The Illustrated Biographies of 16 1/2 Global Desserts

The donut that almost became the official dessert of Hanukkah—if the economy hadn't gotten in the way.

A regional Mexican specialty rapidly fading from collective memory. And a ubiquitous Christmas cake tradition in a country that’s less than 1% Christian.

These are the dessert origins and quirky backstories that we found when we asked writers, cookbook authors, and community members to help us paint the pictures of what's baking in many corners of the world.

Here are all 16 1/2 stories. (Oh, and that half? A lovable so-much-cream-it's-basically-dessert cocktail). Actual illustrations by the talented Julia Rothman.

Photo by James Ransom

A Bourbon Ball That Shows Up Everything at the Neighbor's Cookie Swap


by John Birdsall

When a lady down the street turned into an adopted aunt, her hand-written recipe card became as much a part of John Birdsall’s family as she did.




Photo by James Ransom

The 15th-Century Christmas Cookie Pâtisseries Make All Year


by Dorie Greenspan

Pâtisserie Lerch was not the kind of place to make any Paris must-go lists. But it was where Dorie Greenspan first discovered leckerli: the honey-sweet, spiced cookie native to Alsace and Switzerland. In her words, it was “love at first nibble.”




Photo by Bobbi Lin

How One South African Dessert Rose to Icon Status—in Only 40 Years


by Sarah Jampel

Malva pudding is a South African favorite: It crops up in cookbooks well-known and obscure, in restaurants large and small. Families speak of recipes passed down through generations. But for all of the origin theories behind this iconic, deeply-rooted dessert, it turns out that it's probably younger than you—and almost definitely younger than your parents.




Photo by Julia Rothman

A Cake That’s More Spiritual Offering Than Last Course


by Mayukh Sen

A personal and political history of ul boov, a cake tower made to celebrate the Mongolian and Arctic Lunar New Year—and one that's persistent enough to have survived the tumult of Genghis Khan and 20th-century communism.




Photo by James Ransom

The Finest and Richest of All German Lebkuchen


by Luisa Weiss

According to Luisa Weiss, most of Germany heads to the kitchen to bake Christmas cookies in late November—even those who spend the rest of the year on the opposite side of the house. These Elisenlebkuchen will find their place in gifts and on Advent Sunday tables all month long.




Photo by James Ransom

"Problem Solving Nuts" for Shab-e-Yalda, the Longest, Darkest Night


by Felicia Campbell

Food of Oman author Felicia Campbell writes of Shab-e-Yalda, when Persian families celebrate the longest, darkest night of the year by gathering at the oldest matriarch's home. This year will be her first, full of fortune-reading, dancing, and feasting on Ajil-e Moshkel Gosha, or ”problem solving nuts"—good luck to anyone who eats them.




Photo by James Ransom

The Case For a Three-Irish-Cream Kind of Afternoon


by Rosie Schaap

So it’s not as easy—or romantic—to summon a mental image of a great Irish writer bellying up to a bar and requesting a... glass of Irish cream. Here's to doing it anyway. (Rosie Schaap's shockingly simple recipe will make it worth your while.)




Photo by James Ransom

Why Sfenj Couldn't Be the Official Dessert of Hanukkah


by Michael Solomonov

There's a doughnut that's far simpler to make, and just as good, as the sufganiyot, Hanukkah's official dessert. But the harder, more involved doughnut is the one you'll find in bakeries and kitchens worldwide. Why? It all has to do with the economy.




Photo by Marie Takahashi

A Christmas Cake Tradition in a Country That (Mostly) Doesn't Observe Christmas


by Sarah Baird

Japanese Christmas cakes start hitting stores as early as mid-October. (All the stores: Even convenience stores sell their own delightful renditions.) Sarah Baird tells the story of how an American-inspired tradition became a wholly Japanese holiday ritual.




Photo by James Ransom

The Indian Dessert That Requires A Winter’s Moonlight


by Lathika George

Each year by Early November, sweet-makers in Northern India start producing this harbinger of winter—and legend has it it’s the moonlight that's the key to its success. Lathika George takes us to Old Delhi’s historic Moonlit Market, Chandni Chowk.




Photo by Bobbi Lin

The Nigerian Fruitcake Recipe That Brings Me Home


by Ozoz Sokoh

Ozoz Sokoh, better known around these parts as Food52er Kitchen Butterfly, grew up on a Nigerian Christmas tradition that she didn’t think she’d be able to recreate—see the recipe that taught her otherwise.




Photo by Felipe Luna

The Dying Art of Isla Flotante


by Michael Snyder

Photo by Felipe Luna

Why is this regional specialty—an ethereally light cousin to tres leches—rapidly fading from collective memory? Michael Snyder travels to Mexico to find out, and brings us a recipe passed down from 86-year-old local Mimy Aguilera Contreras (pictured above).

Everything we know comes from family, passed from one person or one generation to the next.
Mimy

Photo by James Ransom

One Bite of This Californian Persimmon Pudding And It Was Christmas


by Miriam Bale

The memory of persimmon pudding that causes Miriam Bale to try to track down the recipe her grandmother used—and to understand one side of her heritage.




Photo by James Ransom

Pavlova is More Than Australia’s National Dish—It’s an Emblem


by David Prior

A family recipe for pavlova marks true tradition, one Australians hold onto tightly. We're lucky, then—David Prior has agreed to share his.




Photo by James Ransom

A Sugar-Dusted, Liquor-Soaked Vestige of the Roman Carnival


by Katie Parla

While most traditions around the now-defunct Roman Carnival have died off, some reminders live on—like these fried, chestnut-shaped doughnuts rolled in sugar and soaked in liquor. Thanks to Katie Parla’s recipe, you don’t have to head to the queue in Italy to take part.




Photo by Aron Erdohati

In Hungary, Families Don’t Bother Making Just One of These Pastries


by Alia Akkam

It's more like 40. That, or lines form out of bakery doors. Meet the poppy seed-studded roll that's a Christmastime fixture across the country.




A Chinese Dumpling for Good Fortune and Joy in the New Year


by Laura Shunk

The Lunar New Year, which culminates with the Lantern Festival, is the biggest holiday celebration of the year in China. And eating tang yuan is a crucial part: The chewy dumplings in a mildly sweet broth symbolize togetherness—and then all but disappear from the streets when the festivities end. Laura Shunk tracks them and their story down in Beijing.