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10 International Recipes for Traditional Holiday Desserts

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Few traditions are as enduring as holiday foods, especially desserts. Your grandfather’s Bing Crosby Christmas carols might have given way to Mariah Carey, and children today are more likely to be dreaming of new iPhones than sugar plums, but every generation can agree on the importance of a sweet treat after dinner. This holiday season, instead of just sticking to the old favorites, consider adding a new dessert from a different part of the world—who knows? One of these recipes might just become your new favorite tradition.

1. BUCHE DE NOEL (YULE LOG) // FRANCE

France, Belgium, and many other formerly French nations celebrate Christmas with an edible version of one of the season's most enduring icons: the Yule log. As an ancient European tradition, huge Yule logs were burned to celebrate the winter solstice; the practice was later integrated into Christian rituals. You may not have room in your home to burn a full tree trunk, but you can still enjoy this rich chocolate confection which mimics the shape of a log. Feeling particularly ambitious? Check out Bon Appetit’s sleek and striking "birch log" recipe, compete with meringue "mushrooms."

2. FIGGY PUDDING // THE UK

To modern Americans, figgy pudding is probably best known for it’s appearance in the lyrics of "We Wish You A Merry Christmas." The demand for a treat ("We won’t go until we get some!") references the old English tradition of wealthy nobles giving money or food to the common people on Christmas Eve. So what is it? The name is actually an anachronism, as the modern dish is not what we consider pudding, nor does it contain any figs! It's actually a steamed cake made with raisins and brandy, and a rather ambitious culinary undertaking—one chef recommends starting the cake five weeks before Christmas! For a less time-consuming recipe, try this one from Food.com, which you can make in an afternoon.

3. SUFGANIYOT (JELLY DOUGHNUTS) // ISRAEL

Hot, sweet, and crispy, jam-filled doughnuts called sufganiyot are particularly beloved in Israel at Hanukkah gatherings. Like latkes, another Jewish holiday staple, they are deep-fried in oil, a direct connection to the famously long-lasting lamp oil of the Hanukkah story. Try Martha Stewart’s straightforward take on this relatively-modern Israeli favorite.

4. GLOGG (MULLED WINE) // NORWAY

December’s a perfect time for rich cookies and pastries, but don’t forget a festive libation to wash everything down! In Norway, as well as other Scandinavian and Germanic cultures, nothing says "celebration" like a warm cup of glogg, or mulled wine. As with many alcoholic concoctions, there are endless variations to explore, but nearly all recipes include dry red wine, clear spirits, rich spices like cinnamon and cardamom, and sweet dried fruits, like raisins and figs. Try serving Marcus Jernmark’s modern take on the classic, which includes Indonesian peppers for extra spice.

5. STOLLEN (FRUITCAKE) // GERMANY

Fruitcake is a paradox—it’s one of the oldest-known desserts (the ancient Romans had a version with pomegranate) and eaten around the world, yet it carries a much-maligned reputation and often serves as a Christmas punchline. (Johnny Carson famously quipped, "There is only one fruitcake in the world, and people keep sending it to each other.") Perhaps Carson would have changed his mind if he'd tried authentic German stollen, a hearty, doughy cake filled with nuts and raisins and generously dusted with sugar. Supposedly it's meant to look like the infant Jesus, although that effect might require a few extra cups of glogg.

6. BEIGLI (SWEET ROLLS) // HUNGARY

An Eastern European holiday treat, beigli are spiral sweet rolls, featuring a flaky pastry crust filled with a sweet mash of walnuts or poppy seeds. Symbolically, the poppy seeds represented wealth and fertility, while the walnuts served as protection against witchcraft. Due to their unique structure, beigli might present a challenge for the novice baker—take a look at this step-by-step guide if you're feeling adventurous!

7. PAVLOVA // AUSTRALIA

Most winter holiday foods are rich and filling, perfect for cold, dark December nights. But in Australia, Christmas falls at the beginning of summer and calls for something a little more refreshing. Aussies celebrate the season with a slice of Pavlova, a creamy meringue pie with a crispy crust, topped with fresh fruit.The dessert was inspired by Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova’s visit to Australia in the 1920s, and can certainly be enjoyed year-round—but this berry-bedecked wreath makes for an especially cheery interpretation.

