The dessert completist faces a pretty daunting challenge. If you consider all of the many varied cultures and food traditions throughout the world, it may seem practically impossible to try every sweet treat and confection that’s out there. That may not be true for the obsessive eater, but most of us have jobs and family lives to consider, and so a worldwide dessert trek must be resigned to the realms of fantasy.
Take heart, however. You may or may not be able to eat absolutely every single dessert that’s ever been dreamed into existence, but you can make a pretty good dent in that list during your time here on Earth. You don’t even need to go on a jaunt or two across the globe to get a good dessert experience. Adventurous home cooks can even create some of these dishes on their own, though no one’s judging you if you pop into a local bakery to check some of these off your list.
Black Forest cake
According to What’s Cooking America, Black Forest cake was first officially developed in 1915 by pastry chef Josef Keller and was named after the Black Forest region of Germany. A classic Black Forest cake dessert has multiple layers of chocolate cake, whipped cream, and cherries. The assembly is coated with more whipped creams and chocolate shavings, along with a few more of those bright cherries for decoration. Oftentimes, the cherry flavor of the cake is enhanced by the addition of some cherry schnapps to some of the cake layers.
Many people and places claim that they have a lock on fried dough treats, be it donuts, beignets, churros, or something else. But before you make a final decision on who’s attained fried dessert perfection, you’d better try gulab jamun, India’s delicious take on the form. According to The Donut, gulab jamun is made out of milk solids that are thickened with flour, fried, and soaked in a sweet rosewater syrup. Different variants of this treat are served throughout the Indian subcontinent and beyond, but most agree that it’s best served hot and fresh.
Black and white cookie
Desserts are often tied to a place, sometimes so deeply that even the mere mention of a treat can draw someone back in time. For many who’ve been to or lived in New York City, that sort of ineffable experience is summed up in the iconic black and white cookie. The cakey cookie is striking, with one side coated in chocolate and the other in white vanilla icing and may be tied to the beginning of New York itself, says Eater. If you haven’t already, take a bite into history with a black and white cookie.
All too often, good desserts are upstaged by sad versions of the original. Carrot cake, alas, is often a victim of this phenomenon. You may have had a gummy cake out of a grocery store case, covered with a rubbery cream cheese icing. Please, don’t let that deter you from carrot cake glory. Done right, it will boast a lighter texture, with rich spice flavor and beautifully sweet, tangy icing. Of course, some grocery store traditions, like the delightful little carrot made out of piped icing on top of many slices, are part of the fun.
Cheesecake can present a real hurdle. Read any halfway decent recipe, and you’ll be confronted with cautions over temperatures, custards, crusts, and even the humidity of your oven. With practice, creating your own cheesecake dessert isn’t so bad. Done well, it’s really worth it to eat a slice, whether you’ve crafted it yourself or found an excellent pastry chef. As defined by the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, it’s a tangy, sweetened mix of soft cheese, eggs, spices, and a bit of sweetener like honey. Done right, it will also have a delightfully creamy, decadent texture.
Tres leches cake
Literally translating to "three milks cake," a pastel de tres leches is a rich dessert that’s been around for centuries, says the Austin Chronicle. It likely hails from medieval Europe, though it’s now more famous for its Latin American connections. There are about as many recipes for tres leches cake as there are days in a year, at least, but a few common themes run through all of them. Usually, the base is a sponge cake soaked in, of course, three different kinds of milk: evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream.
Macarons are a social media maven’s dessert dream. According to The Atlantic, these meringue cookies hailing from France can come in a rainbow of colors that look perfectly eye-catching on screens everywhere. Don’t let looks fool you, however. These treats can also be a delicate, delicious treat for your taste buds as much as for your eyes. The base cookies are crispy and just a little chewy. The filling can be anything from a rich, flavored buttercream, to a sweet and tart jam that’s sure to please nearly everyone.
If we’re talking about impressive dessert looks, a Charlotte Royale is pretty hard to beat. It’s a domed dish made out of rolled sponge cake, filled and cut into spiral slices, which are then used to line a bowl and filled with a mousse filling. The Great British Bake Off recipe by British cooking maven Mary Berry uses raspberry for the mousse and a strawberry jam for the Swiss roll slices that will form the outside layer of the dish and make its first impression. With tart flavors and striking look, it’s worth at least one try.
