Ahhh the great European bakery. If you’re ever on the road with us, then you will be stopping to snag bags of buttery, flaky delights almost daily as part of our budget-friendly trip plan. We quickly realized that each region (or country) has their own notable sweet or savory specialty that is a “must try” for travelers. Each item below is inexpensive and portable – essential road trip companions. Most of these are desserts, but can be eaten for breakfast or a snack too. Here is a comprehensive list of our favorite gluten-glutton goodies…get ready to drool!
Hungary has many tasty pastries ranging from “turos” – a sweetened cottage cheese filled strudel – to just about anything with poppy seed filling. However, most sweets in Hungary simply aren’t sweet enough for my American taste buds. But that isn’t true of this classic yum yum that can be found at little food huts around big cities or outside most Tesco stores in Hungary. My favorite Hungarian indulgence by far is the cinnamon-sugar kürtőskalács [kir-tosh-kahl-ach]. This chimney cake is made of a soft dough wrapped around a large dowel and slowly cooked to perfection over hot coals, then rolled in various toppings. It is possible to find this in other countries (like our northern neighbor Czechia) but often they’re crammed with ice cream or other fillings, which ends up ruining the dreamy dough experience once the fillings have been devoured. My advice? Stick to the original and best. Plain old cinnamon sugar – peel it apart and enjoy!
Slovenia: Bled cream cake
Ahh, the Bled cream cake. It is not advised to travel to Slovenia’s infamous Lake Bled without picking up one of these simple squares of self indulgence. Funny story – the most famous pie in Slovenia was brought there by chef Ištvan Lukačević from Serbia. So I guess we have Serbia to thank for this stack of fluffy custard and chantilly cream sandwiched in a flaky pastry crust dusted in powdered sugar! My favorite version of the cream cake – or krempita – has a layer of chocolate on top. The chocolate topped version isn’t always available or on display, so ask a server. It is worth noting that the top pastry crust is difficult to cut with a fork – so watch out – fillings will inevitably smoosh all over your plate. No bother, it is delicious no matter how it makes its way into your mouth! It is a must-try, especially if you’re lucky enough to be at the “original” restaurant overlooking Lake Bled, the Park Cafe. While you’re there, try their award-winning ice cream flavor Sladogled – a triple treat with layers of dark chocolate and raw cocoa beans, quinoa with almonds, and cinnamon raisin. Wow! As a little side-note (as it is technically not a desert in and of itself): I can’t write about Slovenia – the bee and honey capital of the world – without mentioning the incredible “creamed honey” I have been lucky enough to find there. It reminds me of maple cream (or maple butter) but honey, so it’s almost marshmallowy. It is perfectly spreadable and an incredible accompaniment to breads, pancakes, waffles, or whatever the heart desires! I have my favorite Slovenian family to thank for stocking me up. What a treat!
The burek is perhaps one of our best savory discoveries in Eastern Europe. The beauty of the burek is that this flaky pastry comes in a flavor for everyone – from spiced meat, spinach and feta or mexican chicken to cinnamon apple or chocolate. My favorite burek is potato, as it tastes like the most perfectly seasoned breakfast potato surrounded by impossibly flaky (but chewy!?) crust. The burek comes in many shapes and sizes, but I fell in love with the tube, the paperclip shape, and the little spiral versions as the flaky texture held up the best this way. Large pie-type burek are also popular in various Eastern European countries, but if you can find these little stuffed tube versions, you’re in luck. Croatia has them everywhere, and I find myself dreaming of them almost as much as the craggy Croatian coastline. They’re cheap, delicious, and make the perfect takeaway breakfast, lunch, or snack.
If there is one food I believe I could live on for the rest of my life, it’s focaccia. Italy has the “green thumb” when it comes to this blissful baked creation. It must be in their blood. If you think you’ve had good focaccia, it may have been ok, but you’ll know the difference compared to the real deal in Italy. It. Is. AMAZING. Focaccia, when perfectly cooked, is a thick and chewy bread with crispy edges – similar to pizza dough – and has a distinctly salty olive oil flavor. It can be garnished with other yummy toppings such as tomato and basil, oregano and cheese or my favorite, rosemary. It is the perfect food and just thinking about it makes my stomach grumble. Take it up a notch by using focaccia for sandwich bread, or simply as a yummy lunch on the go or a side to every single meal you ever eat. Follow it up with a traditional Italian gelato and you can die happy!
