Illustrations by Amanda Lanzone
Photo by Shutterstock
Eat your way around the world, one flaky, chewy pastry at a time.
As any Great British Baking Show fan knows, there are a lot of different ways to style a slab of pastry dough, and a whole world of delicious baked goods out there waiting to be devoured. In fact, trying the most popular pastries in a new country is one of our favorite travel rituals.
Whether you want to add some global inspiration to your baking repertoire or simply daydream about visiting bakeries in Europe, here are 16 must-try pastries from around the world.
Have you ever had pastries roasted on an open fire? If not, a chimney cake (or kürtőskalács) from the Hungarian-speaking regions of Romania (notably Transylvania) will soon make you a fan. Named for both its tubular shape and subtly smoky flavor, the kürtőskalács is sold in street stands across Eastern Europe—there’s a good chance you had one in Prague at a Christmas market.
To make one, a baker wraps an entire yard of dough around a spit, which is then constantly rotated over coals for many hours. Once its exterior has crisped to a satisfactory golden brown—a nice contrast with the doughy interior—the kürtőskalács is cut into manageable, six-inch pieces and dusted with cinnamon sugar.
For traditional weddings and other special occasions, bakers may even hide a bottle of brandy inside the baked pastry. And if hazelnutty, goopy goodness is your thing? We recommend hunting down a kürtőskalács stand that sells hot chimney cakes lined with Nutella.
The history of Mexican conchas dates back to precolonial times. Many believe that, when French bakers began to immigrate to Mexico in the 17th century, they brought their brioche recipes with them, which formed the basis for the sweet, spongy concha. From there, the concha evolved.
Nobody knows who first added the crumbled sugar-cookie topping, now the signature feature of the concha. The concha’s cookie topping is typically flavored with vanilla or chocolate and shaped to look like a seashell (although creative variations in both flavor and shape abound). Further variations include filling the bread with whipped cream, custard, or even refried beans. Why not sample them all?
In Indonesia, these green rice balls—filled with hot sugar syrup and wrapped in banana leaves—are a delicious staple.
Kueh klepon’s glutinous rice flour base is flavored with pandan or dracaena leaves, which also give the pastries their subtle green color. Bakers then insert a chunk of palm sugar that liquefies when the pastries are boiled—and the syrup is known to squirt unsuspecting consumers in the face.
Eating these coconut-covered snacks may be like playing pastry roulette, but it’s worth the risk.
These star-shaped puff pastries are forever linked to Argentina’s independence from Spain. Legend holds that on the day of the Revolución de Mayo—May 25th, 1810, the day when Spanish authorities returned partial control to the Argentinians—women sold pastelitos to animated crowds waiting outside the Cabildo, the seat of the colonial government.
But while the delicate pastries had a bittersweet beginning, they became deeply engrained in Argentinean culture and now signify patriotism and national pride. Argentineans serve the flaky treat filled with dulce de membrillo (quince paste) or dulce de batata (sweet potato paste) for Revolución de Mayo and other celebrations.
Enjoy one with a hot beverage, such as hot chocolate or yerba maté, for a perfect holiday treat.
Eccles cake, a buttery, disc-like pastry filled with currants and other dried fruit, originated in (drumroll, please . . .) Eccles, an English township that was built around a 13th-century church. (Eccles comes from the Latin word ecclesia, meaning “church” or “assembly”).
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But it wasn’t until baker James Birch created a version without the calf’s foot in 1796 that the pastry actually became popular. He started selling the cakes at his street-corner shop, which is still standing, and their popularity skyrocketed. Eccles cakes remain a fixture in afternoon teas across England.
Fruity details, such as candied peels and currants, add just the right amount of tang—and also inspired the cake’s nickname, “dead fly pies.” They’re much tastier than they sound, we promise.
The koeksister, a sweet doughnut, is a South African staple. Roadside stands with signs advertising “the best koeksisters in South Africa” are everywhere, although local families (who pass down their recipes through generations) each argue that theirs takes the cake.
While it may be impossible to determine who makes the best koeksister, one thing’s for sure: These delicacies are a must-try. The sticky Afrikaner, a braided doughnut drenched in sugar syrup, is the traditional koeksister.
But don’t confuse koeksisters with Cape Malay koesisters (a slightly different spelling), which were created by the Cape Malays, Cape Town’s Muslim community. These doughnuts are oval in shape, made from spiced dough, covered in cinnamon syrup, and then coated in dried coconut.
These popular Russian pastries are similar to pirozhki. But while pirozhki are closed buns that can be made various types of dough and filled with a variety of sweet and savory treats, vatrushki are open-faced and made typically from a yeasted dough. The most common vatrushka is a round, sweet bread filled with sweetened quark or cottage cheese (or, occasionally, jam or marmalade) and sometimes sprinkled with raisins or fruit pieces.
If you prefer savory foods, seek out a meat-filled vatrushki. The dense treats are traditionally baked in wood-fired ovens (the word vatra translates to “fire” or “hearth”) and range anywhere from five inches to nearly three feet in diameter.
Be sure to come hungry.
Kolompeh are as beautiful as they are delicious—well, almost. Bakers use wooden kolompeh stamps (they’re usually passed down through their families) to imprint the delicate, round pastries with detailed patterns or whimsical nature scenes.