This dessert is especially popular throughout South America, says CNN. Once you bite into one, you’ll be sure to understand why this is a continent-wide favorite. Alfajores are made with shortbread sandwich cookies, which, in their best form, lend a buttery, crumbly flavor and texture to the experience. The two cookies sandwich a layer of dulce de leche, a sweet kind of caramel filling made out of slow-cooked sweetened milk. They’re excellent on their own, but you may also want to try variations that include chocolate coatings, spices, coconut shreds, and more.
Babka is a classic yeasted loaf popular throughout Europe, but you can kick it up to dessert-level deliciousness with the addition of chocolate. Yes, The New York Times does admit that this is a serious time-sink, with quite a few steps and few hours needed for rising, but it’s worth the wait. A good chocolate babka looks great, with a beautifully braided loaf spilling over with chocolate filling. It also tastes wonderful, thanks not only to the cocoa but also the savory enriched dough that forms the base.
Key lime pie
How many people have had a real Key lime pie? Sure, you may have had a dessert that claims to use these unique, tiny limes from the Florida Keys, but once you’d had the true thing, you’ll never be able to go back. According to Southern Living, Key lime pie has a rich, if somewhat mysterious history. Wherever it came from, exactly, this tangy, creamy treat really needs those fresh Key limes to stand out. Their milder, sweeter flavor, compared to standard grocery store limes, truly elevates this dish.
Sticky rice with mango
Known as khao niaow ma muang in Thailand, mango sticky rice is a classic treat that, according to The Spruce Eats, is often served as a street food. This pudding-like dessert is made with, of course, rice thickened with coconut milk. A few tablespoons of brown sugar help to round out and sweeten the flavors, but we all know that mango is the true star of this dessert. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place where ultra-fresh, ripe mangoes are available, then be sure to incorporate them into this dessert.
Sometimes, you may encounter a dessert that looks so beautiful that you can’t believe it will taste any good. While you may have been disappointed in the past, don’t let that make you pass up a slice of Princess Cake, also known as Prinsesstårta in its native Sweden. The BBC explains that it’s a layer cake full of whipped cream, custard, bright-flavored jam, and a strikingly green layer of marzipan on top. With some piped details and a delicate fondant rose on top, it’s fit for any princess, royal or otherwise.
Known as bûche de Noël in French-speaking regions, the perennial favorite Yule log is a classic dessert served up during the holidays. As per History, it’s got a centuries-long pedigree, at least if you’re counting the tradition of burning an actual log in an annual ceremony. The far more tasty rolled sponge cake version probably first appeared in the 17th century and got popular in 19th century Paris. With rich fillings, tasty cake, and a chocolate ganache coating, this is a delicious dessert that could easily put you in the right seasonal mood.
Food fads seem to come and go, whether it was the rise of macarons in one decade or cupcakes in another. For the 1980s, says Eater, that was tiramisu. But while its vogue may have come and gone, don’t shy away from this dessert. It’s wonderful on its own merits, thanks to sponge cake, sweet mascarpone, ladyfinger biscuits, cocoa powder, and espresso. The more adventurous amongst you might also try an adults-only version laced with alcohol like rum or Marsala wine.
Sure, "crème brûlée" may directly translate from French into English as "burnt cream," but don’t let the name dissuade you. As The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets says, it’s a sweetened custard, usually served in a small dish topped with sugar. The sugar is gently heated with a blowtorch until it begins to caramelize. This transforms it into a delicious, crackly, crunchy crust. Be sure to treat your taste buds to this classic French dessert at least once in your lifetime.
If you’re of legal drinking age, then try to snag the chance to try out the famous bananas foster dish. According to Saveur, this dessert was invented in 1951 at Brennan’s restaurant in New Orleans, Louisiana. This dish of caramelized bananas cooked in a boozy rum sauce is plenty good already, but you may get lucky and see it getting flambeed in the rum by a chef or waiter. Flames are always good theater, but bananas foster done right is pretty tasty too.
