Christmastime in Europe is magical for innumerable reasons – every town and building is decked out in beautiful decorations, carollers patrol the streets and bells toll as the snow sifts down gently on breathtaking nativity scenes – but most importantly, it’s when Europe’s foremost bakers and pastry chefs showcase their most delicious traditional baked goods.
Here is our list of top ten European Christmas treats that need to be on your culinary bucket list:
Christstollen – Germany
Christstollen is a cake-like fruit bread prepared from yeast, water and flour and flavoured with chopped, candied- or dried fruit, nuts and spices like cardamom and cinnamon. Certain variations also feature rum or marzipan. What sets is apart from regular fruit bread is that it is slathered in melted butter and rolled in sugar warm from the oven, which keeps it fresh and moist for longer.
A bit of history: Christstollen had humble beginnings as a mediaeval fasting food that was made only of flour, yeast, oil and water. It was served during the the days of preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Christ and, as such, butter and spices were prohibited due to church restrictions. The restriction on butter was only lifted in 1491, after Prince Ernst, Elector of Saxony, and his brother asked Pope Innocent VIII to revoke the ban. Their wish was granted in a much publicised ‘Butterbrief’ or ‘butter missive’, which allowed stollen bakers to include butter in their batter.
Find Christstollen at most German Christmas markets, but if you want to go really authentic, you should buy it from the Striezelmarkt in Dresden, which sells ‘official’ Christstollen that has been prepared by 150 approved Dresden bakers and carries the seal depicting King Augustus II the Strong.
Panettone – Italy
Panettone is popular the world over, but this sweet bread loaf originally hails from Milan, where it is baked and enjoyed over Christmas and New Year. In fact, this cupola-shaped festive treat is known as one of the symbols of Milan! There are many variations on the basic Panettone theme, but a classic version is made from an acidic dough similar to sourdough and flavoured with raisins and citrus components like lemon zest, candied orange and citron. It is normally served in vertically-cut slices alongside sweet beverages like tea, amaretto liqueur or moscato wine.
A bit of history: There are a few legends regarding the origins of panettone and its moniker. One such tale ascribes both to a scullion who saved the day when the chef burned a cake that was destined for a feast. The scullion, named Toni, offered the little bit of mother yeast he had kept aside to prepare his Christmas meal and combined it with flour, eggs, sugar, candied fruit and raisins, which resulted in a delicious cake that the chef called ‘Pan de Toni’ (bread of Toni) in his honour. Would you like to know more? Go here to read more on the history of panettone.
Find Panettone at any good Italian supermarket, but it’s mostly enjoyed at home with family over the festive season, or with a caffe latte or cappuccino in the morning.
Christmas Mince Pies – Great Britain
Despite it’s current misnomer, British Christmas Mince Pies are actually a sweet, fruit-based pie that is served over the winter holiday period in English-speaking countries. The slightly confusing name can be traced back to the 13th century, when triumphant European crusaders returned home with the original recipe for Middle Eastern pies that contained meat, fruit and spices.
A bit of history: Mince pies were originally baked in an oval shape that was representative of the manger in which Jesus slept on the eve of his birth. During the Georgian era in the United Kingdom, mince pies became a bit of a status symbol, and the aristocracy would vie for the employ of the very best pastry chefs, who would be tasked to come up with pies in the most audacious shapes and sizes (flower, tears, jigsaws, knots, etc.). You can find Christmas Mince Pies pretty much everywhere in great Britain over the festive season, but Harrods is really renowned for their version. Here are a few more spots to find a really tasty mince pie in London.
Bolo Rei, Portuguese Kings Cake – Portugal
Bolo Rei, which translates to ‘king’s cake’, is a bread-like cake in the shape of a crown or wreath that contains raisins, pine nuts, candied frtuis, as well as citrus zest. It is normally decorated with strips of candied fruit and nuts. The cake became part of the Portugese culture in the latter half of the 19th century, when a pastry store in downtown Lisbon began preparing this variation of the original French dessert. It is traditionally enjoyed of the 25th of December (Nativity) and the 6th of January (Epithany) and associated with the Magi and the gifts they offered Jesus in Bethlehem.
