It's the most wonderful time of the year! There's no better time to cut some slack off your diet as you cut into a delicious yule log cake. The Christmas season is all about celebrating the joys of life, and what's more joyful than dessert?

But just where do some Christmas desserts such as shortbread, plum pudding and mince pies come from? And how did they become a part of the Christmas season? Here's a handy guide to tracing the history of the world's most delicious traditional Christmas desserts, and the most fun part of all: where you can try them yourself.  

Bibingka being prepared in terracotta pots over hot coals, wrapped in banana leaves

Bibingka, Philippines

Bibingka, a type of sweet, glutinous rice cake is commonly eaten during the Christmas season, which begins in September in the Philippines. The batter is traditionally poured into a terracotta dish lined with a banana leaf and steamed in a clay oven with coals above and below.

The sticky cakes were initially presented as offerings to pre-colonial gods or were given as gifts to honored guests. Today, bibingka is still a special pleasure among Filipinos, who often have it for breakfast or right after the nine-day dawn masses during the holidays. The popular delicacy is also enjoyed in areas of Indonesia

Where to try it: Cafe Via Mare in Manila

A plate of Bunuelos de chocolate y chile pasilla (Chocolate- & chile-spiked buñuelos), served at Origen restaurant, Oaxaca
Buñuelos' appearance and recipes differ from state to state in Mexico © Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock / Lonely Planet

Buñuelos, Mexico

These light, crispy, sweet discs are a beloved treat in Mexico during the holiday season, a legacy of the Spanish colonisers. Made of fried dough, buñuelos are then sprinkled with sugar or soaked in piloncillo syrup (made from cane sugar). The recipe and shape vary from state to state. For instance, in Tabasco, people make a similar version to the original, while in Veracruz they come in different flavors, such as sweet potato, pumpkin or almond, and some are small balls or donuts fried in lard and dusted with sugar. In other Latin American countries, such as Colombia, buñuelos are ball-shaped and filled with cheese.

Where to try them: Street food stalls across Mexico sell them at Christmastime. 

Sesame shortbread kahk cookes with date stuffing from Egypt. Some of the cookies are on a decorative gold tray sprinkled with icing sugar, one is broken in half to show the filling and the rest are on a cooling rack next to a small cup of tea.
The ancient dessert of kahk hails from Egypt © Oksana_Slepko / Shutterstock

Kahk, Egypt

In Egypt, making kahk (which means cookies) is as ancient as the pharaohs. In fact, drawings depicting women making kakh have been found engraved on the walls of pharaonic temples in ancient Thebes and Memphis. In ancient times kakh were often stuffed with dates and figs.

Today the shortbread-like cookies, imprinted with a geometric pattern, are made with a variety of stuffings – dates, pistachios, walnuts – or spiced with cinnamon, cloves and ginger, and sometimes also fennel seeds, anise seeds and mahlab (the seed of a sour cheery pit).

Kakh is enjoyed by both Muslims and Coptic Christians to mark the end of Ramadan and Advent fasts, as well as other special festivals. Coptic Christians often bring a box of kakh as a gift when visiting friends and family at Christmas. 

Where to try it: Zack's Bakery Cafe, or at the legendary Khan al-Khalili bazaar.

Delicate rose-shaped, deep-fried cookies from India
These pretty and traditional Christmas cookies originated in India © PI / Shutterstock

Rose cookies, India

This traditional delicacy is especially popular at Christmas in the Indian state of Goa, which was subjected to Portuguese rule for almost 500 years. Known in Portuguese and Goan as rose de coque, rose cookies are not really cookies at all but rather fried dough infused with cardamom and vanilla.

The rose shape is accomplished using a cast iron mould with a rounded, flower-like design. After frying, rose cookies might be dipped in or sprinkled with icing sugar.

Where to try them: Nicolau Bakery

Two malva puddings served in cast iron dishes on a circular wooden chopping board
Decadent malva pudding is not just for Christmas © Chadolfski / Shutterstock

Malva pudding, South Africa

Malva pudding, or malvapoeding in Afrikaans, is a rich and sweet cake deeply rooted in South Africa’s Cape Dutch culture. While not prepared exclusively at Christmas, its decadence means it’s reserved for special occasions. Also known as lekker (meaning delicious) pudding, the traditional dessert is embraced by all South Africans.

It’s prepared with apricot jam and a little malt or balsamic vinegar, which give the dessert a caramelized texture. Some ingredient variations include ginger, brandy, and/or Amarula liqueur. After baking, the cake is then drenched with a creamy sauce while still hot. This is key, as the cake absorbs the sauce while cooling, turning into a sticky pudding. The dessert is most popular in Cape Town.

Where to try it: De Oude Cafe and Restaurant, or try Willoughby & Co closer to the center of town.

Three slices of Christmas stollen from Dresden served on a white dish and white wooden table.
The cake-like fruit bread that is Stollen © Barbara Dudzinska / Shutterstock

Stollen, Germany

A veritable German icon, this traditional cake-like fruit and nut bread coated in icing sugar originated in Dresden. In the Middle Ages, stollen was a hard bread made of oats, flour and water.

In time, the pope granted special dispensation permitting bakers to use butter and other rich ingredients like raisins, marzipan, and candied orange peel — foods that were forbidden during Advent — to make their Christmas bread. However, the bakers had to pay a fine as well as present their ruler with an increasingly large stollen, the largest, in 1730, weighing a staggering 1.8 tonnes. 

The mammoth stollen tradition continues today at the annual Dresden Stollenfest, taking place on the Saturday prior to the second Advent.

Where to try it: Stollenfest, or Schlosscafé Emil Reimann.

Beigli, or poppy seed roll, served on a wooden chopping board, sliced and sprinkled with extra poppy seeds.
There are versions of beigli served across Central Europe at Christmas © Olha Afanasieva / Shutterstock

Beigli, Hungary

This sugary, roll-shaped pastry with a dense, swirly filling of poppy seeds or walnuts is a Christmas fixture in Hungary. A German-Yiddish word meaning horseshoe or "to bend", beigli dates back to old folk traditions in which both poppy seeds and walnuts had their symbolic significance: walnut provided protection against magic spells or curses, while poppy seeds, imported by the Ottomans, meant prosperity. Beigli’s cousin, flódni, is a Jewish-Hungarian dessert stacked with layers of apple, walnut, and poppy seeds.

The ubiquitous Christmas treat as it is known today came to Hungary in the second half of the 19th century, during the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Initially baked only in the home as a family ritual, beigli eventually spread to cukrászdas, or confectionaries.

Where to try it: Edesem Cukrászda.

You might also like:
Festive drinks from around the world to enjoy this holiday season
Getting stuffed: Christmas dinners around the world 
Best travel gifts for foodies

This article was first published October 2019 and updated December 2021

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