Across the globe, holiday festivities can take on many forms, especially with yummy foods.
Destinations may differ on when and how they celebrate the holidays, but they do have some common ground — through making and serving special treats. Desserts can reflect cultural significance or religious observances such as Christmas, Hanukkah or Three King’s Day, and the techniques with which they’re baked are passed down through generations. From hot or cold servings, to sweet or spicy ingredients, or to a shape that’s round, folded over or bite-sized, go ahead and savor this collection of holiday desserts and the places that they’re linked to.
WHERE: Great Britain
This quintessential British dessert originated in Medieval England as a porridge called “frumenty.” Over time, this thick gruel would include bread, dried fruits such as prunes (which were referred to as plums), and spices. It became the dish we know today during England’s Victorian era, where it would go from being boiled in a cloth to getting shaped in a mold and be given the name Christmas Pudding in a recipe by 19th-century cookbook author Eliza Acton. Christmas pudding is also part of a centuries-old custom known as “Stir-up Sunday.” This tradition, which falls on the last Sunday before Advent, promotes spending some serious time in the kitchen to prepare for the Christmas feast.
INSIDER TIPThe Spread Eagle Hotel in West Sussex gives every guest staying there on Christmas Eve a homemade Christmas pudding. Guests can opt to take it home or have it hung on the ceiling of the hotel’s restaurant, to return next year to have it served to them. Some apparently might have forgotten about their pudding, as the hotel ceiling is decorated with unclaimed ones over the years.
WHERE: The Philippines
Prepared for Christmas, bibingka is a rice flour cake made with coconut milk and eggs, and is traditionally cooked in clay pot ovens that are lined with banana leaves—which give it additional flavor—over preheated coals. (Modern methods can involve baking bibingka in ovens using ordinary cake pans or tin molds.) Then, this soft, sweet and spongy cake gets dressed with toppings that can include grated coconut, cheese, butter or even duck eggs. Bibingka is traditionally eaten around Simbang Gabi, a series of nine dawn masses leading up to Christmas Eve. After the end of service during this novena, churchgoers can purchase this delicacy from the merchants selling them outside.
Getting their name from the Greek word “fold,” this crispy dessert served during Christmastime is aptly named. Thin sheets of dough are folded and cut into various shapes and sizes. They’re then fried in oil until they’re golden in color and then drizzled with a honey syrup. Diples originated in southern Peloponnese, in particular in the region of Mani, but similar versions can be found in Crete. On the island, this sweet and doughy dessert is known as xerotigana or avgokalamara.
In the northern Polish city of Toruń, these gingerbread cookies have been produced since the Middle Ages, thanks to the surrounding wheat fields, sources of honey, and the city’s position on the spice route from Asia, which gave them ready access to ginger. Toruń bakers had their own recipes for piernik and guarded them well. A single defining version for Toruń came about in the 16th century through an agreement with fellow gingerbread producing city of Nuremberg to share their recipes; this finalized how Toruń’s piernik is made. For a tasteful purchase, go to Fabryka Cukiernicza Kopernik SA, which has been producing gingerbread in Toruń since 1763.
INSIDER TIPTwo museums in Toruń tell the city’s gingerbread history. The Living Museum of Gingerbread has interactive exhibits and hands-on experiences such as decorating gingerbread, while the Museum of Toruń Gingerbread is housed within a 19th-century gingerbread factory.
This Danish Christmas dessert is a rice pudding with whipped cream and blanched chopped almonds that is served cold and accompanied by a cherry sauce. Eaten after the Christmas Eve dinner, risalamande incorporates a custom in which a whole blanched almond is placed in the middle of its bowl. Whoever ends up finding this almond gets what’s called the “almond gift.” This gift giving involves one person buying a present that goes to the almond finder that could be a toy, a bottle of wine, or an item for the household.
