National Treasures: Traditional Desserts & Pastries From Around the World

Words: Robyn Samuels

Pretty much all of us at some point in time have indulged in a warm slice of apple pie, a freshly fried churro dunked in melted chocolate or a crispy pastéis de nata with the perfect custardy centre. But have you ever bothered to think about the origins of these traditional desserts and pastries?

Each of them hails from a different part of the world and are considered national treasures in their home countries. In fact, most countries have a number of traditional baked goods that could fit the bill and it’s pretty tough to narrow it down to just one… even locally, would you go malva or would you go melktert? It really depends on who you’re asking. We take a trip across the globe and have a crack at what we think are the homegrown honeys across the global baked goods landscape.

Apple Pie: USA

traditional dessert

Americans taught us that anything can be put in a pie. Cherries? Pie. Sweet Potato? Pie. Apple? You guessed it, pie! And, we honestly can’t blame them. Put anything in a pie and we guarantee you it will be delicious, ok almost anything. Nothing is more synonymous with the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ than humble apple pie. The classic dessert is filled with a mixture of sliced apples and cinnamon sugar, which becomes caramelised when baked. The base can either be a single-pie flaky crust or a pastry shell.

As you’ll find with some traditional desserts, the origins of the apple pie aren’t as uniquely American as you’d believe…

You know the saying that goes, “as American as apple pie”. Well, what if we told you that the apple tree never had American roots to begin with? The only apples that were native to North America were wild crab apples, which are smaller in size compared to the eating apples you buy at your local grocery store. Crab apples were also believed to be toxic due to their sourness and unpalatability.

Apples are native to Kazakhstan’s capital, Alma Ata, which actually translates to ‘full of apples’ and apple seeds were actually brought to America from Europe.

The apple pie was native to England and refined in France, which makes sense since apple tarte Tatin is similar. The recipe was then further developed in the Netherlands. Besides butter and sugar, this globetrotting dessert is also saturated with positive symbolism. Most associate apple pie with the 4th of July, American Independence Day, where it’s customary to have a slice of apple pie. But, this patriotic dessert gained popularity long before; during World War II the humble apple pie became a symbol of hope and victory, as the troops famously fought for ‘mom and apple pie’. Care for a slice?

Try our version of Sour Cream, Sage & Apple Pie.

Gulab Jamun: India

traditional dessert

Gulab Jamun is usually associated with India but this sweet treat actually comes from Persia. This delightfully fragrant traditional dessert could be likened to the taste and love South Africans have for koe’sistas.

Although widely consumed in India, Gulab Jamun is also popular in countries like Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan.

Gulab Jamun is usually eaten at celebrations like birthdays, weddings and religious ceremonies. It’s best enjoyed with kulfi (traditional Indian ice cream) on a hot summer’s day or warm as a winter treat. It’s prepared using milk solids, which is made by heating milk on a low heat; then mixed with flour to form a dough, split into small balls and deep-fried ’til golden brown. Lastly, they’re dipped in syrup infused with rose water, cardamom and saffron. Yum!

Eton Mess: UK

eton mess

Of all the traditional desserts, Eton Mess probably has the most questionable origins. Truth be told, the history is as messy as this hodge-podge of a dessert. This sweet treat is a melange of meringue, strawberry compote and Chantilly cream, and when mixed, becomes a strawberry fool. It’s basically a deconstructed pavlova, if you will.

‘Eton Mess’ is actually a moniker, as this dessert was originally known as ‘strawberry mess’.

According to a likely fabricated story, a Labrador sat on a helping of this dessert and whomever it belonged to, couldn’t be bothered and lapped it up – dog hair and all. The more believable version is the one from the Eton Public School cricket game (circa 1920), where someone dropped their strawberry mess on the floor, scooped it up and continued eating it. Who knew the five-second rule would be responsible for one of the UK’s favourite desserts?

Try our recipe for Eton Mess.

Cannoli: Italy

traditional pastries

Holy cannoli, do Italians know how to make good food. I mean, what more could you want from a pastry? Cannoli are deep-fried, cylindrical-shaped pastries that are filled with sweetened ricotta. They are uniquely and beautifully decorated with pistachios, chocolate or candied fruits like oranges and cherries. This Sicilian traditional pastry has been around since the 10th and 11th centuries.

