Spain's Sweet Side

A Tradition of Its Own in Cakes, Pastries, and Desserts.

By Real Academia de Gastronomía

Real Academia de Gastronomía

"Pestiños" (deep-fried, honey-glazed pastries)Original Source:

Traditional Spanish Desserts

Spain's cuisine is known across the globe. Its varied climate, the great natural wealth of its land, and its thousands of miles of coastline make it a country with an abundance of high-quality ingredients for cooking. This is reflected in its wide range of delicious regional recipes, including various meat and fish stews, as well as sweet recipes that are famous in their own right.

"Crema Catalana" (The Catalan Crème Brûlée)Original Source:

Desserts such as "arroz con leche" (rice pudding) or "crema catalana"; others traditionally eaten during festivities, such as the "Roscón de Reyes" (Three Kings' Cake); and recipes that were first made in convents are all part of the country's gastronomic past and present.

By John DominisLIFE Photo Collection

Did You Know… Spanish Sweets Are Heavily Influenced by Arabic Culture?

It is impossible to understand Spanish confectionery without also understanding the legacy left by the Arabs in Spain. Rice, honey, and nuts (especially almonds, which are used in many traditional sweets such as marzipan) are all products that were introduced and became popular after the Muslim conquest of Spain.

Sweets from the Convent of San Antonio de PaduaReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Second Big Influence: Convents

There has been a strong link between confectionery and monastic cooking for hundreds of years. Recipes that are centuries old, passed down from generation to generation and handmade in convents using natural and traditional methods, have also had a significant influence on Spanish desserts. Even today you can buy "yemas de Santa Teresa" (St. Theresa's egg-yolk pastries) and "bollitos de Santa Inés" (St. Agnes' sweet buns) at monastery gates.

FlaóOriginal Source:


Spain's gastronomy is so rich that every region has its own style of cuisine. The produce from the land, influences from elsewhere, and local cultural, economic, and social characteristics have shaped each region's selection of recipes.

GreixoneraOriginal Source:

And desserts are no different. Whilst you can enjoy Spanish custard (called "natillas") almost anywhere in the country, each area also has its own sweet specialties, although the origins of some are further afield, or even unknown.

"Arroz con Leche" (Rice Pudding)Real Academia de Gastronomía

"Arroz con Leche" (Rice Pudding)

Rice, milk, and sugar are the basic ingredients of this dish, with added flavor provided by cinnamon and the zest of citrus fruits. While it is a popular dish in Asturias, all the evidence suggests that its origins lie further south, in Andalusia, where it has Arab roots as a version of an Islamic dessert. It also features in recipe books in the Middle East, as well as in Latin American countries such as Bolivia and Panama. During the 15th and 16th centuries, it was known as "manjar blanco," meaning "white delicacy," and honey was used to make it in Spain before sugar became available.

Fried Milk Pudding with Pedro Ximénez Sauce and RaisinsReal Academia de Gastronomía

"Leche Frita" (Fried Milk)

This is a traditional dessert from the north of Spain, whose origin is uncertain but hotly contested, with autonomous regions such as Castile and León and the Basque Country claiming it as their own. Traditionally made at Easter, today it is made all year round and eaten all over Spain. Its basic ingredients are flour, sugar, eggs, milk, and cinnamon, which combine to make a soft dough that is left to stand and then fried in oil.

"Torrijas" (Spain's French Toast)Real Academia de Gastronomía

"Torrijas" (Spain's French Toast)

This is one of the oldest recorded desserts, with very similar recipes appearing in "Apicius," a Roman recipe book written in the 4th or 5th century. Countries such as France and Portugal each have their own versions of it. It is made all over Spain and closely associated with "Semana Santa," or Holy Week, although nowadays it is found on many restaurant menus all year round. Humble in origin, it is simply bread dipped in milk or wine and then fried.

"Natillas" (Spanish Custard)Original Source:

"Natillas" (Spanish Custard)

The exact origins of this dessert are unknown, but it is generally associated with European convents in the Middle Ages or French desserts of the Renaissance. However, it is undoubtedly one of Spain's most traditional desserts and one that people often make at home, using recipes passed down from generation to generation. It is a cream made from milk, egg yolk, and sugar, and flavored with vanilla.

