The holidays are merry and bright at Universal Orlando Resort, where park goers can walk amongst life-sized Macy's balloons, search the theme parks for character-themed holiday Christmas trees and feast on deliciously festive treats like chocolate peppermint ornaments and gingerbread milkshakes.
On a recent visit to Universal Orlando (which is part of NBC Universal, the parent company of NBC News), I had the opportunity to meet with Jason Glus, an executive chef at Universal, who led me through Universal Studios' Holiday Tribute Store to Earl the Squirrel's Christmas Tree Farm, a bakery filled with holiday delights that pays homage to Earl the Squirrel, a real-life critter from Universal's early days who who was known for wreaking havoc in the parks' holiday light displays.
While the real Earl no longer lives inside Universal's gates, his silly spirit lives on through the bakery, where Glus showed me the variety of holiday treats Universal Orlando Resort is serving up this year.
For those who aren't visiting Universal this holiday season, Glus also shared recipes for four of the most popular treats inside the bakery, from rich vegan brownies to a hot chocolate "bomb" that bursts open to fill your hot cocoa with tiny marshmallows.
1. Vegan Chocolate Reindeer Brownies
Glus said one of the most popular desserts this holiday season is Universal's Vegan Chocolate Brownie. And I'm not surprised: Universal does an excellent job providing vegan options for their guests, and they're delicious. In fact, when I visited the theme park in October for its Halloween events, I fell in love with its Vegan Mac and Cheese.
"Our bakery researches everything to make sure it's true to authenticity but is made from vegan ingredients," said Glus. "If you didn't know it was vegan, you'd have no idea, and it's definitely one of our top three best sellers."
This brownie is dense and chocolaty, and the festive colors added by the candy canes and the red candy "nose," gives the dessert a holiday spin that would make Rudolph proud.
2. Edible Cookie Dough Christmas Trees
"Our No. 1 seller is our Edible Cookie Dough Christmas Trees," said Glus of this sweet treat, available in white, milk or dark chocolate flavors. "We've never had cookie dough in the park before, but we ran it a little bit at Halloween Horror Nights and it sold like crazy so we brought it back for Christmas."
The tree-shaped treat is made from an ice cream cone that's piped with edible cookie dough then dipped in chocolate and decorated with Christmas sprinkles.
"At home, you could put whatever you would want on it and make it really fun," Glus added.
3. Gingerbread Whoopie Pies
"It's that time of year," said Glus of the gingerbread flavors in these festive whoopie pies. "We try to run some form of whoopie pie every year, and this year we wanted to go with gingerbread while trying to make everything kid friendly and exciting to look at."
The whoopie pies, which taste like a soft gingerbread cookie, are filled with marshmallow cream and topped with sprinkles and powdered sugar.
4. Hot Chocolate 'Bombs'
Like many home chefs this year, Glus and his team got the idea for their holiday hot chocolate bomb from TikTok.
"We were researching them and one of my chefs showed me the TikTok," said Glus. "When I watched it, I wanted to do something just like it."
Glus said the chocolate spheres are easier to make than you'd think.
"We have molds that we fill and you get two half shells from them," he explained. "Then you fill the chocolate shells with marshmallows and glue them together with more chocolate."
So, what advice does Glus have for home bakers who want to create their own holiday masterpieces this year, but feel intimidated by all the icing and decorating involved?
"A lot of this stuff I Google," said Glus, who also encourages aspiring pastry decorators to embrace the store-bought options out there. "When you go into the stores, they have all these little decorations and piping bags and the whole nine yards. There's a lot of helpful stuff out there pre-made."