“Sinless” desserts... Does anyone actually enjoy those bizarre chemical confections that promise no gluten, no fat, no sugar, and absolutely no enjoyment whatsoever? Get behind me, Splenda. Let me introduce you to my top ten favorite guilt-free desserts.
Sure these regional delicacies are loaded with sugar, but they were all created to celebrate Catholic saints, so what could be more sinless? For the most authentic experience, eat them on the corresponding saint’s day in their hometowns — after all, there’s a reason these celebrations are called “feasts.”
Passion fruit raspados (photograph by AnelGTR/Wikimedia)
Where to eat it: Izapalapa DF, Mexico
When to eat it: Semana Santa (Holy Week)
Holy Week is a somber stretch of holidays culminating in Black Saturday — a day so dark that even churches stay locked up. It’s the most austere period of the liturgical year so it might seem like an odd time to think about dessert. But in Mexico, every custom leading up to Easter is symbolic.
Raspados, sweetened shaved ice, represent the sweet tears of the Virgin Mary and are particularly nice after sitting in an un-air conditioned cathedral for a few hours in the spring. Though some vendors use snow cone-like syrups, be sure to try the uniquely Mexican flavors like tamarind, mango-chili, or sweetened condensed milk with cinnamon. You can find cart vendors all over the DF, but check out the ones in Izapalapa, a borough know for its elaborate Passion play that lasts all week and includes a cast of thousands.
The Virgin Mary in tears (detail of 15th century painting) (via Unterlinden Museum)
Kremówka (photograph by Piotrus/Wikimedia)
9. Kremówka papieska
Where to eat it: Wadowice, Poland
When to eat it: October 22
In 1999, Pope John Paul II went back to his childhood home of Wadowice and casually reminisced about a particular type of cake he used to like as boy. It was a humble little dessert — layers of shortcrust pastry, custard, and puff pastry, assembled in a sheet pan and sold by the slice. It was primarily a way for bakers to recoup costs on leftover components of fancier desserts that would have otherwise been thrown out.
Overnight, this unremarkable trifle transformed into Papal Cream Cake. Now thanks to his immense popularity and canonization, you can even buy a slice in Rome.
Pope John Paul II at the Vatican (photograph by Bren Buenaluz)
Saint-honoré pastry (photograph by Chatsam/Wikimedia)
Where to eat it: Paris, France
When to eat it: May 16
If your tastes are a little fancier than Pope St. John Paul II’s, head to Paris for a Saint-Honoré cake — a pastry so complex, it’s no wonder the pros named it after their patron saint.
It’s puff pastry, topped with a meringue-based pastry cream, topped with cream puffs, topped with caramelized sugar, topped with fresh whipped cream. The finished product is only slightly less miraculous than the legendary baker’s peel that sprouted roots and became a fruit tree when Honoré was appointed Bishop of Amiens.
Saint Honoré with some bakers (via Wikimedia)
7. Bigne di San Giuseppe
Where to eat it: Rome, Italy
When to eat it: March 19
Like many stepparents, St. Joseph doesn’t get the respect he deserves year round, but at least his feast day is a big deal in Italy where it’s essentially the equivalent of Father’s Day in the United States. No San Giuseppe feast would be complete with out the bigne, or zeppoli — sugar-covered fritters filled with custard or cannoli filling and topped with chocolate or candied cherries.
Though most people think of Joseph as a carpenter, he’s nicknamed “frittellaro” in Rome. According to local legend, he sold fried pancakes after the flight to Egypt to support Jesus and Mary, hence their inclusion in his feast day.
"Saint Joseph and the Christ Child" (late 17th-18th century), oil on canvas (via Brooklyn Museum)
Yemas de Santa Teresa (photograph by Tamorlan/Wikimedia)
6. Yemas de Santa Teresa
Where to eat it: Ávila, Spain
When to eat it: October 15
When Spanish winemakers needed to clarify wine, they sometimes added egg whites, which allowed tannins and other unwanted particles bind together for easy removal. But what do you do with all those leftover egg yolks?
Fortunately for us, the winemakers in Ávila decided to donate them to the local Carmelite convent. There, the nuns whipped up a confection dedicated to their most famous resident — St. Teresa of Ávila. Just looking twice at these little yellow candies might raise your blood pressure. They’re essentially just egg yolks and sugar with a bit of spice and water, but their slightly crunchy sugar shell and creamy interior makes them incredibly addictive — so much so that they’re available year-round at souvenir shops.
Saffron bun (photograph by Jonas Bergsten)
Where to eat it: Stockholm, Sweden
When to eat it: December 13
According to some versions of her legend, St. Lucy was so set against marrying her pagan suitor, when he admired her eyes she gouged them out and gave them to him. “Now leave me to God,” she quipped. He had her martyred by the Emperor Diocletian instead.