"Tarta de Santiago" (St. James' Cake)Real Academia de Gastronomía

"Tarta de Santiago" (St. James Cake)

Also known as "torta compostelana" (Santiago de Compostela cake), this is a Galician recipe, although it has a lot in common with other regional cakes such as "tarta de Elche" from Alicante. This is not surprising, given that almonds arrived through eastern Spain.

There are references to this Galician cake going back centuries, although it was not until 1924 that it was stamped with its characteristic Cross of St. James. This is a tradition that started in the Casa Mora bakery in Santiago de Compostela. Other local bakers soon followed suit, and today, all St. James Cakes bear the cross. It is a cake made with almonds, sugar, and eggs, and has European Protected Geographical Indication status.

"Crema Catalana" (The Catalan Crème Brûlée)Original Source:

"Crema Catalana" (The Catalan Crème Brûlée)

This is one of Catalonia's most time-honored desserts, with evidence of its existence going back to the 14th century. However, countries such as France and England have also laid claim to it based on its similarities to their own desserts, crème brûlée and Trinity Cream. It is a type of custard—made from egg yolk, milk, and sugar—topped with a thin layer of burnt sugar and served in a small clay dish. It is also known as "crema de San José" (St. Joseph's cream) and is traditionally associated with this particular saint's day, on March 19.

"Brazo Gitano" ("Gypsy Arm" or Swiss Roll)Real Academia de Gastronomía

"Brazo Gitano" ("Gypsy Arm" or Swiss Roll)

There are many theories about the origins of this cake, which consists of a sheet of sponge cake rolled up with a filling. Some say that it was given as payment to gypsy artisans when they offered their services to bakeries. It was made from leftover sponge cake that was rolled up so it could be easily carried under the arm. Another theory is that it was brought back from Egypt by a monk from El Bierzo. In Spain, it is associated with Aragonese baking, especially that of Huesca, although it is eaten all over the country.

FlanReal Academia de Gastronomía


The first references to a dessert resembling this one date back to the Romans, who made a dish known as Tyropatinam, using eggs, milk, and honey. Later, in the Middle Ages, there was a dish called "flado," which also had savory versions and would eventually become the flan or crème caramel we know today. It is one of Spain's most popular desserts, and was also exported to America. In France, there is a dessert called "creme renversée au caramel," whose name describes the concept perfectly: a cream that is inverted (removed from a mold and turned upside down) and served with caramel.

"Quesada" PuddingReal Academia de Gastronomía

"Quesada" Pudding

The "Book of Good Love," written by the Archpriest of Hita in the 14th century, mentions "asadero" cheese and a recipe that seems similar to this dessert, which is from Valles Pasiegos in Cantabria. Quesada is one of the best-known desserts in this region and is made with curdled cow's milk, butter, flour, eggs, and sugar. In the past, it was made with fresh Pasiego cheese and, as with other desserts, it is thought to have been made with honey until the Arabs made sugar popular in Spain.

MillefeuilleReal Academia de Gastronomía

"Milhojas" (Mille-Feuille)

This is a dessert often found in Spanish bakeries, and is made of several sheets of puff pastry filled with meringue, cream, custard, or a pumpkin jam called "cabello de ángel." It may be of Arab or French influence, since both are masters in the art of puff pastry and both cultures have permeated Spanish cuisine.

"Saint's bones"Original Source:

Celebratory Desserts

Celebrations in Spain, just as in other gastronomic cultures of the world, are closely associated with certain sweet recipes. Christmas, for example, has its own desserts that don't tend to be eaten during the rest of the year.

"Turrón" (nougat)Real Academia de Gastronomía

One of these is "turrón" or nougat, some varieties of which have their own Protected Geographical Indication. These include turrón from Jijona (made with toasted almonds, sugar, and honey); Alicante (made with blanched almonds, whole almonds, and wafers); and Agramunt (made with almonds or hazelnuts, sugar, honey, and egg white, and usually shaped into a round disc).

Magdalena de turrón (nougat cake)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Commonly described as either "hard" or "soft," these are the most traditional kinds of turrón, but they are not the only ones. Producers have incorporated other new ingredients and it is now possible to find turrón made with chocolate, toasted egg yolk, cream and nuts, and candied fruit.

