Rediscover sweet street treats from across Europe
Ever considered how food habits, like humans, have traversed boundaries, influenced, transformed and evolved in unthinkable ways? But from honey-candied fruits and nuts of the ancients to the culinary molecular gastronomy of today’s Michellins, sweet-toothed foodies have always been one community…united across time and space by a divine love for sugar. Yes?
Some of us may take offence to the word, ‘dessert’ (from French desservir or un-serve). Because, we can gorge on these tantalising temptations not just as a grand finale to a fine meal, but often indulge purely for sweetness sake. So, tastebud alert, people! Dig deeper into dessert layers. Rediscover sweet street treats from Europe.
Scheenballen: Scrumptiousness to a whole new level
The signature dish of the charming German town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, looks like a deeply wrinkled tennis-ball and has the cutest nickname ever (Franconian snowball). This traditional sweet made of deep-fried shortcrust dough comes in over 20 varieties of divine dipping and fillings, beside the classical sugar-dusted ones…including chocolate, nuts, marzipan, cinnamon, caramel, hazelnut, lemon, strawberry, even champagne truffle! It can be stored for eight weeks without refrigeration, so rethink your souvenir list.
Blast from the past: Roots as old as the 17th century, when Schneeballen were one of the essential food supplies for soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War in Europe. Over time, they evolved into wedding celebration treats! Fairness in love and war…
Know the rules: You know you’re sampling a good one, if its crunchy, crispy and chewy. Don’t try to bite into it like an apple, it will just crack up and fall. Instead, break it up inside the brown paper bag in which it is delivered. And eat the more manageable smaller pieces. ‘Easy as pie’!
Quest for best: Raise the bar with the leaders…venture to Diller de Schneeballenknig store in Heidelberg or Rothenberg.
Pastéis de nata: Pure perfection in pastry
Portugal has bestowed an exquisite gift to the world…a iconic olden-yellow tartlet filled with deliciously rich, creamy, baked egg custard. Food heaven? This is it.
Blast from the past: 17th century Catholic monks of Lisbon’s Jeronimos Monastery created an egg tart pastry from yolk leftovers used for starching of clothes and clearing of wines. And we are eternally grateful!
Know the rules: If the pastry on the bottom and side is flaky, crispy, delicately buttery, the custard filling is creamy, smooth and slightly wobbly and the cinnamon dust is feather-light, you’ve hit bullseye. No flavours of lemon or vanilla, please. Look for a crowded pastelaria. Enjoy at all times of the day. Do NOT ask for a spoon. Just bite. And have a support handy…in case you start swaying with bliss.
Quest for best: The Pasteis de Belem bakery has been holding onto a closely guarded secret since 1937…the original pastéis de nata recipe, which is handed down only to ‘specially initiated master confectioners’ who handcraft 20,000 pastries a day. Join that queue, even if it means 30-40 minutes. Merely the warm fragrance of these freshly baked goodies wafting in the air would be motivation enough. I promise.
Waffles: World of wonderful yumminess
Creativity was not a criteria when they named it Waffle (it means ‘honeycomb of bee’). But who cares when you’re lost in the delectable sensations of savouring a square-shaped Brussels waffle with its airy batter, or the oval Liège counterpart with caramelized sugar chunks inside and a gooey, rich, sticky texture!
Blast from the past: A chef of the Prince-Bishops of Liège had a surge of innovation by adding vanilla to dough, and soon the recipe was over the Kingdom of Belgium. In the Middle Ages, waffles were sold as street-side snacks outside Churches. By the early 19th century, many Brussels families jumped into business with modest window counters in their homes or fancier tea salons. Since then, Belgium’s reputation as a waffle craft master has never ebbed.
Know the rules: Let your nose guide you…a deep, toasty smell is a good indicator. You want a crisp, airy, fluffy golden brown crust, light on the inside, baked individually in a specialized cast iron press. Eat by hand, piping hot, off a paper plate. Its not a breakfast food, but an afternoon treat. The king is the waffle itself, not oodles of overpowering toppings.
Quest for the best: Get yours hands sticky with the ultimate sampler, head to 1829-dated Maison Dandoy, located Rue Charles Buls (a short walk from the Grand Place).
Macarons: Melt-in-your-mouth delicacy
These famous French desserts are colorful, delicately flavoured, with a thin crust, a layer of moist almond meringue and a silky smooth filling. They come in all kinds of flavors, from classic salted caramel to raspberry, pistachio, chestnut, basil lime, rose, white chocolate, lavender, even fig. Surprise…the French celebrate ‘Macaron Day’ on 20th March.
Blast from the past: Macaron comes from the Italian maccherone meaning “fine dough”. The first macarons appeared in Venetian monasteries in the 8th century. Catherine di Medici imported it to France in the 16th century. But the dessert went public when two Carmelite nuns started baking and selling simple cookies made of ground almonds, egg whites, and sugar.
Know the rules: A smooth, firm, light, non-sticky filling, a shell that crackles with the first bite and a smooth, thin cookie surface. Sweetness shouldn’t take over in a macaron, the flavors should seep through easily.
Quest for the best: In 1900s, Parisian pastry shop and café Ladurée combined two cookies and filled them with ganache. Ladurée changed the rules of the macaron and that’s why it still rules the macaron world. Try for yourself and see how.
Gelato: Glorious goodness for all seasons
Gelato (meaning ‘frozen’ in Italian), is a wholesome frozen dessert, much like ice cream, but with half the fat and with less air whipped into it, making it much denser.
Blast from the past: 12,000 years ago, ice and snow were used to cool drinks served during royal banquets and religious ceremonies in Mesopotamia. Cut to the 11th century and Arabs developed shrb, “sugar syrup”…this eventually became the predecessor of sorbet in Sicily and sherbet in India. In the 1600s, Florentine architect and artist Bountalenti invented the first gelato and soon enough, sorbetti carts were the talk of the town.
Know the rules: Find a gelateria with personality, maybe Italian signage, local customers and and a long queue. Ensure they have covered, metal round containers, not artificially whipped mounds. Natural, seasonal fruit ingredients, muted colors is the key to authentic taste. Like the locals, make gelato your pastime, anytime, even breakfast is not out of bounds.
Quest for the best: Seek the ‘The world’s best gelato’ at Gelateria Dondoli in the quaint medieval town of San Gimignano, near Siena. They’ve won a ‘Gelato World Cup’ several times!
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. So, count the memories and not the calories. Crave on!!
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