Cylindrical pastry shells were originally made using reeds from the Canna River, hence ‘cannoli’; today stainless steel moulds are used.

What’s more interesting is the symbolism attached to cannoli. Apparently, these phallic-shaped traditional pastries were particularly enjoyed during the Carnevale celebrations and were regarded as a symbol of fertility – pretty ironic as Carnevale translates to ‘remove meat’. The Sicilians took this spiel to the next level and made cannolis of varying lengths, from pinky sized cannoli to extra large ones. Anyway, cannoli come in all shapes and sizes and no one cannoli is more delicious or favoured than the next.

Pastéis de Nata: Portugal

This custard tartlet may be Portugal’s national sweet treat, but it’s also a firm South African fav. Some call it ‘pastel de nata’, but, if you’re anything like us and can’t seem to get enough of these tasty treats, the plural name is ‘pastéis de nata’. These cream pastries are sometimes dusted with cinnamon, and have been compared to English custard tarts – the difference being the shell pastry base in the English ‘egg custard’ and nutmeg dusting. In fact, most countries have their own version of this popular traditional pastry.

The delicious puff pastry tart has a silky egg custard filling and a distinct blistered top.

But what’s even richer than the filling of these irresistible sweet treats are its holier-than-thou origins. Pastéis de nata were first made by the monks of Santa Maria de Belém in the 18th century. Back then, it was customary for monks to starch nuns’ religious habits (overalls) with egg whites to stiffen them. This meant they usually had a surplus of egg yolks. Being creative, they decided to make bite-sized custard tartlets.

Once these traditional pastries became really popular, the monks sold them to make a living. The revelation that is pastéis de nata, is also known as ‘pastéis de Belém’, after the region the baker monks hail from. Legend has it that monks still guard the original recipe.

Try making your own Pastéis de Nata.

Baklava: Greece/Turkey

This honeyed dessert has started some sticky situations. The precise origins of baklava remain unknown and the Turks and Greeks have fought over it for centuries. We don’t blame them because it’s damn delicious!

Baklava is a traditional treat consisting of layered phyllo pastry filled with minced Antep pistachio.

But what makes this pastry delectable is the zesty orange and lemon-infused honey syrup, which is poured over the diamond-cut phyllo bake. Some add cloves, while others opt for the addition of cinnamon to the nut blend for a less intense flavour.

We love this recipe for Pistachio & Almond Baklava with Elderflower Syrup.

Spain: Churros

If vetkoek had a skinnier sister who spent a semester abroad in Spain, it would be churros. This Latin American traditional treat is irresistible, deep-fried till golden brown, coated with cinnamon-sugar mix and dipped or filled with dark chocolate. If your mouth isn’t watering yet, read that again! The origin of Churros is as mysterious as they are delicious. Some say it can be traced to ancient Egypt, as seen on the tomb of Ramases III (don’t ask us). Others know it as ‘youzhagui’ in China, which apparently translates to ‘demon fried in oil’. For the most part, its popularly known and consumed in Spain, Portugal and the Philippines.

The traditional pastry was named after the native ‘churra sheep’, which has conical ringed horns, similar to the cylindrical starred-shaped dessert.

As for the classic combination of dunking in chocolate, the iconic combination happened during the Spanish Inquisition around the 1500s, and has only gotten better since – one chocolate dunk at a time.

Get the recipe for these  El Burro Churros with Dark Chocolate Sauce or Crispy Churros with a Shot of Chocolate.

Croissant: France

traditional pastries

After learning that croissants might not originate from France, we’ve questioned everything in life. If you follow the trail of flakey croissant crumbs, it will lead you to Vienna, Austria, where the earliest crescent croissant-like pastries were discovered. Although the croissant’s origins are widely debated, the French term ‘viennoiseries’ refers to leavened baked goods from Vienna – pretty telling if you ask us. Traditional venoiseries pastries include pain au chocolat, pain au raisin, pain viennois, brioche and Danishes.

Croissants are undoubtedly one of the most popular traditional pastries indulged around the world. But what some consider a croissant, the French would probably call sacrilege.