"Mantecados" de Estepa (shortbread cookies made with floor)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Besides turrón, other traditional sweets for this festive period include: marzipan (a paste made from almonds, sugar, and eggs), which carries a quality mark in Toledo; "mantecados" or shortbread cookies made with flour, lard, and sugar, which also have Protected Geographical Indication status; and "polvorones," which are similar to these but made with almonds.

"Roscón de Reyes" or Three Kings' CakeReal Academia de Gastronomía

Epiphany, on January 6, also has its own traditional dessert called the "Roscón de Reyes" or Three Kings' Cake, although it is eaten throughout the Christmas period. This moist, brioche-like cake made with orange blossom water can be filled with cream, custard, or even truffle cream, and topped with candied fruit. Portugal and some Latin American countries, such as Mexico and Colombia, have adapted this cake to their own culture.

"Buñuelo de Viento"Real Academia de Gastronomía

However, it's not just Christmas that has its own traditional desserts. On All Saints' Day (November 1), bakeries fill their shelves with "huesos de santo" or "saint's bones" (marzipan rolls filled with sweet egg-yolk syrup); "buñuelos de viento" (filled, fried dough balls); and "panellets" (made from almond paste, sugar, eggs, and grated lemon zest sprinkled with pine nuts).

Mona de PascuaOriginal Source:

During Semana Santa, as well as "torrijas," other sweets such as the "mona de Pascua" Easter cake (symbolizing the feast after Lent) and its chocolate equivalent, "mona de chocolate," are also popular, particularly in Catalan and Valencian culture.

"Rosquillas" (doughnouts) from MadridReal Academia de Gastronomía

Popular Cakes and Pastries

Besides desserts intended to be eaten at mealtimes and those associated with particular festivals, a wide range of sweet treats are found all year round, and eaten for breakfast or as an afternoon snack.

ChurrosReal Academia de Gastronomía

These include churros with chocolate, "horchata" (tiger-nut milk) with "fartons" (long, thin buns), "rosquillas" (doughnuts), and "pestiños" (deep-fried, honey-glazed pastries), which are traditionally from Andalusia. All of these were once associated with Christmas or Semana Santa but are now eaten throughout the year.

"Sobao Pasiego"Real Academia de Gastronomía

When it comes to products with a Protected Geographical Indication, we mustn't forget "sobao pasiego," a light, tasty sponge from the Valle del Pas in Cantabria; or "ensaimada," a traditional soft, round bun from Majorca that sometimes has a filling.

Sweets from the Convent of San Antonio de PaduaReal Academia de Gastronomía

Convent Cakes and Pastries

Many monasteries and convents continue to make cakes and pastries using traditional recipes that are centuries old. Behind closed doors, they continue to work devotedly to making "roscos" (round biscuits flavored with wine or anisette), pastries, puff pastries, "tejas de almendra" (almond tile biscuits), "cocadas" (coconut bites), and "tocinitos de cielo" (made from caramelized egg yolk). These "divine" sweets have helped to keep many religious orders going.

"Yemas de Santa Teresa" (egg-yolk pastries)Real Academia de Gastronomía

Some of the more famous ones are "yemas de Santa Teresa" (egg-yolk pastries) from the Church-Convent of Santa Teresa de Jesús in Ávila; "yemas de San Leandro" from Seville; "amarguillos de Santa Clara" (almond cakes) from Tordesillas; "bollitos de Santa Inés" (sweet buns) from Seville; "rosquillas de Santa Rosa" (doughnuts) from Nuestra Señora de la Piedad monastery in Palencia; and quince jelly made by the Clarisa de Marchena nuns at the Convent of the Immaculate Conception, to name but a few.

Shop at the Convent of San Antonio de PaduaReal Academia de Gastronomía

Such is the legacy of baking in convents as part of the Spanish tradition that many of these recipes can now be found in retail outlets. Some convents even have online stores and, since 1996, there has been a trade fair featuring more than 300 monastic delicacies.

Credits: Story

Text: Silvia Artaza.

Image: Foods & Wines from Spain / Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade /

Acknowledgements: Rafael Ansón, president of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Elena Rodríguez, director of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; María García and Caroline Verhille, contributors to the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy

This exhibition is part of the Spanish Gastronomy project jointly coordinated by Google Arts & Culture and the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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