Elaborate sweets—full of once-luxury ingredients such as spices, dried fruits and sugar—signify abundance, making them a staple of holiday tables across the world. Some of these treats go even further in their symbolism, from frosting-filled Yule logs to Chinese moon cakes, so named for the salted egg yolk hidden at their center, said to signify a full moon. Here, we take a look at a few delicious examples.
Bûche De Noël
This elaborate French cake is a nod to the Yule log, a Christmas firewood-burning tradition that is thought to have originated with pagan winter solstice rituals. In its assembly, the bûche de Noël resembles a Swiss roll: A layer of sponge cake is rolled with sweet buttercream. But it is the whimsical decorations that set this cake apart, recreating the look of an actual wooden log, complete with ganache bark.
Fried foods hold a special place at Hanukkah; cooking with oil pays tribute to the miraculous event described in the Talmud—of how a single day’s ration of menorah oil burned for eight days. In Israel, one of the most iconic Hanukkah offerings is sufganiyot, a jelly doughnut-like creation that shares European and North African influences. Balls of yeasted dough are fried to golden perfection, then typically are filled with strawberry jam and dusted with powdered sugar.
In Chinese culture, the harvest moon marks the occasion of the Mid-Autumn Festival, a time of feasting and giving thanks. In honor of this annual lunar event, celebrants eat mooncakes, which conceal a salted egg yolk—symbolizing the full moon—nestled inside. There are several regional variations, but perhaps the most popular is the Cantonese-style mooncake: a pastry embossed with decorative designs and filled with a sweet lotus paste.
Kek Lapis Sarawak
A relatively modern creation, these brightly colored, ornately patterned cakes have become part of today’s Eid al-Fitr celebrations in Malaysia. Though they were first invented in the 1970s, they evolved from a classic layered Indonesian-Dutch pastry, lapis legit. Truly edible works of art, kek lapis Sarawak requires a labor-intensive process to create its eye-catching geometric designs, made from broiling thin layers of colored batter at carefully timed intervals. Once cooled, the cakes are painstakingly cut and rearranged into their hallmark geometric patterns, using jam or sweetened condensed milk to hold the layers in place.
The festival of lights known as Diwali is celebrated in many parts of India. One highlight of the festivities is abundant feasting, featuring a multitude of beautiful desserts. A specialty of India’s eastern Bengal region, cham cham (or chum chum) is a dairy-based confection boiled in syrup, then adorned with crunchy chopped nuts, coconut flakes or other toppings. Common flavorings include rosewater, cardamom and saffron. The finished cham cham are soft, spongy and sugary-sweet.