8. PICE AR Y MAEN (WELSH CAKES) // WALES

A regional favorite often referenced by poet Dylan Thomas, "Welsh cakes"—pice ar y maen in the native tongue—are a buttery tea-time treat described as "a cross between a pancake and a baking powder biscuit, with a touch of cookie and muffin thrown in for good measure." They’re particularly popular at Christmas as well as on March 1, the traditional feast day of Saint David, patron saint of Wales. The simplicity of the recipe makes Welsh cakes a great opportunity to let children help in the kitchen. Try this extra-festive holiday version, which adds orange zest and currants.

9. SAFFRANSBULLAR (SAFFRON BUNS) // SWEDEN

Sweet yeast buns are eaten year-round in Sweden, but at Christmas they're given an extra "twist." Saffransbullar are richly flavored with saffron and raisins, and frequently twisted into a figure-eight shape known as lussekatter, meaning "Lucia cats." The unusual name refers to the feast day of Saint Lucia—December 13th—as well as the entwined shape, which resembles a sleeping cat curled up into a ball. They’re best enjoyed with pepparkakor, traditional gingersnap cookies cut into the shape of hearts or animals.

10. RISALAMANDE (RICE PUDDING) // DENMARK

A Danish staple dating back to the 1800s, Risalamande (from the French Riz à l'amande, or "rice with almonds") is a Christmas Eve tradition enjoyed throughout much of the Nordic world. This simple-but-scrumptious recipe enlivens a basic rice pudding by adding whipped cream, chopped almonds, and a warm cherry sauce. For extra fun, some families leave a single unchopped almond in the bowl; whoever finds the almond wins a small novelty gift.

All images via iStock.

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9 Royally Interesting Facts You Might Not Know About King Cake
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It’s Carnival season, and that means bakeries throughout New Orleans are whipping up those colorful creations known as King Cakes. And while today it’s primarily associated with Big Easy revelry, the King Cake has a long and checkered history that reaches back through the centuries. Here are a few facts about its origins, its history in America, and how exactly that plastic baby got in there.

1. IT’S BELIEVED TO HAVE PAGAN ORIGINS.

The king cake is widely associated with the Christian festival of the Epiphany, which celebrates the three kings’ visit to the Christ child on January 6. Some historians, however, believe the cake dates back to Roman times, and specifically to the winter festival of Saturnalia. Bakers would put a fava bean—which back then was used for voting, and had spiritual significance—inside the cake, and whoever discovered it would be considered king for a day. Drinking and mayhem abounded. In the Middle Ages, Christian followers in France took up the ritual, replacing the fava bean with a porcelain replica engraved with a face.

2. IT STIRRED UP CONTROVERSY DURING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.

To bring the pastry into the Christian tradition, bakers got rid of the bean and replaced it with a crowned king’s head to symbolize the three kings who visited baby Jesus. Church officials approved of the change, though the issue became quite thorny in late 18th century France, when a disembodied king’s head was seen as provocation. In 1794, the mayor of Paris called on the “criminal patissiers” to end their “filthy orgies.” After they failed to comply, the mayor simply renamed the cake the “Gateau de Sans-Culottes,” after the lower-class sans-culottes revolutionaries.

3. IT DETERMINED THE EARLY KINGS AND QUEENS OF MARDI GRAS.

A Mardi Gras King in 1952.dulouz cats via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Two of the oldest Mardi Gras krewes (NOLA-talk for "crew," or a group that hosts major Mardi Gras events, like parades or balls) brought about the current cake tradition. The Rex Organization gave the festival its colors (purple for justice, green for faith, and gold for power) in 1872, but two years earlier, the Twelfth Night Revelers krewe brought out a King Cake with a gold bean hidden inside and served it up to the ladies in attendance. The finder was crowned queen of the ball. Other krewes adopted the practice as well, crowning the kings and queens by using a gold or silver bean. The practice soon expanded into households throughout New Orleans, where today the discovery of a coin, bean or baby trinket identifies the buyer of the next King Cake.

