Okay, confession time. I know next to nothing about international desserts. Nobody in my house divulged in the baking world. Dishes like baklava and tiramisu would never be made in my house. No sir. If we went out to eat? My family gravitates towards the chocolate anything variety.

So, I know NOTHING about any of these dishes. It’s a travesty, a shame, a sad little state of affairs. We must rectify this immediately!

I decided to take five fairly common dishes: Burnt Almond Torte, Baklava, Crème Brulee, Tiramisu , and Danish pastry. I ransacked the Internet to see what nuggets of information I could find about these dishes.

View Dishes and Location of Dishes in a full screen map

In the map above, you can clearly see the origins of each dish based on where they are located in the map. It also helps outline what five dishes I will be researching.

I first heard about the burnt almond torte during my interview at Prantl’s bakery. The baker, Lara, went on and on and on about the legacy of the burnt almond torte in Pittsburgh. Turns out, in 1970, Prantl owner, Henry Prantl, went to a convention in California. Due to an extreme surplus in almonds, the head honchoes urged people to find innovative ways to use almonds. There the burnt almond torte was founded (1).

So what is a torte exactly? A torte is simply a multi-layered cake with thick, dense icing between each layer and surrounding the cake. So what is a burnt almond torte exactly? It is a yellow cake with a custard buttercream middle topped and coated with secretly and expertly coated almonds.

While I was doing my research, I saw many comments stating this was the dessert to have in Pittsburgh. One even stated he would “shove his grandma off a cliff for another piece.” While that rather dramatic hyperbole seems slightly unnecessary, it immediately piqued my interest. It was simply time I had a little piece of Pittsburgh.

…unfortunately for me, they were all out of individual burnt almond tortes. I was not about to drop $30 for a cake I would eat by myself. Instead, I was left to oogle at the pretty little cakes.

Here’s a slideshow that depicts my adventures through Market Square in a vain attempt to try a burnt almond torte.

Market Square was the epitome of the festive spirit. First, I encroached the Christmas tree and skating rink. There was Christmas music in the background, children laughing. I felt like I was stepping into a Lifetime movie. Quick! Where’s my prince?! Then, Santa’s House sat right there in Market Square. There were tons of little International Boutiques full of nick-nacks. And FOOD. 

Next up: Baklava. Baklava is the oldest dessert on this list, dating back to the 8th Century BC. Due to its ancient history, there is some debate over where it originated, though the most promising guess is the Assyrians, which is roughly modern day Turkey. They believe it began with the Turks because of the layered aspect of the dessert, typical found in most dishes from that region (2).

Baklava consists of layers of uber thin dough, called phyllo bread, layered between nuts, typically walnuts or pistachios, with a drizzle of a sweet syrup, like honey, over top. Though there are many variations to this dish. For example, in Armenia, they make it with cinnamon and cloves. Turkish versions often are filled with both pistachios and walnuts. In the summertime, they top it off with ice cream.

Wondering what everyone else’s favorite international desserts are? Wonder no more!

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Here you can see Creme Brulee and Tiramisu were the clear favorites. I definitely understand the Creme Brulee love! Cause of death: Crunchy, sugary hard topping.

Crème brulee is actually the only dish on this list I have tried. I love it. My first experience with it was at Houlihan’s (that was the sound of French chefs around the world cringing at that statement). Something about that hard, caramelized shell makes me weak in the knees. My brother and sister constantly tease me that it has the consistency of phlegm (often mid-bite mind you), but I don’t care. I love it.  Clearly, the folks taking my survey love it too, as it was a landslide winner as the favorite dish.

Crème brulee was founded in Francois Massialot’s cookbook in 1961. As you may have guessed by that entirely French name, it was founded in France. However, it took many years before the official name stuck (3).

It is a rich, cream custard composed of cream, egg yolk, sugar and vanilla with a hard, caramelized sugar topping typically served in individual dishes and cold. Professional Frenchmen often wield a blowtorch to achieve the crunchy top. However, at home bakers can simply use a broiler. Still tastes delicious, so I’ve heard.

Variations of this are abundant. You can make the custard any flavor you want: lavender, pumpkin, lemon, orange, chocolate. You want it; it can probably be done. Some even add liquor to the sugar topping to add dramatic flair when torching.

