Hear those sleigh-bells ring-a-ling? It is undeniably that time of year, and for me, Christmas is synonymous with baked goods. It’s too hot to bake in the summer, and in winter, when the rooftops outside my window are frosted with snow, I want the house to smell of cinnamon and, well, I’d like my food to be frosted, as well.
So with December comes an investigation into baked goods from around the globe. We’ll need to narrow our search to some extent, so here it goes: I’m after the pastry category, sweet, but not traditional cakes or pies. Something more in the pastry family, and baked in an oven (no other cooking methods need apply).
How’s that for the least-professional-sounding definition you’re likely to find in a food magazine? So turn on the oven and get cozy with this list of 15 baked goods to try.
British Hot Cross Bun
Made famous by the nursery rhyme, but has anyone actually eaten these things? Turns out they’re good. Stacked with currants, these sweet buns have a cross for religious purposes and contain spices—well, this is about to get less appetizing—to represent the spices used in the embalming process prior to burial. Can I find a Cinnabon somewhere instead?
My grandmother-in-law’s specialty, filo pastry layered with sliced apples, popularized in the 18th century Habsburg Empire (though the original, from 1696, was aa turnip strudel). Glad they switched to apples.
This breakfast pastry is oiled with ghee…and butter. That’s some butter mille-feuille goodness. Choose your topping: geymar, a type of breakfast cream, or date syrup.
A rolled sponge cake filled with guava marmalade or (and this gets me everytime) dulce de leche. Si, por favor.
It sounds like an American football play, but it’s actually the uber-recipe for coffee cake, which always confused me as it does not actually include coffee, but is a cake meant to be eaten with coffee. Wait, didn’t I just break my own rule and include a cake? Coffee cake always struck me as more pastry than cake (my definition of cake is something you’d stick candles in to sing happy birthday—would you do that with a coffee cake? Didn’t think so).
“Golden coffee cake,” traditional for birthdays, twisted like a pretzel and flavored with almonds and saffron and cardamom is a popular centerpiece for a dessert smorgasbord. And I am in favor of using the word smorgasbord as often as possible.
Portugese pastel de nata
Portugal’s favorite snack is a small egg custard tart, first baked by monks at the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon, who had too many egg yolks left over after separating egg whites to starch their clothes.
Italian Ferrarese panpepato
Italy has many varieties of panforte, which usually feature densely-packed nuts and dried fruit spiked with pepper, cinnamon and perhaps alcohol, baked into a heavy loaf, then covered in chocolate. A little of this goes a long way, but sliced-off slivers are delightful. This is a modern twist on medieval sweetbreads, and the peppery complexity makes them a festive burst of sophisticated flavor.
If you find yourself in China during the mid-autumn festival (and who doesn’t, every once in a while), you’ll want to try Chinese mooncake. Stuffed with lotus seed paste or red bean paste inside a pastry crust, these may be more of a symbolic tradition than a delicious one. The Wall Street Journal reported that, in Hong Kong alone, some two million mooncakes are thrown away each year. How about eating them, instead.
Don't miss the Chinese mooncake recipe to try at home
New England whoopee pies
Is it a cookie, a pie, or some renegade, oversized hybrid? The answer is yes. With a chocolate or gingerbread soft cakey top and bottom and a cream filling, they look like Oreos on steroids, and there’s a throw-down among various New England states over who invented it (Maine declared it the state pastry), but whatever their origin, they are good and memorable.
This airy, sweet brioche loaf, originally from Lombardy (but there are also some world-famous varieties from Sicily), is now associated with Christmas and comes in all manner of varieties—dotted with dried fruit or chocolate or dusted with powdered sugar. Panettone is distinctive for its domed shape (when it is in the form of a star, it is called pandoro), and while it has a texture of brioche it actually has a complicated leavening process, using an acidic “cure” that makes it more akin to sourdough than a traditional cake.
Fancy a Filipino Christmas? Me too. That’s why I’m planning to make this rice flour pastry baked in a clay pot lined with banana leaves and dusted with coconut. Sounds good to me.
Slovenia’s national pastry and a specialty of my mother-in-law, it is usually filled with ground walnuts (or poppy seeds) filling an extremely large sheet of pastry that is then rolled, with the assistance of the tablecloth on which it is laid, jiggling it from one corner, into a tight serpent-shape, then laid into a terracotta Bundt pan to bake. Served in slices, it is the centerpiece for holiday meals (or when my mother-in-law wants something).
I just like the name—where I live, in Slovenia, it means “hag,” so I think it’s great that this delicious coffee cake, ancestor to the New York Jewish deli classic, babka. Turns out it means “old woman” in Polish (which may occasionally be synonymous with “hag”) which hopefully describes who cooks it, rather than what it tastes like. This is made from a double, twisted, DNA-like coil of yeasty dough, baked in a loaf pan and topped with streusel (crumbled flour, butter and sugar topping), at least in the Jewish version. The “goyim” version has not filling and is topped with icing or chocolate, or soaked with rum.
The traditional Christmas fruit bread is packed with candied or dried fruit, nuts and spices, and doused in powdered sugar. Heavy and sticky, it dates back to an earlier, proto-stollen of just flour, oats and water, first baked in 1545 for the Council of Trent—the emergency meeting of the Catholic Church to decide how to respond to the threat of Protestantism. Back then, during Advent, Catholics were not allowed to cook with butter, only oil. This made for un-delicious cakes. So we have to thank dear old Prince Electror Ernst and his brother, Duke Albrecht, who petitioned the Vatican to allow Saxons to bake with butter during this season. Who knew this would be so complicated? The so-called “butter letter” was denied by five popes before one finally said yes—but only for the Prince’s household. That hardly seems fair—others could use butter but only if they paid a tax to do so. Thankfully the clergy is more lenient these days, and we can enjoy stollen year round.
What are some of your favorite international baked goods that we should add to this list? Tell us your suggestions (preferably with the origin story and a good recipe) in the comments section below!