(CNN) — Imagine the best dessert on Earth. Then ask other people their favorites. Bet you dollars to doughnuts, their answer is different from yours.
From childhood treats to a grandparent's favorite recipes, beloved foods are deeply personal. This seems especially true of desserts, which often take pride of place at celebrations and traditional holidays.
For all the nostalgia of sugary treats, though, some sweets rise above local flavors. Head to any country to find tender slices of Italian tiramisú on cafe menus or sniff out the creamy scent of Hong Kong's dan tats in cities around the globe. And like dan tats, many of these recipes aren't desserts at all -- the eggy tart is more often eaten as an afternoon snack. The idea of serving a sweet at the end of a coursed meal is relatively recent, and in some destinations, including Africa and Asia, desserts are a foreign import.
But with food, like language or culture, determining what's "foreign" turns out to be complicated. Tiramisu relies on chocolate, coffee and sugar that arrived in Italy through global trade, while Hong Kong's most iconic sweet has roots in Portugal.
This list blends the personal with something more broadly appealing. It's the fruit of my nine years in the pastry kitchen, when I traveled to explore new flavors everywhere. In alphabetical order, here's a list of some of the best desserts around the world:
Alfajores, South America
Step into a neighborhood bakery from Argentina to Peru, and you're likely to find these tender, filled cookies piled high behind the counter. The crumbly bite of shortbread gives way to a sweet layer of dulce de leche, a caramel-like candy made by gently cooking sweetened milk until it turns into a rich, mellow treat.
The very simplicity of the cookies has proved to be the perfect base for creative cooks across Latin America. Try versions that are dunked in dark chocolate, coated in a sweet layer of white chocolate, rolled in coconut and dressed up with spices, or opt for the classic -- it's among the world's most comforting snacks.
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For a floury lesson in gluten's architectural wonders, whip up a batch of traditional strudel dough. The real thing is stretched -- not rolled -- into an improbably thin sheet; according to legend, it should be transparent enough to read a newspaper through.
Once extended, the delicate dough is wrapped around a sweet, apple filling that's enriched with buttery fried breadcrumbs, raisins and sometimes walnuts. The delicious result can be found in pastry shops around the world though Vienna provides the classic experience.
Dozens of delicate layers melt into a single tender bite in this syrupy confection, which is among the sweetest legacies of the Ottoman Empire. While it remains a sought-after treat through the Levant, Balkans, the Caucasus and North Africa -- regions that were once ruled from Constantinople -- the spiritual home of baklava is surely the modern-day country of Turkey.
There, pastry shops serve great trays sliced into diamonds, filled with ground nuts and dripping with honeyed syrup. This is just the most famous of the Ottoman Empire's syrup-soaked pastries, but it's snagged the limelight for good reason. With a simple list of ingredients and endless variations, it easily ranks among the world's most tempting treats.
Black Forest Cake, Germany
Along with fairy tales and mountain-top castles, Germany's Black Forest region is known as the namesake -- if not the origin -- of the country's most luscious cake. Dark rounds of chocolate cake are doused in a cherry syrup spiked with kirschwasser, a sour cherry brandy, then stacked atop a thin, chocolate base with deep layers of whipped cream and fresh cherries.
If that wasn't flavor enough, the whole thing is swathed in more cream, dusted with shaved chocolate and studded with cherries. The resulting cake is a frothy dream dessert that's the star of pastry cases around Germany, where it's known as a Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte.
Borma, Middle East and Turkey
Threads of crisp, golden knafeh dough wrap around a rich nut filling in this sweet dessert, which is an elegant and aromatic relative of baklava. Unlike baklava, borma is often fried, adding an extra infusion of flavor and a crisp texture that stands up to a sugary bath in flavored syrup.
And while baklava hides its filling inside a modest layer of filo dough, borma is rolled and sliced, showing off a cross-section of colorful pistachios, pale pine nuts or walnuts. That eye-catching presentation makes borma especially popular as a present. Pastry shops across the Middle East and Turkey tempt passers-by with piles of borma.
Brownies, United States
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Fudgy or cakey? Corner piece or slice from the middle? Aficionados of this beloved American sweet are sure to have a take on the best -- and worst -- way to make a brownie. One of the earliest recipes appeared in Fannie Farmer's 1906 "Boston Cooking School Cook Book," using the unsweetened chocolate that lends brownies a fudgy texture.
In more than a century of brownie making, they've become a mainstay treat, the base for sundaes and a seriously addictive ice cream flavor.
Even Katharine Hepburn had an opinion on how to bake them, and an old story holds that the actress once dispensed the following advice: "Never quit, be yourself and don't put too much flour in your brownies."
A shattering-crisp shell gives way to a creamy cheese filling in this Sicilian classic, whose roots reach deep into the island's diverse culinary history. With origins at the wild Carnival celebrations at Palermo, the traditional cannolo is filled with silky-smooth ricotta cheese made from sheep's milk.
Taste that rich filling for evidence of the Arab influence that infuses Sicilian cuisine: The candied citrus that often flavors the creamy interior remains beloved throughout the Middle East.