Modern baking show viewers may now associate Baked Alaska with the infamous "BinGate", says PBS, wherein viewers of The Great British Baking Show saw one unlucky contestant’s melting Baked Alaska meet a trash can. If it’s not melting, however, Baked Alaska is an interesting sweet dish. Essentially, it’s layers of cake and ice cream topped with an egg white meringue. The meringue is usually shaped into fanciful swirls and then gently browned with a blowtorch. As long as the cook can give it a little time in the freezer, it’s a wonderful dessert.
According to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, the mochi is built upon the right kind of rice. Specifically, glutinous rice, which, when pounded, molds to a sticky, sweet consistency that’s just right for this Japanese dessert. These rice cakes can be formed into all manner of fascinating shapes, with some historically used for ritual purposes. Nowadays, you can find mochi stuffed with a variety of delicious fillings, including savory flavors like taro or a traditional sweetened paste made from red adzuki beans.
If you want the sort of texture that only a good dip into a deep fat frying can supply, then you’ve got to try cannoli. The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets explains that this Italian dessert is basically a crunchy tube of fried dough filled with a sweetened ricotta cheese mixture. Within those basic rules, there’s lots of variation. Some cannoli are quite large, while others come out to a minute, bite-sized five centimeters. Chefs have since played around with fillings and coatings like chocolate, so there’s plenty of variety to experience for the dedicated cannoli lover.
Flan, sometimes known more completely as flan de leche or creme caramel, is a beautifully simple custard dessert topped with a clear caramel sauce. When making flan, things are a little upside down, as Food Network notes. A caramel sauce is made first, then poured into a mold. The custard is used to fill the rest of the mold, and then the entire assembly is cooked, usually in a water bath like cheesecake or other custards. The best results are perfectly smooth custards dripping with a delicious caramel, sometimes with flavorings like cinnamon, citrus, or vanilla.
Lemon bars are another dessert that get unfairly maligned, perhaps because they’re often one of the more disappointing offerings at a baking sale. But, as Taste argues, we can save the lemon bar from this sad fate. With the right recipe, it can transform from a stodgy nightmare to something wonderful, with a flaky shortbread crust and a tart, lemony curd on top. While some of this depends on your personal taste, many argue that the best lemon bars are ones that go a little easier on the sugar than tradition, so be prepared for something zingy.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, apple pie is now considered so classically American that it’s entered our lexicon as the epitome of the United States, culinarily speaking. But, too often, we’ve been presented with something that claims to be apple pie but is only a half-frozen or carelessly made beast of a dessert. If you’ve been so unfortunate, give apple pie a second chance. A truly good pie will have buttery, flaky crust with a warm, gooey spiced apple filling.
Sometimes, it’s right to be a little suspicious of trends, which may unfairly elevate a dessert that’s ultimately too flashy to really satisfy. Then again, dessert trends can happen because something is genuinely good. For cronuts, those mixes of French croissant pastries and deep-fried donuts, the latter may indeed be true. ABC News notes that the at-home recipe takes a lot of effort and sheer time to make. Yet, when it’s done right, it’s a lovely mix of savory and sweet, soft and crunchy, whether you make it at home or wait in line to buy one.
Perhaps it’s summer where you are, and all of this talk of warm apple pie sounds a bit miserable. Maybe creamy things just don’t work, either. What you really need for dessert is something cold and sweet and a bit light. Consider, then, the miracle that is a really good cup of shave ice. According to History, this treat is also known as snowballs, though it’s more popularly called shave ice in Hawaii. They’re generally pretty fluffy, as opposed to more dense snow cones. Shave ice vendors also have a heavier hand with the syrup.
Burnt almond cake
"Burnt" anything isn’t the greatest start for a dessert, but don’t let the title fool you. This Pittsburgh treat is so popular that HuffPost says it’s astonishingly good. It’s a light, almost fluffy cake covered in buttercream, which is also typically whipped up to a delicate consistency. Most versions also boast a layer of custard in between the cake layers and visible flakes of sugar on top, but the real prize here are the toasted sliced almonds covering the entire exterior. It’s a medley of tastes and textures that has bowled many people over.