Portugal: pastéis de nata
When we traveled to Portugal last fall, we noticed it was impossible to enter a grocery store, cafe or restaurant without being bombarded by pastéis de nata, or these little egg tarts. People were eating them all around us – almost as a badge of honor for being Portuguese! Of course we gave them a try, and found they lived up to the hype. They are small – double bite sized – with a semi-sweet custard inside with just the right amount of crispy crust to hold it all together. We saw people eating them at breakfast, but they are also a snack or desert option. They aren’t as memorable as some of the other tasty morsels on this list but they’re definitely impossible to miss and their versatility makes them worth a try when in Portugal!
Spain, you dashing Don Juan! You certainly know how to make a lady fall in love…and it comes in the form of little crispy fried dough sticks drenched in cinnamon sugar and begging to be dipped in melted chocolate. Yes, I’m talking about the addictive churro. This finger-shaped street food is an absolute must when visiting the land of love, and it would be a shame to miss out on the optional chocolate dipping companion while you’re at it. I have had good churros and bad churros, so the best advice is to buy them fresh and eat them warm. Old churros are like old fries – they may look the same and you can eat them, but they’re just not satisfying and definitely not worth the indulgence. On the other hand, when that fresh-from-the-fryer crisp hits your taste buds they’ll be doing a flamenco dance in no time! Thank you, Spain, for keeping things simple and delicious. Churros are a winner!
France: pain au chocolat, crêpe au nutella
#sorrynotsorry folks, France takes the cake when it comes to sweets and pastries (duh), especially if they’re adorned with various types of chocolate! It is hard to narrow things down when every.single.bakery is piled high with patisserie perfection, so I compromised to allow France two top picks. I have never had a bad crêpe au Nutella or pain au chocolate in France, and that is because they don’t have a standard lower than “magnifique.” Every breakfast buffet boasts piles of perfectly crispy, buttery, flaky pain au chocolate (or chocolate croissants) with the just-right amount of dark chocolate lining the inside of these little pocket pastries. Obviously they are divine when devoured warm, with the chocolate bedazzling every bite, but they’re even good later on in the day once they’ve cooled. Truly, you can’t go wrong with this masterpiece. Bon appétit!
The crêpes I crave don’t come from a bakery or crêperie; they are made before your very eyes at a kiosk or food stand and served fresh and piping hot from a round grill. I haven’t fact-checked this (yes I have, see here), but France must lead the world in Nutella use, as they stock it by the vat-full at these crêpe stands. Of course French crêpes are delicious however you find them (at a crêperie or homemade) but there’s just something magical about the made-to-order simple crêpe with Nutella dolloped, flipped, spread, and handed to me on the street to savor. It’s a little piece of heaven indeed! Don’t waste your time with silly fillings like whipped cream, ice cream or even fruit (I mean, do whatever you want, but why fix it if it ‘aint broke?), stick with classic Nutella and thank me later. If I close my eyes I can taste it now…
For a German speaking country known for heavy, hearty foods like weiner schnitzel, weiners and pickled everything, Austria has won me over with a most delicate desert that doesn’t deserve to be overlooked. Apple strudel is like a sweet little personal-sized apple pie wrapped up in pastry dough that isn’t exactly crispy but also isn’t too moist (how do they do that?). The filling of apfelstrudel is seasoned to perfection no matter how it is presented – sometimes more dense, dark and flavorful and other times light, soft and chunky. Strudel can be served a la mode, of course, and it is probably best this way, especially warm. Still, I’ve grabbed them to go before and been perfectly satisfied. You can also find this all over Germany, but I have found my favorite versions in Austria. Be sure to try it, if only to let the word “strudel” roll off the tongue!
It is appropriate that the Danish pastry follows an Austrian pastry because, like the creme cake of Slovenia, danishes were first introduced to Denmark during the bakery strike of 1850, when the Danes hired Austrian pastry workers to cover their bakeries. Lucky for the Danes, the delicious danish quickly became a favorite identifying food of Denmark. This is one of my husband’s favorite breakfast treats; he still gets giddy over a fresh cheese danish. When they’re made right and selected straight from the bakery, there really isn’t a better way to combine the chewy, flaky pastry and a fruity filling than the danish. This cousin-to-the croissant aims to please every palette. They keep for a couple of days, so can be enjoyed fresh or for hunger pangs later. Although simple, they’re practically a whole meal to themselves. Don’t miss the danish!
What a pleasant surprise to walk up to a little sidewalk bakery window and find this pocket of fried goodness on the streets of Romania. Gogosi, a fried-dough pastry, comes in sweet (like chocolate, custard, or jam-filled) or savory (like ham, pepper and cheese filled) varieties. We tried them both, and I can honestly say they are the perfect food. There is something about the crispness of the fried dough that reminds me of a good panini with just a hint of sweetness. This is one food I appreciate for not overdoing it in the sugar department. It is customizable and the rendition we had was sharable – bigger than my face! Perhaps the closest type of food to gogosi is a calzone, except the gogosi is fried rather than baked, and the dough is much lighter and crispier. It melts in your mouth! Mmm, mmm. Gogosi for the win!