A bit of history: It is the traditional Portuguse custom to insert a dried fava bean and a small coin or gift into the dough before baking. Whoever receives the slice of bread containing the bean is the person designated to make the bread the following year; whoever finds the coin is said to be in store for great riches.
Find Bolo Rei at most bakeries and pastry stores throughout Portugal from the end of November through to the Epithany on the 6th of January.
Kourabiedes – Greece
Kourabiedes (or clove cookies) are Greek Christmas shortbread cookies that combine fresh butter, roasted almonds and lashings of icing sugar for a crunchy bite and delectably fluffy exterior.
A bit of history: Kourabiedes were introduced to the Greeks during Ottoman rule, but they evolved independently and now taste very differently from the Kurabiye from which they came, though no Greek will admit to their Ottoman origins. During Ottoman rule, kourabiedes were cut into crescent shapes as an act of deference to their colonisers, but this practice lost favor following Greek independence in the early 19th century. Find Kourabiedes at any good Greek bakery or pastry shop. Or bake it yourself! Here’s a really simple recipe to try at home.
Beigli – Hungary
Beigli is walnut or poppy seed roll traditionally eaten in Hungary at Christmastime and over Easter. These days a lot of bakers are experimenting with different filings, with chestnut puree and Nutella being very popular. A bit of history: Beigli originates from Germany and in Hungary it became a custom to bake Beigli for Christmas in the 19th century during the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.
Find Beigli at pastry stores and Christmas markets throughout Budapest and Hungary over the festive season.
Buche de Noel – France
Bûche de Noël is the French term for a yule log – in it’s most basic form a flourless chocolate cake that is rolled up with chocolate buttercream and dusted with confectioner’s sugar. More elaborate variations include forest-inspired decorations like meringue mushrooms, cobwebs spun from sugar and holly sprigs made from marzipan.
A bit of history: The history of the yule log harks back all the way to the Iron Age, when Celtic Brits would gather for the winter solstice to celebrate the longer days and cleanse the air of the previous year’s misgivings by burning logs festooned with holly or ivy. The ashes of these burned logs were kept to safeguard their families against evil in the coming year. Somewhere during the 1600s, the physical log was replaced with an edible version and in the 1800s the yule log was popularised by Parisian bakers. Find Bûche de Noël at any good Boulangerie throughout France and at pastry shops further afield over the festive season. Pro tip: Order your Bûche de Noël ahead of time; these delicious yule logs are snapped up very quickly!
Banketstaaf – Netherlands
Banketstaaf is a puff pastry roll with a tasty almond paste centre baked till golden brown. Sold in rolled ‘logs’, the Banketstaaf is then cut into short lengths like a baguette and served hot or cold. Some bakers will bake the cut lengths until it resembles a cookie. Find Banketstaaf at most Dutch bakeries over the festive season. It’s also really simple to make and a fun festive activity to try with kids.
Lussekatter (lussebullar) – Sweden
Lussekatter are S-shaped saffron buns decorated with raisins and said to represent the shape of a cat, in honour of St Lucia.
A bit of history: Lussekatter are eaten on December 13th to celebrate Lucia (the patron Saint of Light). December 13th was originally thought to be the shortest day of the year and is still the date chosen in Sweden to celebrate the return of lighter days. Find Lussekatter at good Swedish bakeries over the festive season. It takes a little time to make, but if you are a dab hand in the kitchen, you can also try to prepare it yourself.
Vánoční Cukroví – Czech Republic
Vánoční Cukroví are traditional, iced shortbread Czech Christmas cookies that are baked and exchanged among friends, family and neighbours throughout the festive season. Find Vánoční Cukroví at Czech Christmas markets. Not heading beyond the pond this year? Bake it at home and enjoy the singular Czech festive spirit.
If you plan to travel this winter season, check out our fantastic winter travel destinations and join one of the Christmas or winter tours we have on offer!