While Spain is famed for its rich, plant-based Mediterranean diet, just a quick stroll through any Spanish street and you’ll also see an abundance of sweet treats on offer at various pastelerias and cafes. The nation’s sweet tooth is unparalleled, but look across the pond at the countries of Latin America, and you’ll find these dishes have also made their way into the cuisine of this vibrant culture.
So where do these desserts come from? And how did they become so popular in Latin America? Take a trip down this sugar-filled avenue to find out more about three of Spain’s most famous desserts and how their popularity grew.
Usually sold from stalls or stores that open onto the street, their smell entices people passing nearby, whetting appetites at any time of the day. Some people eat them regularly, and each family has its own tradition of eating them at specific times – on public holidays or otherwise – whether for breakfast on Sundays, on cold Christmas afternoons, or as a summertime snack at the beach.
Churros are a kind of long, thin donut shaped like a flute, sometimes with grooves all along the sides. There are two things that make them irresistible: the fact that they are fried, and how crispy they are when freshly made. It's almost impossible to just have one.
Those who are capable of resisting the temptation of churros often express a certain disdain for the ingredients used to make them: basically just fried dough made from flour and water. Perhaps they are right, but isn't that what some of the world's tastiest snacks are made from?
Not all churros are the same. There are the classic, long ones with angled grooves, which are sometimes shaped into a ring. In the Madrid, Castile and León, and Castile–La Mancha regions, these are given the generic name of "churro." Then there are "porras," also known as "tejeringos" or "jeringos" in Andalusia, which are thicker and not so dense inside.
They are best enjoyed with a hot chocolate, a coffee with milk, or simply on their own, sprinkled with sugar.
There is also a great churro tradition in Mexico, where they are sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon after being fried. In fact, Mexico City has a legendary 24-hour churro store, El Moro, which was founded in 1935.
Churros with chocolate (From the collection of Acción Cultura Española, AC/E)
Arroz con Leche
One of the most iconic desserts in Spanish cuisine is made using ingredients found in almost any pantry: milk, rice, sugar, cinnamon, and lemon peel.
It's not a simple dish to make, since you have to stir continuously as it cooks to stop the rice from sticking, so it's usually reserved for family meals on the weekend. Perhaps that's why it's such a popular daily special on the menus of local eateries and restaurants.
However, very few haute-cuisine chefs would offer this dessert. Only in Asturias, in northern Spain, do esteemed chefs include it on their menus. Rice pudding is an icon of Asturian cuisine. It is distinctively creamy, thanks to the addition of a little butter, and the grains of rice almost melt in the mouth. It is also topped with a layer of caramel to finish it off.
The dish has been embraced throughout Latin America, where each country has its own recognizable variation cherished by the locals. The Colombian version, for example, contains grated coconut. The Costa Ricans, meanwhile, believe that the dessert can heal wounded souls and brighten up the day. The pudding is so ingrained in Hispanic culture that there was even a Venezuelan soap opera in 2007 called "Arroz con leche," and before that, in the 1950s, an Argentine movie with the same name.
Chocolate with churros Chocolate with churrosAcción Cultural Española, AC/E
Crema de arroz con leche (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomía)
Tarta de Santiago
In times when fondant, layers of cream, and sugary adornments are everywhere, it might seem surprising that a cake that looks like a simple sponge remains an iconic dessert in Galicia, in northern Spain. But wait until you try it.
Beneath its simple exterior, a small slice of St. James' Cake will delight anyone with a sweet tooth: the mixture of finely ground almonds, eggs, and sugar creates an unforgettable taste explosion.
In the past, it was associated with the upper classes because of the high price of almonds, which were not grown in Galicia and had to be imported. St. James' Cake has since become a symbol of the city of Santiago de Compostela.
In the 1920s, a local pastry chef decided to put an outline of the Cross of St. James on the top of the cake and then sprinkle it with powdered sugar, forever identifying it with the end of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.
Given the high cost of almonds, even today, Galician pastry chefs are skeptical of St. James' Cakes being sold at suspiciously low prices. They warn that some enterprising bakers may be using flour, pumpkin, or other ingredients that are not in the original recipe, instead of almonds. To be sure, it is best to check if they have the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) stamp.
Thanks to the large numbers of first-, second-, and third-generation Galicians living in Latin America, it is not uncommon to see this dessert on offer in local eateries and bakeries. For example, in 2011, a retired Galician banker who had lived in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, for over 50 years set up a company offering Galician food made to order.
Rice Pudding with Scalded Milk from PrendesReal Academia de Gastronomía
Tarta de Santiago (From the collection of Real Academia de Gastronomía)
"Tarta de Santiago" (St. James' Cake)Real Academia de Gastronomía