Coming next: Tiramisu.

Ahhh…tiramisu. It always makes me think of my mom because she always says, “Ahhh…tiramisu. I love that dish. Let’s order the brownie sundae.” Seriously, I don’t think she’s ever actually ordered the stinkin’ dessert. It may be because she’s accepted defeat as the outcast in a chocolate loving family. Either way, I’ve never actually had the luxury of eating it.

It is believed tiramisu was found in the 70s in Italy. However, there the rumor mill is amok with tales of it being created to lure Cosimo III into Siena in 1660. Most true historians have their doubts, however. This is namely because the key to this dish, mascarpone cheese, would never have survived in the refrigerator-less 1660s (4).

Translated, “tiramisu” means “pick-me-up” probably relating to the coffee found in the dish. The dessert consists of a bottom layer of coffee soaked ladyfingers, then a whipped egg white and mascarpone cheese layer, and topped with cocoa powder and flavored liqueur. Though that is the true Italian way, variations include using cakes or breads instead of ladyfingers or forgoing the eggs all together. All I know is I am dying to try this bad boy.

Finally, we end with the Danish pastry, you know those cute little things staring at you at the bakery screaming “Pick me! Pick me!” when most eyes quickly divert to the donuts? Ah, yes. Those things.

They were founded in Austria in 1850. It began when Danish factory workers went on strike over pay. The factories were forced to hire foreign workers as replacements, namely Austrian workers. There the little breakfast pastry was born. It initially started as a dessert called “Plundergeback” (try saying that five times fast), but after increasing the fat involved, today’s Danish is here to last (5).

Fun fact! The Danish was introduced to the US around 1915 when Lauritz Klitteng made it for Woodrow Wilson’s wedding (5).

The ingredients for a Danish are fairly routine: flour, yeast, eggs, and butter. However, it gets jazzed up with different sauces and fruits. In Denmark, it is typically topped with a chocolate or icing drizzle. In the UK, they prefer their Danishes to be baked with jams, apricots, raisins, or caramelized toffee. The US inserts either fruit or a sweet cheese prior to baking. I don’t care which way you slice it; Danishes sound yummy.

Here you can see a timeline of the dishes creation to get a better idea about the range of dates we are dealing with here. Looks like the BC era did some things right! And by “some things” I mean baklava.

I wanted to see if there was a connection between family heritages and favorite dishes. Perhaps, a person of Italian heritage grew up eating tiramisu. Below is a graph depicting the relation to the countries discussed above.

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Here you can see the majority of the people surveyed either had another heritage altogether or a German heritage.

I decided to do some research on the ten that have a connection to the countries discussed.

View Heritage, Location, and Favorite Dish in a full screen map

As you can see, there four of the ten said their favorite desserts were the same as the heritage they identified with. Inteeeeeresting.

Whew! See what a whirlwind of history food carries? Whodda thunk? Now that’s all fine and dandy, but I’m sure what you really care about is eating said food. I mean, it’s not like when you bite into a hamburger you think about what an American delicacy it is, which turns into thoughts about the Mayflower and colonization, which turns into thoughts about Thanksgiving, which…oh I digress! You just thank “Well, by golly gee this is tasty!”

I will include links to recipes to make these dishes at home. I know I generally preach about ease of recipes, so here’s a graph estimating the amount of time it will take to prepare each dish:

Screen shot 2012-12-06 at 11.16.56 AM

Look at that! My favorite dish not only is delish but one of the quickest on this list? Score! That burnt almond torte (which I will eat sometime!) seems to take the longest.

Burnt Almond Torte 


Crème Brulee 


Danish pastry 

I hope y’all have a chance to make these dishes at home! Or at the very least try them somewhere. You’ll already be a step ahead of me!

Cited works:

1) http://www.examiner.com/article/prantl-s-bakery-and-the-famous-burnt-almond-torte

2) http://www.kitchenproject.com/history/Baklava.htm

3) http://gourmet.lovetoknow.com/Creme_Brulee_History

4) http://italianfood.about.com/od/spoondesserts/a/aa072307.htm

5) http://suite101.com/article/the-story-of-danish-pastries-a178756