The end of the year means that bakers all over the world fire up ovens and pull out baking utensils to celebrate the culmination of another year.
Winding down after months of harvesting and toiling, cultures nearly everywhere enjoy feasting: Some enjoy in moderation, some an open smorgasbord of dining options for weeks on end. Take a leaf out of our cookbook and take a peek at some of our favorite—delightfully sweet or spicy—holiday desserts from around the globe. Just a peek doesn't cost any calories at all.
Buche de Noel
This French dessert has roots in the Iron Age of burning a huge log, decorated with holly and greenery, to ward off evil spirits in the coming year. With advancing technology, fireplaces got smaller and so did the logs people burned during the winter solstice to placate the good spirits in the upcoming year.
Today's yule logs are a sweet cream and sponge cake base, cut to look like a log and slathered in icing. A dusting of powdered sugar that looks like snow, holly leaves, poinsettia decor and marzipan mushrooms are just a few additions that nudge the whimsy level up a notch on this classic holiday dessert.
Desserts don't have to be solid, right? This Scottish bevvy is typically a mix of whiskey, honey, water and spices like cloves and nutmeg. This seasonal treat is served during the cold winter months for celebrations like Christmas and New Year's Eve. Bourbon and other liqueurs can be substituted and flourishes like citrus zest and spice substitutes like anise and cinnamon are common.
Cinnamon, almonds and confectioner's sugar make up the backbone of this traditional German and Swiss treat. Zimtsterne cookies are typically five- or six-point stars—but any star-shaped cookie cutter will do, really—for this spicy, chewy holiday treat. The dough is rolled out, cookies cut and baked then topped with the iconic white icing and—depending on taste—garnished with hazelnuts or almonds.
Panforte di Siena
This historic recipe has been made in Italy for hundreds of years, passed down from nonne all over the country and—as migration became much more prevalent during the turn of the 20th century—all over the world. This spicy cake is chock full of nuts and fruit, a smackerel of honey and a dusting of powdered sugar. The rich, fruitcake-esque concoction lasts for weeks and is best enjoyed in small slices.
While alfajores started out in Spanish kitchens, the sugar cookie sandwiches are known today as a South American goodie. During the Spanish colonization of South America, the dessert was widely made and eaten throughout the South American colonies by Moorish descendants. While not specifically a holiday treat, the recipe is changed to fit each season. Alfajores served for Christmas and Advent season typically are two sugar cookies filled with a dulce de leche cream and powdered with sugar for a pretty presentation.
From its home in Germany, "spritzgebäck" cookies—from the German word for "splash"—are known in the west, simply, as "spritz." These soft butter cookies are piped out of a press or pastry bag into forms like Christmas trees, wreaths and long Churro-esque pipes of baked dough. Some recipes include dipping the cookies in baking chocolate and dusting the cookie with festive sprinkles.
Basbousa is a sticky-sweet cake from the Mediterranean and made widely throughout parts of North Africa.
"I was born and raised in Port Said, Egypt," said Suzy Karadesh, the mind behind The Mediterranean Dish. "The entire week of Christmas was spent between church events and gatherings with family and friends. My family prized cooking: the holidays especially brought days and days of long tables filled with all sorts of Mediterranean foods. I don't recall when I was first introduced to basbousa... It must have been at a very young age. It's an Egyptian dessert eaten on all occasions."
The original cinnamon Christmas cookie, pepparkakor is a spicy treat from Scandanavia—mainly Sweden—made during the cold, winter holidays. The traditional pepparkakor cookies are made razor thin—one-eighth of an inch thick, typically. Pepparkakor are also the center of a wish-making tradition: The wish-maker holds the cookie in hand, makes a wish and then presses the cookie—typically a heart shape during Christmas time—in the middle of the cookie. If the cookie breaks in three pieces, the wish is granted. If the piece breaks in more than three pieces, the wish-maker has delicious cookie bits in their hand to enjoy.
Steeped in legend as tall as the domed loaf itself, panettone is a traditional Italian loaf served during the holiday season after the end of a meal, preferably with a glass of Champagne or Prosecco. The rich, moist loaves are dotted with fruits and citrus rind and take up to a week to make. After the 1930s when two Italian bakers—Angelo Matta and Gioacchino Alemagna—industrialized the baking process, the loaves were accessible for more than just the ultra wealthy families who previously enjoyed panettone.
Many pious pilgrims in and around Mexico make the journey to the Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City during the holiday season to feast on Dec. 12, the feast day honoring the virgin. Among the plates of those attending, tamales and atole—a Mexican drink mixed with chocolate to make "champurrado." Known commonly in many other parts of the world as "Mexican Hot Chocolate," this sugary, cinnamon drink is revered as a tasty holiday dessert beverage.
While many Americans associate pudding as a semi-solid, sugary dessert similar to custard, the term doesn't apply to figgy pudding or Christmas pudding typical in the British Isles. Figgy pudding is a spongy, cake-like dish made with candied fruit peels, nuts, fruits and lots of alcohol, mainly brandy. The dish can be served flambéed or with a side of heavy cream or ice cream.
"Figgy pudding is one to be had during the cold, winter holiday season and when you see it sold in supermarkets then it's part of the excitement," said Emma Levine, European freelancer for Where Magazine. "I have never made it. Life is too short! You can buy a really good one in supermarkets, say around £10 for one which serves six decent portions. As soon as Christmas is over, the supermarkets will sell them cheaply so I might buy a couple more. There's never a 'wrong' time to eat Christmas pudding. It keeps for months."