The Canadian Nanaimo bar, named after a city in British Columbia, is so popular and tied to its national origin that the journal Canadian Food Studies published an investigation into the dessert’s origins. It appears to have been a 20th century creation, with the first known recipe published in 1952. The bar cookie boasts three layers, which include a coconut and nut base, custard icing, and chocolate ganache. Sure, it’s bound to be ultra-sweet, but the different textures and flavors have been pleasing people in Canada and beyond for more than fifty years.
Long considered a classic dessert of western Asia, parts of Europe, and the Middle East, baklava rightly claims its place in dessert history. As per The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, baklava consists of many, many layers of thin phyllo pastry, usually amounting to 40 or even 80 sheets of phyllo in total. It’s usually filled with nuts, like walnuts or almonds, brushed with melted butter, and then soaked in syrup after baking. The resulting sticky-sweet concoction is beloved by many across the world.
You may first think that picarones are merely another variation on fried dough desserts, like doughnuts or beignets. One bite into a freshly-made picarone, however, and you’ll learn how much more this little treat can offer. According to Peru Delights, picarones are made out of a mix of sweet potatoes and another squash, called macre. The veggies are pureed, then blended with flour, sugar, and yeast to make dough. After it’s had some time to rise, the dough is made into rings and fried. When they’re paired with a house-made syrup, picarones quickly rise to dessert nirvana.
With good ingredients and a careful chef, chocolate mousse can become a downright mouthwatering dessert. The Greensboro News & Record reports that it has a long history but has maintained a pretty slim ingredient list over the years. This means a base made with egg yolk, sugar, and whatever flavorings you need. A chocolate sauce is poured into the finished base, and the resulting mixture is incorporated into whipped cream. Served in a pretty glass, this dish would look fine at the end of your next fancy dinner.
There are about a thousand things to do with crepes, those thin little pancakes that can be turned into sweet or savory dishes. But what about setting them on fire? According to What’s Cooking America, the first known crepes suzette was created in 1895, when a young French waiter accidentally set a dish of crepes he’d been cooking on fire. The kicker? He was preparing them for the Prince of Wales and his entourage. Luckily, the sauce of sugar, orange juice, and liqueur tasted great. Nowadays, crepes suzettes flambeed in brandy are a high-class restaurant staple.
A finely made strudel dessert is a beautiful thing, but it’s not always easy to achieve. The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets explains that this pastry is made out of thinly rolled dough wrapped around a fruit filling. One 1581 recipe for the dish poetically says that the dough should be made "as thin as a veil," so you know this is supposed to be a pretty delicate process. The most classic version of strudel is apfelstrudel, or apple strudel, made with apples, fried breadcrumbs, raisins, sugar, and cinnamon.
Coconut cake is another one of those desserts that, through taking a winding path through history and geography, has ended up representing the culinary heritage of a surprising region. In this case, coconut cake is a classic of the American South, says Our State, though you might be hard-pressed to find an actual coconut tree growing there. Either way, a good coconut cake is a truly delicious vanilla cake base with buttercream and, of course, flakes of grated coconut covering the outside of the confection.
Cornes de Gazelle
Cornes de Gazelle translates, rather delightfully, to "gazelle horns," says Sweet Middle East. Hailing from Morocco, these cookie desserts are so delicate that they can practically melt in your mouth upon first bite. Their crescent shape is made out of a flour dough filled with a mixture of almond paste, sugar, spices like cinnamon, and a hint of orange blossom water. Bakers might leave the cookies plain as is, or they could also cover them with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar to complete the look and sweet taste.
Lamingtons are an Australian favorite, and for good reason. Joy of Baking explains that they’re generally made out of a bite-size cube of white cake that’s coated in a chocolate frosting or ganache, and then rolled in flakes of dried coconut. These desserts are so intensely popular that they’re said to quickly sell out at bake sales and professional bakeries alike, hounded as they are by Lamingtons superfans. Uniquely for many delicious desserts, they also store pretty decently, thanks to that chocolate coating.
If you ever find yourself in Hong Kong, try your hardest to seek out a fresh dan tat pastry dessert. According to CNN, these little cups of baked custard are a beloved staple in many bakeries throughout the bustling metropolis. That warm sweetened egg custard is surrounded by layers of flaky pastry, baked to crisp, golden perfection. They also have an interesting pedigree, perhaps hailing from as far afield as Portugal thanks to Hong Kong’s long history as a worldwide trading hub.
