5 November 2021 · Jessica Punter
As the saying goes “If baking is any labour at all, it’s a labour of love. A love that gets passed from generation to generation”. Thankfully, it’s also a love that gets passed from country to country. So without further ado, here are 10 baking traditions from around the world!
First up we have the Portuguese classic – the Pastel de Nata.
This beautiful, flaky custard egg tart dates back over 300 years to Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, just west of Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon. At this Monastery, Catholic monks produced the Pastel de Nata and many other confectionaries from the egg yolk leftovers used in the starching of clothes and clearing of wines. Today, the monastery is a UNESCO world heritage site; however there are plenty of bakeries and coffee shops dotted all around Portugal where you can get your Pastel De Nata fix!
It would be impossible to miss out this coffee shop favourite, the infamous Croissant. This buttery, crescent shaped roll has been around since the 16th century. And you’d think it originated from France, right? Wrong. The earliest story of the croissant dates all the way back to 1683 in Vienna, Austria. During that year, Austria was under attack by the Turkish Empire. As the Turkish army tunneled through the ground, the bakers of Vienna (who were working underground at the time, unbeknown to the Turks) heard strange noises and caught the Turkish Army. Even though this story is not attested, what is sure is that the croissant got it’s signature crescent shape from the symbol of Islam, featured on the Turkish flags. So… how did it become so famous in France? Good question. 100 years on, Marie Antoinette, an Austrian Princess, introduced the croissant to the French aristocrats. It then went on to become a French national product by 1920. What a story!
If you’ve ever had Afternoon Tea in England, chances are you’ve tried a delicious, fluffy Victoria Sponge Cake. Created using a mix of sugar, butter, eggs and flour, then filled with whipped cream and jam, this quintessentially English treat has been around since the 18th century.
The Victoria Sponge cake is said to be named after Queen Victoria due to her great affection for it. She had a habit of getting peckish in the afternoons, between lunchtime and dinner, and began requesting tea with bread and butter. Her good friend and lady in waiting, Anna Russell (the duchess of Bedford) has been credited for inventing afternoon tea after hosting tea parties for the Queen and her friends. It was at these parties that the Queens favourite cake was served, and it soon became a national tradition here in the UK.
Next up, we have Babka. This rich, sweet bread originates from the Jewish communities of Poland and Ukraine. In Poland, it’s typically served on Easter Sunday. The traditional filling for babka is cinnamon, however other fillings now include chocolate, cheese, almond paste, poppy seed, walnut or apricot lekvar. During the 1950s, Babka started becoming well known outside of Polish Jewish areas in the United States, when they began appearing in bakeries and recipes were featured in many cookbooks.
The word Babka literally translates as “grandmother” in Polish. It’s thought to have been given this name as Babka was baked in traditional Polish baking pans that gave the final product the shape of an “old woman’s skirt”. Another reason is simply that grandmothers were typically the ones to make this delicious dessert.
A mooncake is a Chinese delicacy traditionally eaten during the Mid-Autumn festival ( 中秋节 ). Most mooncakes consist of a thick, tender pastry skin with a sweet, dense filling inside. Typically they are filled with red bean, sesame or lotus seed paste, and sometimes an egg yolk – symbolizing the full moon. These cakes are traditionally baked; however they can be steamed or fried. The history of the mooncake goes all the way back to the 13th century and it’s quite a story! After several failed attempts to rule China, Mongolia succeeded and conquered most of the country by 1279. Legend has it that this sweet treat helped the Chinese rise up against their Mongolian overlords when a rebel leaders confidant, Liu Bowen sought permission for mooncakes to be distributed to all Chinese residents. Within each Mooncake was a piece of paper that read “Kill the Mongols on the 15th day of the eight month”. Other versions of this folktale say messages were printed on the surface of the cakes and formed part of a puzzle. You had to assemble parts of the cake in order to reveal the message.
A sweet bread originating from Milan, Panettone is treasured by Italians. With a rich history dating as far back as the Roman Empire, this tall flavorsome bread is made with a soft, cured dough containing flour, egg yolk, sugar, butter, raisins, citrus zest, and candied fruits. Panettone is traditionally eaten at Christmas and Easter in Italy, in fact, the dinner table would not be complete without it. The first recorded connection between Panettone and Christmas can be found in writings of the 18th century illumist, Pietro Verri, who refers to the delicacy as ‘Pan de Ton’ (luxury bread). Every year, Italians consume approximately 29 thousand tonnes of panettone. Buon appetito!
Known as Sękacz in Poland and Šakotis in Lithuania, this famous tree cake is a vital part of both Polish and Lithuanian cuisine. Traditionally baked in an open fire, the creamy egg batter slowly drips on the sides, creating the distinguishable shape of this scrumptious treat. The rings that appear when sliced resemble tree rings, and give the cake it’s German name, Baumkuchen, which literally translates to “tree cake” or “log cake”. Very often you’ll see this cake in Lithuanian weddings, on Christmas Eve and sometimes even at Easter. Šakotis is one of the most important desserts in Lithuanian celebrations, and the oldest cake in Europe, so it’s no wonder that they have a Šakotis museum in Lithuania!
Baklava is well known in every corner of the earth and for a good reason. Popular in Turkey, this layered pastry is sweetened with honey or syrup and filled with nuts. The story of Baklava began long ago – it can be traced back to 8th century B.C, when the Assyrians first baked it in their wood-burning ovens. The origin of this famous traditional dessert is unknown, the Turkish, Greeks and Middle Easterners all claim it as their own. This is why Baklava has so many regional variations; in Greece, walnuts are added and it’s often flavoured with cinnamon. In Iran, cardamon is added and a walnut filling. In Turkey, it’s commonly filled with pistachio nuts. Whatever the filling, this dessert is simply irresistible!
Cozonac is a slightly sweet bread, famous in both Bulgaria and Romania. In Bulgaria, It’s traditionally baked and eaten on special occasions such as Easter and Christmas. In Romania, you’ll find it all year round. Often decorated with a pretty chocolate swirl filling and filled with dried fruits, nuts and raisins, the first Cozonac is thought to have originated from Egypt; however there are recipes for this mouth-watering bread in British cookbooks dating back to 1718! To celebrate Europe Day in 2006, the EU’s Austrian presidency took over a cafe in each capital to illustrate the continent’s culinary richness. Romania were part of this and chose Cozonac as their sweet to represent their country – so it really is a national favourite!
Last but not least, we have the iconic Mexican Pan de Muerto! This sweet spongy bread is traditionally baked at the end of October during the lead up to the Dia de los Muertos (the day of the dead) festival, a Mexican holiday where families welcome back the souls of their deceased relatives for a brief reunion/celebration that includes food and drink. Families create ofrendas (offerings) to honour their family members that have passed away, with Pan de Muerto being one of those offerings! The origins of this bread traces its roots to the Aztec times.
Some say the four lines on top of the bread relate to the four gods in the Aztec tradition: Quetzalcóatl, Tláloc, Xipetotec , and Tezcatlipoca. Others say the lines symbolise bones, the ball in the centre being the skull of those who have passed away.