People in Poland may disagree with me and choose their fancy tree cake or popular airy angel wings (which are exclusively Polish), but I never really understood the draw to those things as they’re a bit stale by design and simply not sweet enough for these Yankee tastebuds. The Poles do donuts very well – the big, fluffy, yeasty kind – with just-right jam fillings that spill out after that first tasty bite. PĄCZKI are everywhere in Poland, and are a formidable choice for the sweet tooth. They don’t mess around – if you want a donut, they’ll give you a donut! These are big, puffy, and very filling. What’s not to love? They’re a great desert after a heaping plate of pierogies. Aww shoot. Now I have to do a “best meals in Europe” list. Thanks a lot, Poland! And, while we’re in the category of sweets, it is worth noting that Poland boasts some of the best chewy-caramel-candy out there. Ask for “krowki” – you won’t be disappointed!
Sweden: CHOCOLATE balls
The Swedes are known for their balls. Meatballs are probably what come to mind (get your mind out of the gutter), but for desert, sweet balls are what to look for. Important: these little coconut-dusted choco-balls are NOT donuts. If you buy one (approx $2), don’t expect to bite into something caky, light, or doughy. Swedish balls are heavy and dense – a no-bake ball of love. The most common flavor seems to be chocolate rolled in coconut, or chokladbollar, but I have also enjoyed “birthday cake” and red velvet varieties. One thing I have noticed about Swedish food in general is that it feels fresher, cleaner, and overall more healthy than in any other country I have been. Leave it to the Swedes to make you feel like you’re “doing a body good” with a dessert. One bite of these impossibly decadent-yet-nutritious treats and you’ll be thinking, “did I just eat an energy bar?” Yum, Sweden, yum.
My children would be able to tell you immediately what their favorite baked good in Germany is: the pretzel! This Bavarian bundle is also available in Austria (lucky us!) but the original and best are in Deutschland. I prefer mine with just the right amount of salt. I couldn’t care less if they’re fresh or have been hanging up all afternoon, they never seem to lose their luster. A German pretzel is made to share, but why would you when they come so cheap? Here’s a good tip: when you find a trusty pretzel stand, pick up a few for now and a few for later. They’re wonderful plain, but also make a fantastic sandwich when sliced, or a savory treat when dipped in various sauces. These are hands-down our favorite go-to road trip snack. What time is it? It’s always pretzel time!
England: Cruffin, Scone
Just when I thought I had England figured out with its “tea and crumpets” culture where scones rule the day, I learned of a brand new pastry on trend in the UK that blew my everlovin’ mind. Behold, the cruffin. As if the croissant wasn’t amazing enough on its own, British pastry chefs decided to wrap and tuck uncooked croissant pastry into muffin cups and bake up a perfect (popover-esq) concoction. Then they pumped it full of various fillings…need I say more? I had to see it to believe it – the cruffin is a wonder. It is equal parts buttery flaky perfection and clever cream-filled indulgence. I wanted to spoil myself with all the flavors in the cafe (aptly named The Find, in Cheltenham) near the Cotswolds, but they were so large that it was a lot to eat just one! They had so many choices from spicy and fruity to an After Eight mint chocolate and even savory combinations – something for every palette. They deserve the double-nod!
Of course we can’t talk about England without mentioning the scone. Strangely enough, England may just be the only place I have had a satisfying scone – so that is saying something! Most of the time (elsewhere) they are either too dry or too dense. Somehow they know how to combine ingredients for the perfect consistency. If you can score a scone at a British bakery, you may be lucky enough to try savory flavors like herbs, cheese and bacon in addition to classic choices like blueberry or lemon. I think the best scone I ever had was a cinnamon-toffee variety that reminded me of my childhood. One thing I’ll say about the Brits – they’re creative! It is worth being a guinea pig for their new takes on this old classic. Tip: if the option for clotted cream is offered as a spread for your scone, snag it. You won’t be disappointed! And don’t forget to enjoy it with a classic cup of tea.
