Last week we looked at some of the best foods to eat in Europe, from Paella in Spain to Goulash in Hungary and everything in-between. This week we’re moving on to indulge our sweet tooth with some of the best European desserts. Let’s take a look now at ten of the sweetest desserts to try on your trip to Europe.
This world-renowned pastry, which means tube in Italian, originated near Palermo on the island of Sicily. Cannoli are made by deep-frying cylindrical shells of pastry dough and filling them with a sweet cream that sometimes contains ricotta cheese. Cannoli were made for the Carnival season, and may have possibly been served as a symbol of fertility. The cream filling of some cannoli are sprinkled with chocolate, while the cannoli may also be garnished with a sprinkling of confectioner’s sugar. Though they are meant to be eaten for dessert, cannoli also make a great breakfast pastry, especially when paired with coffee.
Germany: Stollen Cake
Weihnachtsstollen, as it is called in Germany, is typically eaten around Christmas and is synonymous with the holiday season around the world. The cake-like dough is made with yeast, water, flour, and zest—that is, scrapings from citrus fruits to add extra flavor—then interspersed with candied citrus peels, raisins, and almonds. Some varieties include milk, sugar, vanilla, and dried fruits soaked in rum. After it is baked, Stollen is rolled in sugar to preserve its moistness. In 1730 the Elector of Saxony commissioned the Baker’s Guild of Dresden to make a whopping 1.7 ton Stollen that fed 24,000 guests.
This pastry is baked between two plates giving it a characteristic impression. Waffles have a long history in Europe, going back all the way to the days of ancient Greece. These ancient wafers spread throughout Europe, where it was common to use pans that imprinted a design in the dough, sometimes religious. The grid shape emerged in the Late Middle Ages, and was depicted in paintings by Pieter Brughel. With the import of Caribbean sugar, sweet varieties of the waffle exploded in popularity as they became more affordable. Today there are over a dozen varieties of waffle in Belgium alone.
France: Crème Brûlée
This rich custard dessert is synonymous with French cuisine. A soft custard base of egg yolks, cream, and vanilla is topped off with a layer of caramel, which is commonly hardened with an open flame from a butane torch. The end result is a sweet dessert rich in contrasting textures between the gelatinous custard and the crunchy caramel. Though crème brûlée was first mentioned in a 17th-century French cookbook, it was not popular until the 1980s, when it became a symbol of culinary indulgence and fine dining with its appearance on the menu at the legendary French restaurant Le Cirque.
These Mediterranean treats are sweet pastries made with layers of flaky filo dough interspersed with nuts. After they are baked, the baklava are covered with syrup made from honey, rose water, and orange blossom extract. Baklava may have originated in Persia, but they were certainly served by the Ottoman Sultan to his elite bodyguards in a ceremony every Ramadan. The nuts of baklava are typically pistachios, walnuts, almonds, or hazelnuts; the pastry is often cut into diamond or square shapes. There are many varieties of Baklava, but the one in Greece is said to have exactly 33 layers of dough.
Churros are popular in North America, but these fried desserts originated in Spain and Portugal. There they are still served as snacks and breakfast foods, customarily dipped in hot chocolate, dulce de leche, or coffee with milk. The unique choux dough—of butter, water, flour, and eggs—may have come to Spain with Portugeuse sailors that brought the idea back from China (where a similar food called youtiao is eaten). The dough is piped from a star-shaped nozzle called a churrera, deep fried until crunchy, and then sprinkled with sugar. There are several variations throughout Spain, some thin and smooth, others thicker.
Though Shortbread is popular throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland, it is truly a sweet Scottish biscuit, its modern form is credited to Mary, Queen of Scots. Traditionally served on Christmas, Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve), and weddings, shortbread is also broken over the head of a bride on her way into the home. Shortbread is made with one part sugar, three parts flour, and two parts butter, or shortening (from whence it gets its name). The high butter content of the biscuit gives it a somewhat crumbly nature. The Scottish brand Walkers exports shortbread around the world in Tartan packaging.
These Eastern European pancakes are made with flour, eggs, sugar, vanilla, and quark—a type of cheese made by warming sour milk. Syrniki may also contain raisins and are often garnished with sour cream, jam, honey, applesauce, or varenye—a whole-fruit preserve popular in Eastern Europe. Syrniki are made by shaping the soft cheese batter into cakes and then frying it in hot butter or vegetable oil until they are lightly browned on both sides. In some variants, dried apricot, fresh apple, or fresh pear is added to the batter. Syrniki are popular throughout Slavic countries and served for dessert and breakfast.
Apple Strudel comes from the German word for swirl or eddy, referring to the way this pastry is filled and rolled to create a swirl pattern when it is cut across. Apple Strudel is considered the national dish of Austria, and gained popularity during the days of the Hapsburg Empire. The Viennese pastry is made from a thin, unleavened dough that has been flogged against a flat surface and stuffed with a filling comprised of cooked apples, sugar, cinnamon, and breadcrumbs. The apples used are usually tart and crisp. Apfelstrudel is traditionally served in slices and garnished with powdered sugar.
England: Plum Pudding
Pudding is a common dessert in England, with many well-known varieties including Figgy Pudding, Bread and Butter Pudding, and Christmas Pudding, otherwise known as Plum Pudding. Despite its name, the pudding contains no plums, as plums actually referred to raisins in pre-Victorian England. Many households have passed down unique recipes through generations, but most all of them contain a religiously symbolic 13 ingredients of dried fruits held together with suet and treacle or molasses and flavored with spices like nutmeg and cloves. The pudding is often left to age as long as a year; the high alcohol content prevents spoilage.