Made in Dresden, the recipe for this raisin laden cake has been passed down for centuries. Its preparation starts off with a heavy yeast dough that requires ingredients like butter, sweet and bitter almonds, candied orange, and lemon peel. As for its raisins, they get added in right before the cake goes into the oven to keep them firm. When finished baking, the Christstollen is completed with a covering of butter and sugar. While the recipe is followed to a T, each Christstollen still has to pass inspection by the Stollen Association. Upon approval, the Christstollen gets a golden seal of authentication, with a six-digit control number that tracks from which bakery the stollen came from.
INSIDER TIPOn the Saturday before the second Sunday in Advent, a “Stollenfest” celebrates this Dresden wonder as Stollen Association members unveil a specialty-baked giant Christstollen.
WHERE: New Zealand
Named for the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, there is a debate over the possibility that pavlova was invented after or during the ballerina’s tour in New Zealand and Australia in 1926. One story goes that a chef at a hotel in Wellington came up with the cream and berried dessert. Then in 1927, a recipe for jelly-like pavlova appeared in a New Zealand cookbook; but it’s the later recipes that describe how to make the version that’s known today.
Australia enjoys pavlova at Christmastime too and has a similar story about the desert being created by an Australian chef. While the concept of pavlova has been traced to other countries, in 2010, the Oxford English Dictionary settled this argument between New Zealand and Australia by listing that the Kiwis have the first recorded recipe of this dish. New Zealand’s pavlova is topped with whipped cream and kiwifruit or summer berries.
Shuman’s Jelly Cake
WHERE: Alexandria, Virginia
Shuman’s Jelly Cake dates back to the late 19th century, when Louis P. Shuman established Shuman’s Bakery in 1876, in this city south of Washington, D.C. At his bakery, Shuman used a family recipe to produce a jelly cake that would become a local holiday staple. It consists of three thin pound cake layers that are parted by layers of homemade red currant jelly. It’s cut into diamond shades and gets a powdered sugar dusting. While this cake has carried on for over 140 years, the brick and mortar aspect of Shuman’s Bakery closed its doors in 2004. Six years later, the bakery reopened to solely make this specialty by advanced order.
Tortell de Reis
In Spain’s Catalonia region, this ring-shaped cake is prepared for and eaten on Three Kings Day, or the Epiphany, on January 6. Tortell de Reis is commonly filled with marzipan or whipped cream or a pumpkin jam called cabell d’àngel and gets adorned with candied fruit, nuts and a sugary icing. A golden crown made of cardboard is placed in its center. The cake also contains two hidden surprises: a broad bean and a figurine resembling one of the Three Wise Men. Tradition goes that the person who finds the figurine in their slice of cake gets crowned with a small golden coronet. As for the one who discovers the bean within their cake cut, that individual will have to pay for next year’s cake.
Bûche de Noël
A cylinder-shaped sponge cake, this dessert is a nod to the ancient European tradition of burning a Yule log on a hearth to mark the winter solstice and later on the tradition became a part of Christmas celebrations. As for the cake itself, the recipe’s origin seems to date back to the 19th century. The cream-filled cake resembles a cut branch of wood, with its chocolate frosting symbolizing bark and edible decorations reflecting leaves, holly or other parts of nature.
Tarte au Sucre
This holiday pie is a sweet tradition in Quebec, thanks to its maple-based filling. This French-Canadian dessert is believed to have emerged from a similar sweet in France or Belgium, which was carried over to North America by settlers in the townships of New France, now being modern-day Quebec. Settlers imported brown sugar and molasses from Antilles, but then discovered in the more remote areas of their new homeland that maple trees provided reliable access to sugar. In Quebec each spring, dark maple sap, which is extracted with a knife, gets harvested and shaped into sugar loaves.
WHERE: New Mexico, United States
In New Mexico, the biscochito is more than a traditional treat—it’s the official state cookie. Though it was made official in 1989, its culinary history in New Mexico goes back much further. Biscochitos evolved from a Spanish pastry called bizcocho, which was brought by the early Spanish settlers who came to this southwestern region in the 16th century. Today, this state cookie is often made with butter or lard and gets its flavoring from anise and cinnamon. Biscochitos can be found at bakeries and shops, but they’re a centerpiece at Christmastime and special occasions.