But the true beauty of a kolompeh is its taste. The flaky, fragrant treat is filled with walnuts, butter, and saffron and sweetened only by Medjool dates—that is, no sugar added.
Almond dough forms the base of the multicolored kaber ellouz, or Tunisian marzipan balls often featured during the holidays. The dough is first flavored with rosewater and vanilla. Then, to create the rainbow-like effect, the dough is separated into three chunks—two of which are dyed with food coloring—and then braided.
The plait is cut into individual pieces, which are rolled in superfine sugar and voilà: delicious eye candy, no baking required.
Move over, croissant: The world has discovered your caramelized match. The kouign-amann, or “butter cake,” originated in Brittany in the 1800s, which explains its Breton name. (The Celtic language spoken in this part of France shares more similarities with Welsh than French.)
Rest assured that this decadent pastry lives up to its name—and upholds the “everything’s better with butter” motto in full. The kouign-amann consists of layers of salted butter and dough sprinkled with sugar that caramelizes as the pastry bakes, becoming moist in the middle and delicately flaky on the exterior.
Sometimes they’re filled with fresh fruit or chocolate—oui, s’îl vous plait.
This salted-caramel treat is definitely not meant for those watching their waistlines, but let’s be honest: If you’re reading this, is calorie-counting really your top priority?
Italy’s Sardinia region lays claim to the origlietta, a looped pastry that’s shaped with a stick and then deep-fried in olive oil. Frying usually turns an origlietta golden brown, but talented bakers are able to take the pastry to the translucent stage, which makes them practically melt in your mouth.
The sweet finish? A dip in honey. Watch for origliettas at Carnival and other Italian celebrations.
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The history of the Lamington is a bit tangled. Historians once believed the chocolate-dipped, coconut-coated cakes were named after Lord Lamington, a Brit who served as the governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901. There are several theories as to why: Some say his chef was trying to use up stale sponge cake and improvised a dessert for the governor, others say it’s because Lord Lamington’s hat looked like the cakes, others maintain that Lamington’s maidservant mistakenly dropped his favorite treat into a bowl of melted chocolate. Never one to waste a bite, the governor decided that the best way to enjoy his tainted cake would be to roll it in dried coconut, to spare his fingers the mess.
In 2014, researchers discovered that the Lamington—now as much of an Australian icon as Vegemite and the kangaroo—“was actually invented in New Zealand and originally named a ‘Wellington,’” the Guardian reported.
Regardless of its origins, most agree that “these bloody poofy woolly biscuits” (an actual quote from Lord Lamington) are bloody delicious.
The spiral-shaped jalebi is as fun to prepare as it is to eat, especially for kids. A ubiquitous treat—and important part of Ramadan—jalebis are made from a dough composed of yogurt or ghee and maida flour (a finely milled wheat flour similar to cake flour), which is then squirted from a pastry bag into hot, bubbling ghee.
After the treats are deep-fried, they’re soaked in a sugary syrup. While the chewy-but-tender sweet is an important part of Pakistani culture, jalebis were actually created in Persia, where they’re known as zoolbia or zulbia.
Another fun fact? These pastries might cure more than just a sweet tooth: When dipped in milk, they’re believed to ease migraines as well. (Locals believe that, if you eat one and then wait a few hours before eating anything else, your migraine pain will subside.)
These Swedish marzipan-coated treats are a perfect afternoon pick-me-up—and a surprising way to put old cake to use. The punschrulle’s dense filling is made from leftover cake crumbs combined with cocoa powder, butter, sugar, and Swedish punsch, a strong, spicy liqueur.
This fudgy mixture is then wrapped in marzipan dyed green before finally being dipped into melted chocolate on both ends. Another common name for the punschrulle is dammsugare, which translates to “vacuum cleaner”—the origins of which are an unsettled debate.
Some Swedes say the nickname stems from the shape and coloring of the pastry—reminiscent of an early 20th-century vacuum cleaner—while others say it’s because the pastry uses up old crumbs in the kitchen. Swedishfood.com’s John Duxbury says, “If you don’t know why, you are too young! Ask your mother!” We’ll leave it to you to decide.
No Singaporean holiday festivity is complete without a tray of these kueh tarts, or pineapple tarts. They are the happy confluence of a pineapple surplus across Singapore and Malaysia and the Peranakan influence—descendants of Chinese immigrants who arrived in the Malay peninsula, and whose culture incorporated British, Portuguese, and Dutch influences. (Those familiar with the Portuguese pasteis de nata may see the kueh tart as a distant cousin, in size and shape.)
The shortbread base requires a special cookie cutter, which leaves an imprint for the chewy pineapple topping; the recipe varies though, with families adopting their own style. Give one of these sweets, or a “Gift of Gold,” to a loved one as a wish for prosperity.
In China, it’s believed that steamed buns date back to 770 B.C.E. (yes, really), though they likely looked very different from what we think of now. It wasn’t until the Han Dynasty, when stone mills became more widely used, that doughs made with milled flour became more common.
Sweet and savory varieties have been created throughout the ages. If you’re overwhelmed by the options in a Chinese bakery, know that the taro buns are always a delicious bet.
The mild sweetness of the purple root—which is mashed into a paste and mixed with vanilla sugar—works well with the delicate egg bun. It’s the perfect amount of sweet for any time of day. Enjoy!
This article has been republished with corrections for Romania, Australia, Pakistan, South Africa, Singapore, and China.
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