This holiday, step away from the candy canes and gingerbread men, and try a traditional Christmas dessert that still has an avid following in the 21st century. From an elaborate chocolate cake to not one, but two puddings, here are five delectable treats Yule love (sorry).
1. German Stollen
“Dresden is famous for her stollen—long loaves of sweetened bread with raisins and almonds galore; the rolled-up shape is supposed to represent the Holy Infant in its swaddling clothes,” notes a 1915 issue of Table Talk magazine (“the American authority upon culinary topics and fashions of the table”). This rich yet flaky sweet bread comprises wheat flour, yeast, dried fruits, candied citrus, and a lot of butter—about a 1:2 butter-to-flour ratio for a “heavy stollen.” Like Champagne, the label Dresdner Stollen is legally protected and can be applied only to stollen made in Dresden according to strict rules; each loaf has to pass inspection by other bakers before it receives its stamp of approval.
2. Japanese Christmas Cake
Just 1 percent of Japanese people consider themselves Christian, but practically the whole country of Japan celebrates Christmas with outdoor displays, festive decorations, and a special Christmas cake. The sweet confections are a vestige of the post-World War II years, when American soldiers helping to rebuild Japanese communities handed out sweets to citizens. It also symbolizes prosperity, because the main ingredients—sugar, milk, and eggs—became more widely available after the war. In contrast to the bowling ball-like mass of an English pudding, Japanese Christmas cakes are meant to be light and airy. Two springy sponge-cake layers are coated in sweetened whipped cream, and the top of the cake is decorated with whipped cream flourishes, fresh whole strawberries, and Santa figurines.
3. English Christmas Pudding
This steamed delicacy emerged in the Middle Ages as a slurry of meat, fruit, and wine. When sugar and spices became more plentiful in England by the 16th century, the dish transformed into a dense, sweet cake made of flour, suet, dried fruit, spices, and brandy. Allegedly, puritanical rebel Oliver Cromwell banned the decadent puddings, along with carol-singing and Yule logs, when he overthrew the English monarchy in the 1650s. Today, Christmas puddings are often made with butter, raisins, nuts, and spices; tightly secured in a pudding tin with foil and steamed for hours until cooked.
4. French Bûche de Noël
“The bûche de Noël is a Provençal institution, as dear to the inhabitant as the St. Nicholas fête or the Yule log gathering to those of Holland or England,” the Idler magazine wrote in 1906. The traditional French Christmas cake bûche de Noël represents the Yule log before it goes into the fireplace: a rectangular layer of sponge cake is spread with sweet cream filling and rolled up into a cylinder, then coated with delectable chocolate frosting. Creative pâtissières fashion a bark-like pattern in the frosting, add “branches” to the log, and even accessorize with meringue mushrooms, edible flowers, or—as one 1906 recipe suggested—"crushed crystallized violets or rose leaves.”
5. Danish Risalamande
In Denmark, families traditionally attended afternoon church services on December 24. “After that comes the Christmas dinner, when the goose is put on the table, followed by the traditional rice pudding where lies the hidden treasure: a blanched almond, which means an ‘almond gift’ for the lucky finder,” the American-Scandinavian Review reported in 1917. That rice pudding, called risalamande (derived from the French riz a l’amande, or "rice with almonds") is still a part of Danish Christmas celebrations. Leftover rice pudding is mixed with whipped cream, sugar, vanilla, and chopped almonds, and then topped with a cherry sauce and served cold. A whole blanched almond may be hidden among several servings of the pudding, like the baby in a King Cake, and whoever finds it wins a small prize.