16 of the World's Best Pastries

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16 of the World's Best Pastries
Here at AFAR, we believe that seeking out new foods are one of the best reasons to travel—and this includes pastries. There's nothing quite like waking up in a new (or revisited favorite) destination and lingering over a freshly baked treat and a coffee. Or stumbling upon a street stand that sells a fried sweet you've never seen before. We've highlighted several of the most mouthwatering pastries around the world in the following list. Prepare to drool.

This appeared in the May/June 2017 issue.
Illustration by Amanda Lanzone
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    Chimney Cake

    Have you ever had pastries roasted on an open fire? If not, a Romanian chimney cake (or kürtőskalács) 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. 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 Romanian 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.
    Illustration by Amanda Lanzone
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    The history of Mexican conchas can be traced back to colonial times. Legend holds that, when French bakers began to immigrate to Mexico in the 17th century, they brought their brioche recipes with them—for the sweet, spongy concha is strikingly similar to the French pastry. Nobody knows who first added the crumbled sugar-cookie topping, now the signature feature of the concha, but the world owes said person a muchas gracias. 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?
    Illustration by Amanda Lanzone
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    Kueh Klepon

    When you hear the word “pastry,” what comes to mind? Green rice balls filled with hot sugar syrup and wrapped in banana leaves? Maybe not for most Americans, but in Indonesia, such sweets—called kueh klepon—are a delicious standby. Kueh klepon’s glutinous rice base is mixed with tapioca and 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 “snackies” (an Indonesian nickname for snack foods) may be like playing pastry roulette, but it’s worth the risk.
    Illustration by Amanda Lanzone
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    These star-shaped puff pastries were created to celebrate Argentina’s independence from Spain. In paintings that depict the Revolución de Mayo—May 25th, 1810, the day when Spanish authorities returned partial control to the Argentinians—female slaves sell pastelitos to the animated crowd. 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 dessert filled with quince or 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.
    Illustration by Amanda Lanzone
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    Eccles Cake

    Eccles cake, a disc-like buttery pastry filled with currants and other dried fruit, originated in (drumroll, please . . .) Eccles, an English township that was built around a 12th-century church. (Eccles comes from the Latin word ecclesia, meaning “church” or “assembly”). In 1789, a Mrs. Elizabeth Raffald published an influential cookbook containing a recipe for “sweet patties,” pastries filled with fruit—and the gelatinous meat of a boiled calf’s foot. But it wasn’t until baker James Birch created a version without the calf’s foot in 1793 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.
    Illustration by Amanda Lanzone
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    South Africa

    The koeksister, a sweet braided 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. But while it may be impossible to determine who makes the best koeksister, one thing’s for sure: these doughnut-like delicacies are a must-try. Two versions compete for popularity across the country: The sticky Afrikaner, which is coated in sugar syrup, and the Cape Malay (named after Cape Town’s Muslim community), which is made from spiced dough and then coated in dried coconut. Both versions, however, are braided and deep-fried—and both are as delicious as they are cute.
    Illustration by Amanda Lanzone
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    These popular Russian pastries fall into the pirozhki family, the main difference being that, while pirozhkis are closed buns with fillings, vatrushkas are open-faced. Imagine a round, sweet bread topped with sweetened cottage cheese (or, occasionally, jam or marmalade) and sometimes sprinkled with raisins or fruit pieces. If you prefer savory foods, go for the meat-topped vatrushkas. The dense treats are traditionally baked in wood-fired ovens (the word vatra translates to “fire” in many Slavic languages) and range anywhere from five inches to nearly three feet in diameter. Be sure to come hungry.
    Illustration by Amanda Lanzone
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    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—i.e., no sugar added. Whoever said “guilt-free indulgence” was an oxymoron has now been proven wrong.
    Illustration by Amanda Lanzone
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    Kaber Ellouz

    Marzipan dough forms the base of the multicolored kaber ellouz, or Tunisian almond balls. 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. While people around the world enjoy these festive sweets during the winter holidays, Tunisians celebrate with kaber ellouz at special occasions throughout the year.
    Illustration by Amanda Lanzone
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    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—and distinctly un-French—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 hundreds of layers of butter and dough sprinkled with a sugar-salt mix that caramelizes as the pastry bakes, becoming moist and melty in the middle and delicately flaky on the exterior. Sometimes they’re filled with fresh fruit, chocolate, or coconut—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?
    Illustration by Amanda Lanzone
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    Italy’s Sardinia region lays claim to the origlietta, an accordion-like pastry that’s shaped with a stick and then deep-fried in olive or seed oil. The frying process 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 coating of local honey. Watch for origliettas at Carnival and other Italian celebrations.
    Illustration by Amanda Lanzone
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    Lord Lamington, a Brit who served as the eighth governor of Queensland, was famously fond of his vanilla sponge cake. One day, his 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—and by chance, the Lamington cake was born. This Down Under dessert is now as much of an Australian icon as Vegemite and the kangaroo. And, trust us, “these bloody poofy woolly biscuits” (an actual quote from Lord Lamington) are bloody delicious.
    Illustration by Amanda Lanzone
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    The spiral-shaped jalebi are as fun to prepare as they are to eat, especially for kids. During traditional holidays like Diwali and Ramadan, children help to create the dough made from 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. The chewy-but-tender sweet has stood the test of time: The oldest reference to a jalebi is in a 13th-century Iranian cookbook. Another fun fact? It turns out these pastries 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.
    Illustration by Amanda Lanzone
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    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 and sugar. This fudgy mixture is then wrapped in a green almond-paste that’s flavored with Swedish punsch, a strong liqueur of arrack and spices, 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 a 1920s vacuum cleaner—while others say it’s because the pastry uses up old crumbs in the kitchen. Still others, such as Swedishfood.com’s John Duxbury say, “If you don’t know why, you are too young! Ask your mother!” We’ll leave it to you to decide.
    Illustration by Amanda Lanzone
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    Kueh Tart

    No Singaporean holiday festivity is complete without a tray of these pineapple tarts. Christopher Columbus first introduced pineapple to Singapore in 1593, which soon became so widely planted that the island became one of the global centers of the pineapple canning industry. Once Singaporeans realized how delicious the golden fruit is in paste form—and that it’s even better when combined with pastry—the beloved kueh tart was born. These adorable little shortbreads require a special cookie cutter, which leave an imprint for the pineapple topping. Give one of these sweets, or a “Gift of Gold,” to a loved one as a wish for prosperity.
    Illustration by Amanda Lanzone
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    Taro Bun

    In China, steamed buns date back to 770 B.C.E. (yes, really). That’s the year the mill was invented, which allowed people to make food from wheat. 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, slightly vanilla-tasting root—which is mashed into a paste—offsets the buttery flavor of the egg bun. It’s the perfect amount of sweet for any time of day. Enjoy!
    Illustration by Amanda Lanzone
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    Get Your Game Face On...
    Illustration by Amanda Lanzone; Photo by Jeffery Cross