10 International Recipes for Traditional Holiday Desserts
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.