4. THE BABY TRINKETS WEREN'T ORIGINALLY INTENDED TO HAVE RELIGIOUS SIGNIFICANCE.

Although today many view the baby trinkets found inside king cakes to symbolize the Christ child, that wasn’t what Donald Entringer—the owner of the renowned McKenzie’s Bakery in New Orleans, which started the tradition—had in mind. Entringer was instead looking for something a little bit different to put in his king cakes, which had become wildly popular in the city by the mid-1900s. One story has it that Entringer found the original figurines in a French Quarter shop. Another, courtesy of New Orleans food historian Poppy Tooker (via NPR’s The Salt), states that a traveling salesman with a surplus of figurines stopped by the bakery and suggested the idea. "He had a big overrun on them, and so he said to Entringer, 'How about using these in a king cake,'" said Tooker.

5. BAKERIES ARE AFRAID OF GETTING SUED.

What to many is an offbeat tradition is, to others, a choking hazard. It’s unclear how many consumers have sued bakeries over the plastic babies and other trinkets baked inside king cakes, but apparently it’s enough that numerous bakeries have stopped including them altogether, or at least offer it on the side. Still, some bakeries remain unfazed—like Gambino’s, whose cinnamon-infused king cake comes with the warning, "1 plastic baby baked inside."

6. THE FRENCH VERSION COMES WITH A PAPER CROWN.

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In France, where the flaky, less colorful (but still quite tasty) galette de rois predates its American counterpart by a few centuries, bakers often include a paper crown with their cake, just to make the “king for a day” feel extra special. The trinkets they put inside are also more varied and intricate, and include everything from cars to coins to religious figurines. Some bakeries even have their own lines of collectible trinkets.

7. THERE’S ALSO THE ROSCA DE REYES, THE BOLO REI AND THE DREIKÖNIGSKUCHEN.

"Roscón de Reyes" by Tamorlan - Self Made (Foto Propia). CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Versions of the King Cake can be found throughout Europe and Latin America. The Spanish Rosca de Reyes and the Portugese Bolo Rei are usually topped with dried fruit and nuts, while the Swiss Dreikönigskuchen has balls of sweet dough surrounding the central cake. The Greek version, known as Vasilopita, resembles a coffee cake and is often served for breakfast.

8. IT’S NO LONGER JUST A NEW ORLEANS TRADITION.

From New York to California, bakeries are serving up King Cakes in the New Orleans fashion, as well as the traditional French style. On Long Island, Mara’s Homemade makes their tri-colored cakes year round, while in Los Angeles you can find a galette de rois (topped with a nifty crown, no less) at Maison Richard. There are also lots of bakeries that deliver throughout the country, many offering customizable fillings from cream cheese to chocolate to fruits and nuts.

9. THE NEW ORLEANS PELICANS HAVE A KING CAKE BABY MASCOT—AND IT IS TERRIFYING.

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Every winter you can find this monstrosity at games, local supermarkets, and in your worst nightmares.

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Carvel
A Cool History of Cookie Puss
Carvel
Carvel

When Greek immigrant Thomas Carvel started the Carvel College of Ice Cream Knowledge in the late 1940s, his intention was to educate his ice cream shop franchisees in the proper handling and distribution of the soft serve cones he had invented back in 1934. Famously strict about his scooping protocol, Carvel would grow upset if he discovered a store owner dished out only three ounces of vanilla to save money, not his required 3.5 ounces. Customers—especially kids—could tell the difference.

"Once a kid realizes he isn't getting his full cone, you've lost a customer," Carvel told The New York Times in 1985. "And that's the way you lose an entire chain."

Carvel’s rigid standards sometimes stirred up dissent, as in the case of the antitrust lawsuit filed in 1979 by franchisees over his insistence they buy Carvel-supplied napkins and other goods at inflated prices. But it was his ingenuity that led the 865-location Carvel chain to a stunning $300 million in sales by 1985.

