The holiday season is the best time of year to celebrate with friends and family. Discover 16 festive Christmas desserts that will make your December celebration even sweeter.
Traveling in December has distinct benefits…
Most countries have unique holiday traditions involving sparkly lights, elaborate decorations and festive music. European Christmas markets add an extra zing with vendors selling local food, artisan crafts and body-warming hot wine to a mix of locals and tourists.
Who are we kidding?!!
Traveling in December gives us the opportunity to sample traditional Christmas desserts around the world. Many involve chocolate, crunchy sugar glazes or (in the case of gingerbread) exotic spices.
We’re happy to eat Christmas goodies with our hands, a spoon or a fork. When we’re feeling cold, we opt for seasonal sippers that warm us up from the inside out. Sometimes we fully embrace the Christmas spirit and indulge in both.
We also enjoy eating Sufganiyot when we celebrate Hanukkah. The seasonal jelly donuts pair perfectly with savory Potato Latkes.
Sadly, the time to find and eat most Christmas desserts is limited to December.
This 31-day window provides us with both a challenge and motivation to plan December trips to countries like France, Germany and Italy as well as to cities like Helsinki and Tallinn.
Discover more global desserts that you can eat all year long.
Our Favorite Christmas Desserts Around the World
Some Christmas cakes and pastries evoke warm memories of past holidays spent with friends and family. Then there are the goodies which create fresh memories when we taste them for the first time.
Don’t ask us to pick one favorite holiday confection – that would be both wrong and impossible. We can’t even narrow them down to a dozen.
Read on to discover our picks for 16 of the best Christmas desserts in the world.
1. Bûche de Noël (France)
For the French, one Bûche de Noël on Christmas Eve is never enough.
French people often buy two Bûche de Noël, one edible and one not, during the holiday season. One is a decorated wooden yule log that burns in the fireplace. The other is a highly edible cake that was traditionally eaten after midnight mass but is now enjoyed throughout the holiday season.
More than just a doppelganger, the Bûche de Noël cake is an impressive culinary creation that involves rolling iced sponge cake into a cylinder and decorating it with chocolate buttercream icing, ganache, twigs, berries and other decorative embellishments.
However, in recent years, swanky Paris patisseries have gone beyond simple iced jelly rolls, creating elaborate entremets in various colors and styles with a range of fun flavors like white chocolate, hazelnut and even yuzu. One patissier, Matthieu Carlin at Paris’ Hôtel de Crillon, offers a Bûche de Noël shaped like a sled.
Since this unique French dessert is seasonal, we say go for it if you travel to France in December. Just be careful not to eat an actual wood log unless that’s your thing.
Discover more classic French desserts.
2. Bolo Rei (Portugal)
Bolo Rei is the king of holiday desserts in Portugal.
Topped with colorful candied fruit, the circular brioche-like cake (think of a ring-like version of Italy’s Pannetone) lines the shelves at pastry shops and markets throughout the country during an extended holiday season that goes to January 6th when Dia de Reis (Epiphany) is celebrated. If you visit Portugal during Natal, these colorful cakes are almost impossible to avoid.
We encountered our first Bolo Rei in Porto during a mid-November visit in 2020 and bought a big ring topped with candied fruits when we returned to our Lisbon home base. However, we later found our favorite Bolo Rei at Confeitaria Nacional, the pastelaria (i.e. bakery) that introduced Portugal’s most popular Christmas confection back in the 19th century.
Discover more Portuguese desserts and pastries.
3. Pannetone (Italy)
Originally baked in Milan centuries ago, Panettone’s popularity has spread throughout Italy and around the world thanks to Italian immigrants and savvy marketing executives. Today, it’s one of the world’s most iconic Christmas breads that doubles as a Christmas dessert.
Less sweet than most Italian desserts, Panettone is Italy’s puffy round version of brioche baked sky high and cooled upside down to retain its height. Beyond its eggy, buttery bread base, Panettone gets its flavor from ingredients like candied fruit, chocolate chips and raisins.
Discover more traditional Italian desserts.
4. Christmas Cookies (Everywhere)
Christmas cookies are popular around the world and for good reasons. They’re fun to bake at home and swap with friends. They also make excellent hostess gifts and look festive when displayed at holiday parties and dinners.
Beloved American Christmas cookies include iced sugar cookies, decorated gingerbread men and chocolate-topped thumbprints. Other countries have their favorites too.
Part of the fun of traveling in December is nibbling on waffle-like Pizzelles in Italy, shortbread Bredeles in France and spiral Spritzgebäck in Germany. However, motivated munchers can find these classic Christmas cookies at specialty bakeries around the world.
5. Stollen (Germany)
Germany’s Stollen has stolen our hearts.
It’s not that the simple Christmas bread studded with candied fruits and nuts is particularly unique. But, as we discovered in Baden-Baden, versions baked with mandel (i.e. almonds) and marzipan hit our breakfast sweet spot. Plus, its top layer of powdered sugar doesn’t hurt Stollen’s cause.
We weren’t the first to discover Stollen’s charms – its history dates back to the 16th when Stollen was more of savory bread than a dessert. It quickly became popular in German cities like Dresden, a town famous for hosting Europe’s oldest Christmas market as well as an annual Stolllen festival in December.
6. Eggnog (England)
Although Eggnog tastes good all year long, it tastes especially good during the holiday season. This is month when revellers spike the milky, spicy beverage and top it with grated nutmeg. It’s also the month when calories don’t matter so much.
While Eggnog’s history traces back to 15th century England and later involved George Washington, our personal Eggnog history involves ladling the festive drink out of large punch bowls at holiday parties. After we moved to Lisbon, we developed an easy recipe so that we could whip up a batch for a party of two.
