Global Goodies: International Holiday Desserts (Recipes)

Spice up your holiday table with an international dessert

Hark, what’s that you hear? It’s the sound of your sweet tooth gearing up for the annual holiday sugar-fest that many of us indulge in at this time of year. We all have our favorites — from traditional sugar cookies to rugalach to gingerbread galore. Because let’s face it, dessert is one of the highlights of the holidays. But there is always room to try something new (come on, undo that top button), and luckily, there are as many interesting international treats to choose from as there are countries to inspire you. Here, we outline some of the traditional holiday desserts from around the world, and fill you in on where to find them and how to make them.

Pudding Central: England

“No English person would have Christmas without Christmas pudding; it would be like having Thanksgiving without the turkey,” says Helen Wells, the owner of Jolly’s British Food & Good Grub Groceries in Saugerties. No doubt. While the ingredients — and even the name — can vary (it’s sometimes called plum pudding or figgy pudding), these steamed puddings have certain common characteristics, including a cake-like consistency, a dark color, and the fact that they are stuffed with dried fruits and spices. Brandy is also a common element in this type of dessert, which is traditionally made on the first Sunday in Advent but served on Christmas Day. 

At Jolly’s, you can buy a one-pound Christmas pudding for $26. The shop also sells Christmas cakes — a fruitcake with a marzipan covering and white icing on top — and mini mincemeat pies.

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Chef Dieter Schorner of the Culinary Institute of America shares a recipe for figgy pudding:

Figgy Pudding

Serves 6 to 8

Special equipment: Pudding mold or molds and a steamer large enough to hold the molds

  • 1½ cups raisins
  • ¾ cup candied orange peel
  • 2 apples, peeled, cored, sliced and chopped
  • 1 cup moist figs, smashed (dried ones soaked in hot milk for two hours will work. Once soft, drain them well before smashing.)
  • ¼ cup brandy, whiskey, or sherry
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil or melted butter
  • 1 tsp ground allspice
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp ground cloves
  • 1½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp baking soda, sifted
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • ¾ cup finely chopped white blanched almonds
  • ½ cup whole-wheat flour
  1. Soak fruit in brandy, whiskey, or sherry, and let stand for one day
  2. Butter molds and line with plastic wrap, leaving enough overhanging wrap to cover top of the pudding
  3. In large bowl, beat eggs and sugar together. Add oil or melted butter and remaining ingredients. Blend well. (Don’t forget to make a wish while blending!)
  4. Fill prepared molds, cover with wrap, and place in the steamer basket. Steam until firm, approximately 2½ to 3 hours for a large mold and 1½ to 1¾ hours for small, individual molds
  5. Pudding may be stored for one month in the refrigerator. Reheat by steaming for about 1¼ hours for a large mold or 15 to 20 minutes for small molds
  6. Serve with whipped cream

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panettone ossi di morte

Italian desserts, clockwise from left, include panettone, a rich bread similar to fruitcake; ossi di morti, a cinnamon-flavored cookie; and struffoli, fried dough balls covered in honey

Ossi di morti courtesy of Savoring Time In The Kitchen


The Land of Nuts and Honey: Italy

Originally from Naples, struffoli — balls of dough which are deep-fried then coated with honey — are a Christmas staple in every southern Italian home; Italophiles here in the Valley also clamor for them come this time of year. You can find them in good Italian bakeries everywhere; at Poughkeepsie’s Caffè Aurora, they serve a healthier version, in which the dough is baked instead of fried, then rolled in honey.

Starting on All Soul’s Day in early November and continuing through Christmas, the bakery also sells three traditional southern Italian cookies. Ossi di morti, which translates to “bones of the dead,” are cinnamon-based cookies that look like bones; mostaccioli is a spiced soft cookie coated in a chocolate cinnamon glaze; and rococo is a crunchy, donut-shaped sweet composed of a blend of hazelnuts and almonds, and flavored lightly with cinnamon and cloves.

The Dolce Italian Bakery in Lagrangeville is one of the few local places where you can find two Italian Christmas classics that are still beloved by the older generation, but not as popular with the younger set. Panforte di Siena, which has its roots in 13th-century Tuscany, is a dense concentration of honey, spices, candied fruits, and almonds. Panettone, an Italian bread which originally hails from Milan and is similar to fruitcake, “is very rich,” says Dolce owner Alex Portale. “There are a lot of eggs and honey and no water at all. It’s more elastic than pizza dough.” Portale makes two flavors: golden raisin and chocolate chip. “It’s a lot of work, it takes 12 hours to make,” says Portale. “I start at six in the morning and do not get finished until seven at night.”