Though it’s a relative of baklava, the Middle East favorite of kanafeh is unique in its own right. Also spelled knafeh, qata’if, and kadayif, among other names, according to The Oxford Companion to Food, it originally began as a kind of pancake dish. In many modern places, it’s a variant of fried dough wrapped around a filling, itself usually made out of nuts like pistachios or walnuts. That filling could be sweetened, scented with rosewater, or even switched out for a sugary cheese or cream filling, depending on the region and the individual baker preparing this dessert.
According to Joy of Baking, Linzertorte is a classic Austrian dessert pastry for a reason. Printed recipes for this dish started popping up in the early 18th century, so there’s been plenty of time to refine this treat. It’s made out of a nutty pastry, usually a shortcake made with hazelnuts, though others have gone wild with walnuts or almonds instead. The filling is usually made out of something a bit tart, like raspberry or redcurrant preserves, then topped off with a visually impressive lattice top and garnished with more nuts.
Generally speaking, says The Guardian, "kulfi" is the Hindi word for ice cream. However, the specific dish named kulfi is quite a lot more than the standard ice cream you might get out of a tub in the grocery store freezer case. A traditional kulfi is made from milk alone, instead of an egg custard. When it’s simmered for hours, the milk reduces in a creamy, caramelized liquid that’s then frozen. Some chefs will also add a bit of sugar and flavorings to the dessert, including tastes familiar to India like pistachio, rosewater, or cardamom.
No one seems ready to agree where pavlova came from. According to Joy of Baking, New Zealanders will tell that, of course, one of their fellows created the dessert, while Australians will say that it’s rightfully theirs. If you can stay above the fray, then you’ll know that a good Pavlova is a beautiful thing. It is, essentially, a light meringue cake that boasts a crispy exterior and a soft, marshmallow-like interior. It’s all topped with whipped cream and fresh fruit.
Sticky toffee pudding
If you’ve got a serious sweet tooth, then be sure to try the English dessert mainstay of sticky toffee pudding. Food & Wine says that these are little cakes full of sweetness. That flavor comes largely from a caramel sauce but also from dates, sugar, and a touch of corn syrup. Some chefs may balk at that last ingredient, but they will surely agree that the final product must be sweetness rounded out by caramel, moist, and maybe even served with a vanilla ice cream or custard to ramp up the flavor.
According to Share: A Century of South African Community Recipes, malva pudding, though widely beloved, has a bit of an obscure past, with numerous different names and supposed dessert recipe authors. Either way, it’s considered delicious. It’s a cake-like "brown pudding," with add-ins like apricot jam and even vinegar used to brighten up what could be a pretty sweet, potentially stodgy experience. Most diners would consider it incomplete with a rich cream sauce poured on the pudding soon after it exits the oven.
In many ways, desserts are an experience as much as they are a food. This is particularly evident when it comes to s’mores, which are often first enjoyed around a campfire. A good s’more, consisting of toasted marshmallows and a square or two of chocolate sandwiched between graham crackers, is a quintessential taste of summer. According to Food & Wine, the first known official recipe for the treat came courtesy of the Girl Scouts in 1927, who first called it a "Some More."
Pastéis de nata
Dessert fans of The Great British Baking Show may recognize baker and judge Paul Hollywood’s recipe for pastéis de nata as one of the rather daunting technical challenges set for the show’s bakers. These Portuguese tarts are filled with an egg custard that’s often enhanced with a bit of lemon zest and cinnamon to produce a complex flavor. The custard mixture is poured into a little bowl made out of pastry, typically a puff or rough puff pastry that’s meant to come out golden brown, flaky, and with just the right amount of buttery flavor.
There’s fried dough, and then there are churros. HuffPost reports that this unique creation has a complex history, with some arguing that it was invented by Spanish sheep herders, while others say that Portguese sailors were riffing on a Chinese dish. Either way, many people now enjoy these tubes of fried dough as occasional treats or even breakfast food. The dough is piped into fry oil using a star tip, which creates those distinctive ridges. Some cooks decide to fill the centers of their churros with things like dulce de leche or coat the outsides with chocolate or powdered sugar.