Follow our Boozy Eggnog recipe and whip up a batch for yourself and a special friend.
7. Joulutorttu (Finland)
While the French go to the woods for Bûche de Noël inspiration, Finns go galactic by baking star-shaped Joulutorttu. Pardon our cliche in advance… but these pastries are out of this world!!
We were thrilled to find Joulutorttu at a Helsinki market during our December visit to the Nordic city. After all, it’s much easier to buy the seasonal sweets than it is to mold buttery dough into stars and top each pastry with homemade prune jam.
Discover more treats to enjoy when you celebrate Christmas in Helsinki.
8. Lebkuchen (Germany)
Despite its kitschy appearance and similarity to gingerbread, Germany’s Lebkuchen is a traditional Christmas treat that dates back to the 13th century when monks first baked the seasonal sweet. Unlike those crafty clergy, modern Germans like to buy heart-shaped Lebkuchen at Christmas markets.
Not only are decorated Lebkuchen hearts festive, but buying them at these markets also saves a lot of time. The Lebkuchen recipe has an extensive laundry list of ingredients that includes eggs, flour, honey, sugar, nuts, candied orange and lemon peel as well as exotic spices like anise, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and mace.
There is one tradeoff for this shortcut. While homemade Lebkuchen is soft textured, the version sold at markets is harder and crunchier.
Check out the best Hamburg Christmas markets.
9. Pavlova (New Zealand)
Although it sounds like a Russian delicacy, the Pavlova was originally created in New Zealand to honor a visiting Russian ballet dancer named Anna Pavlova. Linking back to its Eastern European inspiration, the base of a Pavlova is meringue prepared with cornflour. However, the addition of fruits like kiwis and passionfruit make the pavlova a true New Zealand dessert.
Adding red berries to the mix transforms the Pavlova into a Christmas confection. Since Christmas occurs during the summer down under, finding fresh berries in December is the opposite of a problem.
Discover more great New Zealand foods.
10. Pain D’Epices (France)
Pain d’Epices (i.e. Gingerbread) is an Alsatian quick bread usually baked with a variety of spices including cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and, of course, ginger. Beyond Alsace, it’s also a local specialty in Burgundy where it’s sold in various shapes and sizes.
It only seems right to eat Pain d’Epices in Strasbourg since the French city is filled with houses straight out of the Hansel and Gretel fairytale. That being said, Pain d’Epices is so popular in Dijon that it’s even used to flavor mustard.
11. Chocolate Covered Marshmallows (Various)
We didn’t realize that chocolate covered marshmallows were a Christmas treat until we saw Têtes Choco prominently displayed at Christmas markets in Strasbourg, Dijon and Lyon. Clearly, we had been missing out.
Like other chocolate covered marshmallows we’ve eaten in Canada, Scotland and the USA, Têtes Choco have a cookie base, marshmallow center and chocolate coating. However, France’s version offers fillings like framboise, cappuccino and honey.
12. Risalamande (Denmark)
Rice pudding is popular all year long in Denmark but Christmas time is the best time to eat Risalamande, a rice pudding prepared with almonds, sugar, vanilla and whipped cream. Red berries and cherry sauce complete the festive Danish dish.
Danes have been eating Risalamande since the 19th century after adapting it from a French recipe. Traditions related to this Danish dish include eating it with malt beer and awarding a prize to the diner who finds a whole almond in the dessert.
Discover more Danish food favorites.
13. Nougat (Various)
Chewy Nougat candy, made with egg whites, honey and nuts, is especially popular throughout southern Europe and South America during the Christmas season. Spain calls this candy Turrón while Italy calls it Torrone; however, neither of these countries gets credit for inventing Nougat.
As it turns out, Nougat’s roots trace back more than a millennium to the Middle East. But Europe gets credit for elevating Nougat to Christmas treat status. Whether it’s round and soft or square and crunchy and regardless of what it’s called, Nougat almost always tastes good.
14. Christmas Pudding (England)
Christmas Pudding is proof that all good things, like Christmas, are worth the wait. Made with brandy and a variety of fruit, both dried and candied, this holiday dessert takes time to achieve its unique texture.
Brits have been eating the dark, sticky pudding for centuries and they’re not alone. The dense dessert is also popular in former colonies like Australia, Canada and South Africa. Although it had its moment in America, Christmas Pudding’s popularity in that former colony was as fleeting as the flame that often lights the dessert on fire.
15. Chimney Cake (Various)
Chimneys are important in December.
Not only do families hang Christmas stockings by the chimney with care, but chimneys are also Santa’s entry point for delivering gifts. And then there are Chimney Cakes sold at Christmas markets in countries like Germany, Hungary, Lithuania and Poland.
A staple at Eastern European markets, Chimney Cakes have simple ingredients like butter, eggs and flour. Market vendors wrap dough around a wooden spool which they rotate over a fire until the Chimney Cake achieves a crunchy exterior. It’s fun to watch the process and even more fun to take that first bite.
16. Fruit Cake (USA)
American Fruit Cake gets a bad rap.
Despite being the butt of many a joke, the dense cake made with fruits, nuts, spices and liquor has kept its spot at the Christmas table for more than a century. It’s also wiggled its way into a Jimmy Buffett song aptly called Fruitcakes and Truman Capote’s autobiographical A Christmas Memory.
Much of its dubious reputation emanates from mass produced alcohol-free Fruit Cakes given as corporate Christmas gifts and to random relatives. However, homemade cakes made with brandy prove that Fruit Cakes are here to stay.
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.
Original Publication Date: December 19, 2021