December 13, 2012 at 9:31 AM

Sweet Holiday Treats From Around the World

"...Mexican wedding cookies are a popular holiday treat but did you know that they originated in Medieval Arabia ..."

By Lynn Cline

Gourmet Girl

Lynn Cline is a former food editor and the author of two books – Romantic Days and Nights in Santa Fe and Literary Pilgrims: The Santa Fe and Taos Writers' Colonies, 1915-1950. She also loves to cook, when not dining out.

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Around the world, people celebrate the holidays with a diverse array of foods steeped in centuries of tradition. From France's Buche de Noel to England's plum pudding, Greek's Christmas pastries and Germany's lebkuchen, the recipes handed down from generation to generation have endured.

SantaFe.com and Gourmet Girl have launched the Gourmet Girl Sweet Holiday Recipe Contest and you can submit recipes for your own holiday sweet treats. A panel of judges—Jeff and Kari Keenan of The ChocolateSmith and Whoo's Donuts, Peyton Young of Harry's Roadhouse and Gourmet Girl—will choose the top three recipe and you, dear readers, will choose the People's Choice Award winner. The winners will receive gift certificates to Vanessies another prizes. To read more and submit your recipe, click here.

Here are a few treats enjoyed around the world during the holiday season, to inspire you. Nowadays, you're likely to find many of these dishes on your holiday table, as ingredients, along with the people who use them, have migrated around the globe.

In Santa Fe, Mexican wedding cookies are a popular holiday treat but did you know that they originated in Medieval Arabia then spread to Europe and Spain before arriving in the U.S. in the 1950s? Made of the finest, richest butter and sugars, they are coated with powdered sugar, which represented purity. Over the years, Mexican wedding cookies—also known as Spanish wedding cookies—have evolved into a popular Christmas cookie.

Italy's pannetone, a traditional Christmas bread, originated in Milan, where a baker hoping to win the love of a princess made a golden egg bread.  When the country unified in the 19th century, candied red cherries and green citron were added to the top as patriotic symbols.

One of the most delicious visual treats is the Buche de Noel, or Yule Log, a popular dish in France. Made of thinly rolled sponge cake filled with cream or jam, it's shaped into a log, covered with butter cream icing and decorated with leaves made of icing, mushrooms made of meringue and other edible ornaments.

On the island of Crete, traditional Greek Christmas pastries include Xerotigana, spirals dipped in honey syrup and sprinkled with cinnamon, chopped walnuts and sesame seeds; Kalitsounia, sweet cheese pastries; and Koulourakia Christouyennon, sesame cookie rings often formed into small wreath shapes.

Medieval monks in Franconia created German lebkuchen, or gingerbread, in the 13th century.  Lebkuchen can be sweet or spicy and come in a variety of shapes, but are most often round. The recipe includes honey, nuts (almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts) or candied fruit and spices, including aniseed, coriander, cloves, ginger, cardamom and allspice.

Plum pudding dates to the early 15th-century, when it was made with chopped beef or mutton, onions and other root vegetables and dried fruit. Plum was as word that applied to any dried fruit and over time, the recipe evolved into a sweet pudding with a hole in the top that was filled with brandy and set aflame. A holly sprig placed on both sides was believed to keep away witches and a trinket was cooked in the pudding in the shape of a boot, bell, thimble, ring, button, horseshoe or wishbone. Whoever found it would enjoy good luck.

Derived from ancient Arab recipes, Twelfth Night Cake—a brioche filled with dried fruit and—was first made to honor the Three Wise Men who visited baby Jesus. The Ancient Romans made a similar cake and by the Middle Ages, Christians around Europe were serving it. European settlers brought it to America, and today's it's a tradition in New Orleans, known as King Cake. Whoever finds the prize baked inside becomes "lord" of the evening's entertainment, commanding guests to follow his or her orders.

"Fruitcake is forever," author Russell Baker once said, and oh, how right he was. This sweet, dense cake dates all the way back to the Middle Ages a British specialty made of dried fruits. It arrived in Britain during the 13th century via Portugal and the east Mediterranean. An early version includes Scottish Black Bun, which was a luxury reserved for special celebrations because it took so long to make.

Struffoli, a Neapolitan honey pastry, is only one of many traditional sweets served during Christmas in Italy. Numerous Italian holiday sweets originated in convents, where nuns made sweets as gifts for bishops and other high-ranking church officials for religious holidays.

Some of these traditional treats may end up on your holiday table. Others might be fun to try making on your own. Whatever you serve for your holiday dessert, submit your recipe to the Gourmet Girl Sweet Holiday Recipe Contest and you may win a fabulous prize!

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