Discover the origins of 5 of Europe’s most famous Christmas treats – and learn how to bake them at home
Along with homes decorated by fairy lights and the soft glow of snow-capped fir trees, plates piled high with European Christmas bakes ranks highly as one of our favourite festive sights. For centuries, bakers hailing from Greece to the UK have celebrated the holiday by satiating their sweet tooths, coming up with treats that are now synonymous with the season of giving — but where did these confections come from, exactly, and how can you replicate them at home? Read on to discover the history of – and how to make – five of Europe’s most-loved wintery wares.
1. Panettone: Italy
Love is at the root of all the world’s best stories, and one of Italy’s Christmas favourites – the origins of panettone – is no exception! Legend claims that a Milanese baker, Toni, concocted the aromatic bread to try and win the heart of a beautiful woman — hence the name “panettone”, a derivative of “Pan di Toni” or “Tony’s bread”.
Like we said, though — this is just a story! The first recorded mention of panettone actually comes from a teacher who worked for the House of Sforza in 1470, a powerful family. Born from luxury, the Christmas treat was devised with wheat flour and raisins — both of which were “special” ingredients, as wheat flour was difficult to acquire back then, and raisins symbolised wealth and good wishes.
Thankfully, panettone is now accessible to everyone — though if you want to make your own, you’ll have to put in a bit of time! Proving the bread can take several days, and after cooking, it’s standard practice to hang it upside down so it can cool and “stretch” to form a dome. Just one bite of this vanilla-infused and fruit-stuffed treat, however, will make your efforts all worth it.
Win hearts with a homemade panettone.
2. Stollen: Germany
Crammed with citrus flavours, dried berries, alcohol and sugar, stollen is perhaps one of the most popular European Christmas bakes — but this wasn’t always the case. Conceived over the course of 500 years, the stollen we now know and love was once basic fare made up of flour, oats and water. So how did it evolve from a simple (and rather flavourless) bread to a delectable dessert?
We’d argue it began with butter. For centuries, chefs weren’t allowed to include butter in stollen, as it was created for Advent – a five-week fasting period preceding Christmas, during which indulgences (such as butter) weren’t permitted. This all changed when brothers, Prince Elector Ernst and Albert III, wrote a “butter letter” imploring the papacy to allow the use of the ingredient, as its alternative – oil – was expensive to produce. This letter was rejected by five popes until 1490, when it was finally decided that just the Prince Elector and his household could use butter without paying a fine — a small display of leniency that paved the way for today’s (delightfully buttery) modern stollen.
Our favourite part of the dessert’s history comes from the reign of Prince Augustus. In 1730, the German royal commissioned a giant stollen from the Bakers’ Guild of Dresden. The outcome was a mighty 1,800 kilogram stollen, composed of 3,600 eggs and 1,000 kilograms of flour! (And you thought you were its biggest fan…)
Try your hand at a traditional stollen.
3. Kourabiedes: Greece
From a distance, Greek kourabiedes look exactly like miniature snowballs. One bite, however, soon reveals that they’re actually tasty cookies, bursting at the seams with rich almond flavours. It’s this sweet combination – their wintery aesthetic combined with strong, simple ingredients – that makes kourabiedes a favourite among adults and children alike – but where did they originate?
The history of the Greek biscuit isn’t that clear, beyond the etymology of the word “kourabiedes” itself. A descendent of the Turkish word “kurubiye” – of which “kuru” means “dry” and “biye” means “biscuit” – it’s safe to assume that it was first made for practical reasons, as “biscuit” itself meant “baked twice” in the Middle Ages. Food that was baked twice was often very durable, implying that kourabiedes stemmed from a need to create food that stored well and didn’t spoil quickly — feeding hungry families through the festive season and beyond.
Now, practicality plays no part in the popularity of these sugar-kissed confections! An alleged 10 tons of kourabiedes are sold by just one patisserie chain in Athens and Thessaloniki alone. Based on those numbers, we can only imagine how many are sold throughout Greece… or the rest of the continent.
Create classic kourabiedes… in just 30 minutes!
4. Speculaas: The Netherlands
Image Source: Eugenivy Now
With roots in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Austria, “speculaas” cookies are one of the most quintessentially European Christmas bakes, and a symbol of shared traditions. Dating back to the mid-1600s, these thin biscuits were packed into the shoes of good children across the continent on December 5. On December 6, well-behaved kids would then spend the morning munching on their treats… while naughty children nursed empty bellies and, what’s more, were told they’d be taken away in Santa Claus’ sack!
Fortunately, the social obligation to stuff your kids’ shoes with speculaas no longer exists, and it’s much more common to hang the biscuits up on your Christmas tree with festive red thread instead… if they last long enough to become decorations, that is. Infused with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, these spicy biscuits are extra-delicious when eaten straight from the oven.
Spruce up your tree with speculaas.
5. Mince Pies: The UK
You may not be surprised to learn that mince pies were once filled with… well, mince. Back in Tudor times, meat pies were a popular staple of every Christmas spread, and “minst pyes” were one of the many types served in households across England.
Like several other creations on this list, the original recipe was simple – a mixture of flour, water and lamb or veal – though this changed in conjunction with culinary fashions, its fillings replaced with tongue, tripe and beef over the centuries. It was only in the late Victorian era when meat was replaced with fruit – and now, we can’t imagine mince pies being any different! One of our favourite European Christmas bakes, its dense and fruity flavours have become a Christmas classic. Will they feature in your pantry this season?
Master the art of moreish mince pies.
If you’re going to make one of these European Christmas bakes, don’t forget to let us know! Share a picture of your efforts on Instagram using the hashtag #AtHomeWithHHE.