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Chef Schorner shares a recipe for the hard-to-find panforte di Siena:

panforte di sienaNuts to you: An Italian holiday favorite, panforte di Siena combines almonds, honey, and candied fruits

Photograph by Michael Polito

Panforte di Siena

Yields one 8- or 9-inch cake

  • ½ cup candied orange peel
  • ½ cup candied lemon peel
  • ½ cup candied citrus peel
  • ¼ cup brandy
  • 1 Tbsp all-purpose flour
  • 1½ cups blanched almonds, halved
  • 1½ cups toasted blanched hazelnuts, halved
  • 2¼ Tbsp cocoa
  • 1½ tsp ground cinnamon, plus more for dusting
  • ¼ tsp ground allspice
  • ½ cup sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup honey
  • 2 cups sugar
  • Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
  1. Soak candied fruits in brandy overnight
  2. Butter 8-inch cake mold and line bottom with wax paper
  3. Preheat oven to 275-285 degrees
  4. Drain fruit and set aside remaining brandy
  5. Dust fruit with one tablespoon of flour. Combine fruit, nuts, cocoa, spices, and ½ cup of flour
  6. In large saucepan, combine honey, sugar, and reserved brandy. Set heat to high. As mixture heats, dip brush in water and wash down sides of pan to prevent crystals from forming
  7. Bring to a boil. Remove from stove and pour hot sugar over fruit and nut mixture; stir vigorously until fully incorporated
  8. Pour into prepared cake mold and bake in oven for 25-30 minutes
  9. Cool and wrap in plastic wrap, and store in an airtight container
  10. Dust with confectioners’ sugar and cinnamon before serving

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yule log

Christmas Cake Magnifique: France

The French classic bûche de Noël, literally translated as “yule log,” can be traced back to a pagan tradition celebrating the winter solstice. Originally made of thinly rolled sponge cake filled with jam or cream, today’s bûche de Noël is a highly decorated dessert that comes in a wide variety of flavors and presentations.

At Jean-Claude’s Patisserie & Dessert Cafe in Warwick (there is also an outpost in Greenwood Lake), renowned pastry chef Jean-Claude Sanchez crafts his famous cylindrical cakes in five flavors: orange, Grand Marnier, hazelnut, double chocolate, and lemon. He also shares a recipe with us. Ooh la la.

Chocolate Bûche de Noël

Serves 10 to 12 people

Ganache filling (prepare one day ahead of time):

  • 3 cups heavy cream
  • 16 oz bittersweet chocolate
  1. Bring heavy cream to a boil
  2. Pour over chocolate chunks
  3. Let stand for a moment, then stir gently
  4. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the next day

Rum syrup:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • Rum to taste
  1. Put water and sugar into a pot and bring to a boil
  2. Cool and add rum to taste


  • ½ cup hazelnut flour
  • 1 oz pastry flour
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 oz sugar
  • 3 whole eggs
  • 3 eggs yolks
  • 3 egg whites
  1. Mix hazelnut flour and pastry flour
  2. With a hand mixer, beat the whole eggs, egg yolks, and ½ cup sugar until ribbon-like and pale in color. Reserve in a bowl
  3. Mix egg whites with remaining sugar until glossy in color and soft peaks form
  4. By hand, delicately fold half of egg mixture and half of the flour into the egg whites; finish with the second half  
  5. Line a tray with parchment paper and spread biscuit mixture evenly
  6. Bake in preheated oven at 375 degrees until light golden brown
  7. When you are ready to make the bûche, peel parchment paper from the biscuit, then replace underneath the biscuit until ready to roll
  8. Moisten biscuit with rum syrup using pastry brush
  9. Bring ganache to room temperature. Beat gently until soft peaks form. Spread about half over biscuit and, with the help of the paper, roll the bûche
  10. Store in refrigerator for two hours
  11. Remove parchment paper. Spread leftover ganache over the cake. Use a fork dipped in hot water to create “bark.” Decorate and serve.

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