That growth was spurred in large part by the company’s distinctive ice cream cakes, including Hug Me the Bear and Fudgie the Whale. But no confection drew as much attention as Cookie Puss, the cone-nosed birthday treat made famous in a series of 1970s commercials, a 1983 Beastie Boys song, and a legendary bit on The Howard Stern Show.

Although stores frequently tweaked the Cookie Puss design, it never strayed far from its original inspiration: the face of Carvel himself.

(L-R): Cookie Puss, Cookie O'Puss, Tom Carvel. Courtesy of Carvel

Carvel’s ice cream empire began with a flat tire. In 1934, he had borrowed $15 from his fiancée, Agnes, to get an ice cream truck on the road in Hartsdale, New York. The truck broke down, but customers didn’t seem to mind the softening ice cream—in fact, they seemed to love it.

Carvel jumped on the opportunity, cobbling a soft-serve machine together in his garage and obtaining a patent for it. When he realized that selling the machines led to frequent user error, he founded the Carvel Corporation in 1947, lining states—and his pockets—with Carvel-branded frozen treat storefronts.

Carvel recognized that it would take more than his name to help distinguish the stores from other ice cream shops. Their ice cream sandwiches were dubbed Flying Saucers in 1951; Carvel invited franchisees to brainstorm other unique product ideas.

In the early 1970s, an attendee at the College of Ice Cream Knowledge presented Carvel with a cake in a vaguely humanoid shape. With a cone to mimic Carvel’s bulbous nose, Carvel was impressed. He also realized anthropomorphized cakes would be a clever way to further the Carvel brand. An entire line—including Fudgie the Whale and Hug Me the Bear—were rolled out, 50-something ounces of frozen cake goodness that shops could decorate for personalized birthday greetings.

To spread the word, Carvel began featuring Cookie Puss in regional television advertisements throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Airing Saturday mornings and late at night, the ads were low-budget—Carvel refused to hire an ad agency—and featured Carvel himself as the narrator, his gravelly voice urging viewers to consider Fudgie for Father’s Day, Cookie Puss for all occasions, Cookie O’Puss for St. Patrick’s Day, Dumpy the Pumpkin for Halloween, and Cookie’s female counterpart, Cupie Puss, for whatever else might require massive sugar consumption.

Carvel even issued stuffed toys of Cookie Puss and Fudgie in 1985, hoping the $5.98 dolls would become Carvel’s version of Ronald McDonald, a food mascot that transcended corporate direction.

Even people who had never tried Cookie Puss were still aware of him thanks to the pervasive ads. The Beastie Boys broke through with "Cooky Puss," their 1983 single that was built around a real prank phone call made by Adam Horovitz to a Carvel store asking to speak to Cookie Puss. (One unconfirmed urban legend says Carvel was so annoyed by the album that he was considering legal action before his nephew, a Beasties fan, talked him down.)

In 1991, The Howard Stern Show dragged Cookie Puss back into the spotlight when Stern spent an inordinate length of time berating staffer Fred Norris for giving his mother a Cookie Puss for Mother’s Day. Using audio effects, Stern raised his pitch to resemble Cookie’s distinctive voice:

Stern: Hey, Fred. How come you didn’t get your mom a Fudgie the Whale? Because Cookie Puss is number one, right? ... I think you really didn’t think about your mother.

Norris: Thank you for judging me, Cookie Puss.

Stern: Tom Carvel was a weird guy. I wish he could have named me Rambo. Rambo the Cake.

Puss’s heyday came to an end in 1993, when Carvel’s new owners (Tom Carvel had sold the business in 1989 to investment bankers for $80 million) hired an actual ad agency to create a polished campaign. Carvel himself died in 1990, and was later the subject of a bizarre claim by his niece that he had been murdered so his aides could lay claim to the Cookie Puss fortune. The allegation was later dropped.

Today Puss, Fudgie, and the others can still be found at the 400-odd Carvel locations; the company’s slightly retroactive history currently claims that Cookie Puss is actually an alien from the Planet Birthday.

But whatever its fictional narrative might be, Cookie Puss still bears a strong resemblance to Tom Carvel. The inspiration for Dumpy the Pumpkin, however, remains unknown.

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