The Netherlands has one special treat it can call its own: the stroopwafel. These delicious discs originated in the town of Gouda, so you know they have to be good! You can buy the in-store variety just about anywhere (including Starbucks!) but if you want the real deal, you need Dutch friends. The homemade stroopwafel takes this sandwich cookie to a whole new level. They are tiny, thin, piping hot cookie-like waffles slapped together with a cinnamon-caramel concoction in between. You can’t get much more tasty than that! I’m a sucker for caramel anything, so I was hooked with my first bite of a stroop. Good luck avoiding them in Amsterdam – they’re everywhere. Then again, there is no reason to avoid them! Pick up a few fresh ones and then pack up a pile of them to take home to your friends. They are so good they may not make it all the way back home…
Norway: sweet waffel with brown cheese
If you know Norway, then you know brown cheese. Of course cheese itself doesn’t count as a pastry or “sweet treat,” but when paired with an adorable, floppy, heart-shaped Norwegian sweet waffle, it definitely does! I am lucky enough to live in a community with lots of Norwegians and this is their go-to treat for just about every occasion. It can even be found in children’s lunchboxes – but don’t mistake that slice of caramel-colored cheese for peanut butter. It is much different! It’s hard to describe this melt-in-your-mouth product, so I won’t even try. Trust me when I say do not visit Norway without picking up a brick of brown cheese (or “brunost”) so you can slap a slice on a bagel or bread, waffle or pancake. The classic combo of sweet waffle and brown cheese is made even more addicting with fresh, homemade strawberry jam. These Scandinavians sure do it right!
Full disclosure: I haven’t actually been to Greece or Turkey, but I have never met a pan of baklava I didn’t like. The origins of this sweet, nutty, syrup-drenched pastry have been fought over for centuries. So instead of making that call myself, I’ll give credit to both, as I have both Greek and Turkish friends who have (in my opinion) perfected the recipe! This treat is lovingly made in big batches and then cut into in bite-sized squares dripping with liquid sugar. It is flaky on the top and dense with fillings on the bottom layer. Baklava is typically made with pistachio, walnut or cashew as the main ingredient – so if you don’t like nuts this may not be your jam. I now understand why traditional baklava is cut into small squares – it is so rich you don’t need more than a couple of bites to satisfy the sweet tooth!
USA (bonus!): brownies, donuts
The list of goodies could be long in my home country – from cookies and cakes to pies and puddings – as each region can claim certain treats as their own. In fact, the USA probably deserves its own list of “best sweets” including key lime pie from Florida, Whoopie Pies from Maine, grandma’s chocolate chip cookies in the south, fried dough and cotton candy at the fair, peach cobbler from Georgia, and s’mores just about everywhere. My two top selections represent America as a whole, as everyone has a donut shop in their town, and every American knows how to make a good pan of brownies.
Donuts are the best – for many they represent a social tradition such as “coffee and donuts after church,” or “donut Friday at work.” Everyone has a favorite donut. There really is something for everyone! Even gluten free folks are fans of donuts and America can accommodate them, too. My favorite is a classic chocolate cake donut or the dreamy chocolate covered Boston Creme yeast-donut variety. If I had to pick my favorite donut shop it would be Duck Donuts, where your selection of cake donuts are made to order and delivered to you hot off the conveyor belt. In Delaware we drove an hour away just to get our fill of Duck Donuts. Sorry, Dunkin’ Donuts, Tim Horton’s and Krispy Kreme…you can’t compete with the Duck! The only thing better are regional specialty donut shops in the states, so ask around to see where the popular place is in your neck of the woods. It was here, at Voodoo Donuts in Oregon, that I was introduced to the maple bacon donut, and my life was forever changed. If you simply can’t choose which donut to try, then get a dozen in a variety box and have one bite of each and share with a few friends. That way you can say you only had “one or two” donuts overall but could try them all!
Brownies are one of those comfort foods that people are passionate about. There is absolutely nothing better than the smell of brownies in the oven. If you like chocolate, then this moist, thick, chewy and intensely flavorful treat is for you. Brownies simply don’t have a rival – they are the best, as any bake sale parent could attest to! Feel free to experiment with adding swirls, chips, layers or other fanciful flavors to your brownie, but remember who started it all: double fudge. I will forever fight for a corner piece and take mine with a tall glass of milk (probably almond-coconut milk these days though). I miss you here in Europe…but my waistline doesn’t. HA! You know you’re in the states when the grocery store shelves are lined with what seems like hundreds of brownie options. A box of brownies makes a drool-worthy souvenir for any tourist in the USA! Throw a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top of a warm brownie and watch all of your troubles melt away. Brownie, we salute you!
I got so excited writing about each of these treats that I’m finding myself a little bummed – and hungry! – now that I’ve exhausted my list. I guess I’ll have to go have stroopwafel and plan some more traveling to find the next sweet international treasure!