Cakes and Cultures: Traditional Cakes From Around the World

Cakes and Cultures: Traditional Cakes From Around the World

The word “cake” comes from the Old Norse “kake” and originally referred to bread, or thinly baked dough. Eight centuries later, cake has evolved beyond its humble beginnings to encompass a wide variety of sweet desserts. From the simple to the elaborate, cakes are typically baked and include ingredients such as flour, sugar, eggs, butter, and oil.

Across all cultures, cakes have come to symbolize celebration – a birthday, holiday, annual festival, etc. – but are becoming more and more popular to indulge in “just because.” Learn about all the different types of cakes from countries around the world:

Africa

Considering that world civilization began in Africa, it’s no wonder the continent would have such delicious desserts.

  • Basbousa (Egypt)
    Originating with the Ottomans, basbousa is a beloved Middle Eastern dessert. This Egyptian semolina cake is very easy to make – it’s prepared by blending flour and butter, then soaked in a simple syrup. In fact, the name originates from the Arabic verb “bas,” which means “to blend.”
  • Milk Tart (South Africa)
    When the Dutch first settled in South Africa in the 17th century, they brought the milk tart recipe with them. This creamy custard tart is made from milk, sugar, flour, and eggs, and is typically topped with a sprinkling of cinnamon. Similar to a tres leches cake, this is one of South Africa’s most popular desserts.

Asia

Home to 4.4 billion people (over half of the world’s total population), Asia has more than its share of sweets lovers who enjoy these unique types of cakes.

  • Mochi (Japan)
    Mochi is created from a short-grain japonica glutinous rice. The rice is pounded into a sticky paste and then molded, usually into smooth rounds or blocks. As you would expect, the texture of this rice cake is squishy and gelatinous and the flavor is mild and not too sweet. Mochi is traditionally made for the Japanese New Year in a ceremony called mochitsuki, but it’s also eaten and sold year-round due to its popularity. Mochi-flavored ice cream has become a favorite spin-off dessert of the original rice cake version.
  • Mooncake (China)
    Mooncakes are delicacies served during the Mid-Autumn Festival, a Chinese lunar celebration. These round pastries include a rich filling and are decorated with different traditional designs that reflect the festival’s legends. Mooncakes symbolize wholeness and togetherness, and are given to loved ones for good luck.
  • Pandan Cake (Malaysia/Singapore)
    One of the most colorful desserts you’ll come across, pandan cake (also known as pandan chiffon) is a bright green sponge cake that gets its hue and flavor from the juice of Pandanus amaryllifolius leaves. Not too sweet, it has a somewhat nutty, woodsy flavor and strikes the unique balance of being both fluffy and moist. The pandan cake is standard fare in Malaysia, Singapore, and throughout Southeast Asia.

Oceania/Australia

It may be the smallest continent in size, but Australia and the surrounding islands know how to bring big flavor to the dessert table.

  • Pavlova (Australia/New Zealand)
    Delicate, light, and fruit-filled, pavlova was originally created to honor the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova after she toured Australia and New Zealand in the mid-1920s. It very much reflects the elegance and art of a dancer, with a lightly crisped meringue exterior and soft, marshmallow center. It’s usually served with whipped cream and fresh fruits such as kiwi, raspberries, and passionfruit. Australia and New Zealand still have friendly disagreements over which country actually invented the delectable pavlova.
  • Lolly Cake (New Zealand)
    A national institution in New Zealand, lolly cakes (or lolly logs) are made with malt biscuits, butter, condensed milk, and – you guessed it – lollies (candies). Chewy, multicolored marshmallows called fruit puffs or Eskimos are the preferred lollies to use in the ingredients. Lolly cakes are a Kiwi classic and very easy to make.

Europe

From the Roman Empire to the Renaissance, Europe knows how to make its mark on the world. The delicious cakes from this continent are no different.