Making croissants is pretty much an art and science – when cross-sectioned it should reveal all the laminated layers within. A classic French butter croissant should be satisfyingly buttery, but never oily; they should also be delicate, but never dense. The French take their croissants so seriously, down to the shape.

You might know croissants to have a crescent shape, but in France they have straight croissants too.

Croissants au beurre (crescent shape) contain French butter, whereas the croissants ordinaires (straight shape) are made using ordinary margarine – usually when butter is too expensive. If you’ve ever had a dense and oily one it was probably a croissant ordinaires.

What we know to be a croissant didn’t exist up until the early 1900s. Most croissant connoisseurs agree that the Austrian ‘kiepfler’, also a curved and sweet pastry (but smaller) was the inspiration for today’s croissant. The most recognised anecdote is that a Vienesse baker created the traditional pastry as a victory treat after Vienna won a battle against the Ottoman Empire in 1683. The pastry is said to represent the crescent moon, a symbol significant in Islam faith and also found on the Ottoman flag. How does it signify victory you ask? Well, biting into the crescent-shaped pastry was a reminder of the Ottoman’s defeat – it doesn’t get more savage than that!

Austrian baker, August Zang, is the one who revolutionised this beloved pastry when he opened a bakery in Paris, in 1838. The French noticed that Zang’s kiepfler bakes were lighter and flakier than their pastries, thanks to his patented steam oven.  There are a couple of theories on the origins of croissants, all we know is that they are universally delicious.

Try this Baked Caramel Custard Croissant Pudding.

Lamingtons: Australia

Australia’s Lamingtons are actually a spin-off of one of New Zealand’s traditional desserts called, ‘Wellington’. Coincidence? We think not. Had it not been for New Zealand landscape artist, JR Smyth, the true origins of the Lamington would not have been known.

The 19th-century watercolour painting titled “Summer Pantry” famously features a half-eaten Lamington resting on a cottage counter, with the Wellington Harbour in view.

How this traditional treat became known as a ‘Lamington’ is a question reserved for the Lord himself. Lord Lamington of Queensland, Australia that is. He was brought local sweets as a welcome to Wellington, New Zealand. One of the treats happened to be double sponge cake dusted in coconut, which was made to resemble the snow-dusted mountains of New Zealand. We’ll leave it to our Antipodean friends to fight it out, shall we?

Get the recipe for Lamingtons or Lamington Cake.

Malva Pudding: South Africa

When you think about local traditional desserts, melktert, peppermint tart and koeksister/koe’sistas come to mind. But, being a diverse nation, the one dessert that is consistently savoured by locals alike is malva pudding. Malva pudding is an iconic dessert, and if you ask any South African, they will claim their mother makes it best.

This delightfully sticky, moist and delectably decadent pudding is worth the cavities.

It’s the ultimate comfort and from the moment your spoon cuts through the rich pudding, you know you’re in for a sweet treat. This fluffy, golden brown dessert is topped with a caramelised, creamy and buttery sauce. Alternative recipes include either a tot of brandy or sherry. Malva is usually served with either vanilla custard/ice cream. Flavour and texture-wise, it’s comparable to sticky toffee pudding or date pudding.

As for its origins, malva pudding is regarded as an authentic South African dessert, but we apparently have the Dutch colonialists to thank for this gorgeous pud… at least that’s how the story goes.

The marvellous pudding’s origins are as misconstrued as a game of broken telephone and funny enough, ‘telephone pudding’ is another name for a version of malva pudding.

Some say the nomenclature can be attributed to one of its original ingredients, Malvasia (malmsey) wine. Others will say the dessert was named ‘malva’ because it’s ‘malvalekker’. Earlier records reveal that this traditional dessert can be traced all the way back to 1924. Another variation of this beloved dessert is Jan Ellis pudding, named after the Springbok rugby player from the 60s. The major difference is that Jan Ellis pudding uses baking powder or self-raising flour, whereas malva requires baking soda, as well as vinegar.

Malva pudding has graced Sunday dessert tables for decades, but only became commercially popular in the late 70s, when Maggie Peppler joined Boschendal Restaurant. When the head chef was away, Maggie’s malva would come out to play. Whatever the origins may be, we couldn’t think of a dessert more comforting than this celebrated local treat.

Get the recipe for Mini Malva Puddings or White Chocolate Malva Pudding.

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