During Hanukkah, this Israeli-style donut with a jelly filling is consumed in commemoration of the eight-night holiday. Meaning “sponge” in Hebrew, sufganiyah (or plural as sufganiyot) were promoted in the late 1920s by Histadrut, an Israeli labor union, as Israel’s national food of Hanukkah to help foster jobs. This round, deep fried doughnut is given a powdered sugar dusting and a red (commonly strawberry flavored) jelly center.
INSIDER TIPRoladin, Israel’s largest bakery chain, is noted for their unique takes on this Hanukkah treat. The bakery makes versions with fillings such as mango-pineapple cream, espresso-amaretto and pistachio but also serves standard strawberry jam donut.
Coming from Baden, these dainty cookies have a thorny shape and get their licorice flavor from toasted anise seeds. Their name also reflects their form; it’s derived from a dialect word “chräbel” meaning “claws of cats, dogs and birds.” The anise seeds, which resemble pointed feet, also add to the pointy look. For a good Chräbeli, it’s best to let the prepared dough air dry at room temperature overnight before baking as it helps firm them up.
As one of Italy’s most recognized food exports, panettone originated in Milan, but its full history is unclear. A popular legend says that in the 15th century, a lavish Christmas cake was to be served at a Christmas Eve feast for the powerful Duke of Milano, Ludovico il Moro. The cake was scorched and, with no time to spare, the desperate pastry chef turned to his young cook, a boy named Toni, to use his pillow-like loaf of bread and added in citrus and raisins. The duke loved the dessert and asked what was its name; he was told it was “Pan del Toni.” Fast forward to the 1920s, when entrepreneur Angelo Motta founded the food company that would make panettone widely available to everyone, not just powerful dukes.
At Christmastime, these flaky pastries are a favorite among the Finnish people. They’re shaped like stars or windmills, filled with jam (traditionally prune), and, when they’re done, they’re dusted in powdered sugar.
WHERE: Puerto Rico
This name of creamy coconut pudding actually translates to “trembling” and it’s aptly named due its gel-like consistency. At its core, this jiggly Christmas treat is like a flan without eggs, containing coconut milk, cornstarch, sugar, and cinnamon for garnish.
Having a slice of what was originally Italy’s panettone is Peruvian Christmas tradition. Italians were among the earliest Europeans to come to Peru in the 16th century, and the 19th century saw several more waves of Italian immigrants arriving in the South American country. Pietro D’Onofrio, an Italian immigrant who brought over the recipe for panettone, built a baking and ice cream empire within Peru. A commercialized treat, panetón reflects the traditional Italian version but also has its own interpretations; there is one made with chocolate called Chocotón.
These tiny vanilla cookies commonly feature ingredients such as lard, butter or vegetable shortening, grounded walnuts, apricot or another similar jam, and a vanilla flavored sugar that make them an irresistible holiday tradition. These tart-like treats are served around Christmastime in Serbia, which is extended to January 7 due to their Orthodox Christmas being aligned with the Gregorian calendar.
Also known as black cake or rum cake, this Christmas dessert is prepared differently in different households. Overall, it’s made with dried fruits such as prunes, raisins, and cherries that are soaked in rum and port or red wine for a good amount of time. It also includes vanilla, nutmeg, or allspice and is often served with a glass of sorrel, a hibiscus drink.
Pan de Pascua
While its name can also refer to Easter in Spanish, this Chilean fruitcake is a Christmas staple. Possibly having come from Italian or German immigrants introducing their holiday desserts to Peru, Pan de Pascua is a dense spice cake that gets its flavor from rum along with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Usually, a slice is enjoyed with another holiday favorite—a drink called Cola de Mono. Meaning “Monkey’s Tail,” this coffee beverage is like a version of eggnog with a little something extra.