  • Galette des Rois (France)
    “King’s Cake” is a traditional French Christmastime dessert, made with buttery puff pastry, sweet almond cream, and powdered sugar. It’s baked until the exterior is slightly toasted and crispy. Galette des rois originated as part of the Twelfth Night celebration to honor the Christian holiday of Epiphany and has a secret ingredient. Baked inside the cake is a hidden trinket or toy. Whoever gets the slice of cake with the small treasure is named the king or queen of the festival and bestowed with good luck.
  • Makowiec (Poland)
    This strudel-like, yeast poppy seed cake is one of Poland’s most popular desserts and typically eaten at Easter and Christmas. Makowiec is known for its unusual filling, made of finely-ground poppy seeds, honey, butter, raisins, and walnuts. The hefty helping of poppy seeds in the recipe has given this cake a slightly risqué reputation, as the seeds are a natural opiate.
  • Baklava (Greece)
    Although it’s often associated with Greece, baklava is popular throughout the Mediterranean and has an unknown origin and history. Various regions have claimed to be the inventors of this tasty treat, but the version most commonly served today was most likely developed in the Turkish kitchens of Topkapi Palace. Baklava is a rich, sweet pastry made with layers of phyllo dough and filled with chopped nuts such as walnuts, almonds, and pistachios. It’s then baked and soaked in a rich, sweet syrup comprised of honey, cinnamon, and lemon.
  • Black Forest Cake (Germany)
    Home of the cuckoo clock and the wicked witch from “Hansel and Gretel,” the Black Forest in southwest Germany has a mysterious, fairytale-like quality that suits this layered, cherry-topped chocolate cake perfectly. The Black Forest cake comprises three layers of chocolate génoise, soaked in kirsch (brandy distilled from fermented cherries) and topped with fluffy, whipped-cream icing. Originally hailing from Switzerland, the Germans have perfected the recipe.

North America

The only continent that has all climatic types, North America is known for its diversity in environments and desserts – it was hard to narrow down the top traditional cakes.

  • Carrot Cake (United States)
    The origin of carrot cake is a mystery, but most agree it evolved from the carrot puddings served in medieval Europe. It is still popular in Europe (particularly Switzerland) and has become a traditional cake served in the U.S. on Easter and Thanksgiving. Made with grated carrots, chopped walnuts, raisins, nutmeg, cinnamon, and vanilla, and then topped with cream-cheese frosting, carrot cake has a sweet, spiced flavor that’s addicting.

It’s no surprise that the best carrot cakes are scratch-baked with fresh ingredients, like Ne-Mo’s famous carrot cake squares. The other baking trick recommended by Ne-Mo’s and other carrot cake aficionados is to use buttermilk to keep the cake moist and fresh.

  • Tres Leches Cake (Mexico)
    This rich, moist sponge cake is traditionally from Mexico, but is also popular in South America. The butter sponge cake base is soaked in three kinds of milk: condensed milk, evaporated milk, and fresh milk or cream. The cake is then topped with whipped cream or meringue, creating a very sweet, dense confection that’s similar to bread pudding.

South America

Indulging in one of South America’s traditional cakes will give you an adrenaline rush like you just jumped off Angel Falls in Venezuela, the highest uninterrupted waterfall in the world.

  • Pan de Pascua (Chile)
    Even though its name translates to either “Easter bread” or “Christmas bread,” pan de Pascua is typically made only for Christmas in Chile. It likely evolved from the well-known Italian panettone or German stolen. Pan de Pascua is a dense, rum-flavored spice cake that’s filled with dried fruits and nuts. This rich dessert is usually served with cola de mono (monkey tail), a spiced alcoholic holiday coffee.
  • Chocotorta (Argentina)
    The chocotorta is a rich, mouthwatering version of the classic chocolate cake and most commonly served as a birthday cake in Argentina. It’s made with chocolate cookies, dulce de leche, queso crema (cream cheese), and coffee (or Kahlua for an adults-only version). The ingredients are assembled in tightly packed layers and then refrigerated to set the confection. It’s a simple-to-make, heavenly-tasting cake.
  • Torta Bejarana (Venezuela)
    The Bejarano sisters invented the torta bajarana cake in Caracas at the end of the 18th century. At the time, wheat flour was expensive and hard to come by. In a flash of inspiration, the sisters substituted plantains for flour and created a cake that was an instant success and is still today a beloved part of Venezuelan cuisine. The batter is made not only of plantains, but also sugar cane, breadcrumbs, butter, and eggs, giving it a dense texture. The banana-ish flavor is complemented by hints of cloves and cinnamon. The entire cake is then covered with sesame seeds, creating a savory, mildly sweet confection.

Do you have a traditional, culturally influenced cake that you enjoy baking? Tell us about it in the comments below!

If you’re craving some cake yourself, be sure to bite into one of Ne-Mo’s scratch-baked goods, which include cake squares, crumble cakes, cake slices, bundts, breads, and more.

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