To this day, Lucy is usually depicted offering up her eyes on a plate and her feast celebrations in Sweden still honor this story. The eldest daughter in each family dons a white robe and serves her family saffron buns in the shape of eyes with raisins or currents for pupils. She wears a crown of candles to ward off the winter darkness, a symbol of Lucy’s spiritual light despite her blindness.
Domenico di Pace Beccafumi, "Saint Lucy" (1521), oil on panel (via Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena)
Cattern Cakes (photograph by Sue Scott/The Quince Tree)
4. Cattern cakes
Where to eat it: Nottinghamshire, England
When to eat it: November 25
St. Catherine of Alexandria was famously sentenced to death on the wheel, an execution method designed to bludgeon the victim to death over a course of hours or days. She’s almost always shown next to this terrifying device. A martyr’s execution method is usually what makes them identifiable in imagery originally used to teach illiterate parishioners. But sometimes when medieval guilds would pick patron saints, they would base their choices on dubious readings of these images.
For example, St. Bartholemew, holding the knife that flayed him alive, was picked to be patron of the cheese mongers since it looked like he had a cheese knife in his hand. Thus, Catherine’s wheel became associated with spinsters and lace-makers. Yet the reason the lace-makers of Nottinghamshire make cakes on St. Catherine’s day has as much to do with a second Catherine as it does with the martyr. When a sluggish market threatened to put lace-makers out of a job, Catherine of Aragon was said to have burnt her lace dresses to create a demand for work. The scone-like cakes with spices, currants, and caraway seeds are dedicated to her as well as their patron saint with the wheel.
St. Catherine of Alexandria with the wheel (14th century marble) (via Walters Art Museum)
photograph by the author
3. Minnuzze di Sant'Agata and Olivette di Sant’Agata
Where to eat it: Catania, Italy
When to eat it: February 5
If all this talk of St. Catherine’s wheel and St. Lucy’s gouged-out eyes seems a bit too much to take while you’re eating, go ahead and skip this entry. For those of you left, try two Sicilian treats commemorating St. Agatha.
Agatha was a virgin-martyr who had her breasts ripped off by her torturers. And yes, those “minnuzze” are absolutely cakes in the shape of her amputated breasts with a cherry on top representing the nipple. The cake underneath is a tooth-achingly sweet combination of vanilla sponge cake, a dome of sweetened ricotta, and a glaze of pistachio goo all topped with hardened sugar frosting.
For a less graphic take on her legend, pick up the green and black olives of St. Agatha. The green ones are sugar-encrusted marzipan, the black are chocolate-covered marzipan. These commemorate the miraculous olive tree that sprouted where Agatha stopped to tie her shoe on her way to be martyred.
Sebastiano del Piombo, "Martyrdom of Saint Agatha" (1520), oil on panel (via Pitti Palace)
Spice cookies similar to the recipe written by St. Hildegard (photograph by Slastic/Wikimedia)
Where to eat it: Bingen am Rhein, Germany
When to eat it: September 17
Lurking at the bottom of every news website in between "shocking celebrity photos" and "unbelievable insurance savings" is that suspicious ad for "incredible diet cookies" that promise the ability to snack yourself slim. If you've ever been tempted to click on that ad, then I have a saintly dessert for you.
The recipe for Hildegardplätzchen, or "cookies of joy," was written by St. Hildegard herself around 1100. This mystical Doctor of the Church was a bit of a medieval Dr. Oz. She wrote plays and music but also wrote extensively on medicine based on her experience working in the herb garden and treating her fellow nuns. She said of her spice cookies made with cloves and nutmeg: "Eat them often and they will calm every bitterness of heart and mind — and your hearing and senses will open. Your mind will be joyous, and your senses purified, and harmful humours will diminish".
1. Huesos de Santos
Where to eat it: Madrid, Spain
When to eat it: November 1
These are my personal favorite. If you read the description of the “Yolks of St. Teresa” and thought, “Yeah that sounds good... but make them richer, sweeter, and a little terrifying,” these Spanish candies are for you.
Huesos de Santos, or “bones of the saints,” are sheets of white marzipan rolled around an egg-yolk filling. They’re meant to resemble bones with gooey marrow inside. You can find them around All Saints’ Day as a reminder of the relics or the venerated bones of the saints often found in Catholic churches. They’re the perfect accompaniment to a day spent taking in the elaborate floral displays at the local cemeteries in Madrid.
Read more about the strange lives and afterlives of the saints at Elizabeth Harper's All the Saints You Should Know.