grosvenor Ave.) and ask owner Chris Atkinson what Winnipeg is best-known for when it comes to sweets.
He’ll fill them in on iconic items such as red velvet cupcakes and Shmoo torte before directing their attention — and appetite — to his glass display case, where imperial cookies shaped like six-petal flowers have been the star of the show since he and his mother opened their cute-as-a-button specialty shop in August 2008.
For the next 30 seconds or so, he’ll explain his bakery’s imperials consist of raspberry jam wedged between a pair of sugar cookies — his late mother’s recipe — topped with lemon icing — "just a hint of lemon, mind you" — and a red or green dragee.
If they still have questions when he’s through, he’ll sometimes reach down for one, stating, "Here, why don’t you try it out, yourself?"
"That usually seals the deal," he says with a chuckle. "I mean, who doesn’t love imperial cookies?"
Like his counterparts at High Tea Bakery, Atkinson anticipates a bump in imperial cookie sales the moment flags are raised at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle to officially announce the arrival of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s bundle of joy.
"When Harry and Meghan got married last year, we could not keep up when it came to imperials. It was absolutely nuts in here."
If the good folks at Guinness World Records ever get around to establishing a category for the world’s largest imperial cookie, they won’t have to search far. After a customer inquired whether Goodies Bake Shop (1124 Ellice Ave.) could make him a mammoth-sized imperial cookie for his birthday, the West End shop’s nine-inch-wide imperial has turned heads, every time a person pops by to pick one up for their own family celebration.
"It all started three years ago when this guy told us he wasn’t a big cake-person, but absolutely loved our imperial cookies," says Linda Peters, the 35-year-old bakery’s operations manager.
"In-store we were already selling three sizes — small, medium and large — so we thought, how much tougher would it be to make one that was extra-, extra-, extra-large?"
Goodies’ imperial cookies, which change in design depending on the season (a couple weeks ago, they purposely resembled Easter eggs) are based on a recipe developed by founder Ignazio Scaletta, whose original location was in Osborne Village.
Each imperial consists of two hand-formed sugar cookies stuffed with apple-raspberry jam, then coated with Scaletta’s "secret" icing. In a busy month, December for example, it’s not unheard of for kitchen staff there to turn out in the neighbourhood of 10,000 imperial cookies, Peters says, her eyes bulging.
"We also fill out-of-town orders via our website (www.goodiesbakeshop.com) and through the years we’ve sent them as far as Nunavut, Calgary and B.C. Whenever that happens, we kind of think to ourselves, boy, that’s a lot of money to spend on a cookie, when you consider the shipping charges.
"But if you’re an ex-Winnipegger living in Vancouver, Toronto or wherever, it’s a taste of home, right? And it’s hard to put a price on something like that."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.