Cardamom Buns, Sweden
October 4 might be Cinnamon Bun Day on the Swedish calendar, but many bun aficionados insist that the aromatic cardamom version outshines cinnamon's more assertive charms. One of a family of vetebullar, or wheat buns, cardamom buns are best enjoyed as a part of fika, the coffee break that comes twice daily in many Swedish workplaces.
While a freshly baked cardamom bun is a memorable treat, it's also a simple and comforting one. In a classic recipe from author Johanna Kindvall, crushed cardamom seeds are stirred into lightly enriched, yeasted dough, then rolled up with a sweet layer of sugar and spice.
For the perfect fika, whip up a batch of cardamom buns, brew some strong coffee and call a friend, since the iconic Swedish coffee break is as much about talking as it is about treats.
On afternoons in Singapore, locals cool off with this chilled and silky sweet concoction, which is a favorite at seaside restaurants and sidewalk stands. Iced coconut milk is sweetened with a palm sugar syrup, which lends it a lightly smoky, caramelized flavor.
The rich liquid is a lush base for tender threads of green rice-flour jelly, which gets its vivid color from the pandan juice that's extracted from leaves of the tropical screw pine.
Versions of this blissfully cool dessert can be found throughout southeast Asia, but with the addition of a scoop of sweetened red beans, Singapore's take on the classic treat remains especially tempting.
Chocolate Chip Cookies, United States
The quintessential American treat is deceptively simple: a basic, creamed-butter cookie recipe turns out to have endless subtle variations that produc dramatically different results.
Whatever your favorite version, a perfect chocolate chip cookie is a delicate balance of textures and flavors. A crispy rim gives way to a tender, melting center, and the buttery sweetness of the dough sets off the slight edge of bittersweet chocolate and brown sugar.
Legend has it that the chocolate chip cookie has its origins in a happy accident, when Massachusetts inn owner Ruth Wakefield stirred chopped chocolate into her cookie dough in an attempt to make uniformly chocolatey cookies. Her brand-new recipe was published in a Boston newspaper, and the rest was pastry history.
Chocolate Mousse, France
An airy confection made with just a handful of ingredients, chocolate mousse is a delicious paradox: the richer it is, the lighter it seems. Gallic chefs have been whipping up chocolate mousse -- the word means "foam" in French -- for at least a few hundred years, but the quest for foamy chocolate is much older.
Among the Olmec, Maya and Aztec peoples who consumed chocolate long before contact with Europeans, a hefty layer of foam was considered the height of good taste, and ancient codices depict cooks pouring chocolate from several feet in the air to create a froth.
Coconut Cake, Southern United States
Bouncy, buttery rounds of vanilla cake are piled high with shredded coconut and seven-minute frosting for a classic Southern dessert. This is the kind of all-American sweet that stars at potlucks, cake walks and church picnics, and it's often made with recipes passed down on hand-written recipe cards.
There are dozens of versions, but every single one is cloaked in a frothy layer of shredded coconut ... preferably fresh.
Layer cakes weren't invented in the United States, but the distinctive profile of the coconut cake is pure Americana, and there's no mistaking the high, round shape of an American layer cake for a slim European torte. Despite the minimalist, all-white color scheme, the coconut cake is an over-the-top, old-fashioned pleasure.
Cornes de Gazelle, Morocco
Even in a crowded field of tempting Moroccan sweets, these filled pastries are perennial favorites, and the labor-intensive dessert appears at celebrations and special meals throughout the year.
In the classic version, a thin layer of dough curves around a filling of ground almonds scented with orange blossom water. Since cornes de gazelle are baked just until they're lightly golden, the dough retains a tender texture that melts into the center.
While cornes de gazelle are prepared across Morocco -- as well as in the nearby countries of Tunisia and Algeria -- the most visually elaborate versions come from the Moroccan port city of Tetouan, where bakers use intricate molds to create patterns in the dough before baking.
Crème Brûlée, France
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Shiny, burnt sugar tops this creamy dessert, and the perfect crème brûlée is a study in contrasts. Each bite should blend a bit of crispy caramel -- burned just to the very edge of bitterness -- with the aromatic flavor of vanilla custard.
Often made using pure cream, crème brûlée is among the richest of all the custard desserts, and it must be gently cooked in a water bath to prevent curdling and overbaking.
For pastry chefs, part of the appeal of preparing crème brûlée is the fiery drama of burning the sugar topping. They execute the job with everything from a blow torch to a traditional salamander, a cast-iron disk that can be heated to blazing temperatures and is said to produce the most even results.
Dan Tats, Hong Kong
Follow the wafting scent of egg custard into a Hong Kong bakery to sample one of the territory's most iconic treats. Perfectly sized for eating out-of-hand, dan tats are best enjoyed fresh from the oven, when the warm custard meets a perfectly crisp crust. And with a map-spanning backstory, dan tats are among the tastiest symbols of globalization.
Many trace dan tats to the similar pastéis de nata of Portugal; those eggy tarts traveled with Portuguese traders and colonists to cities around the world. After establishing a foothold in Hong Kong via nearby Macau, they were re-exported to Chinatowns around the globe, where they tempt passersby from steaming pastry cases and shop windows.
Doughnuts, United States
In the Pantheon of world desserts, fried dough is a mainstay. Everything from French beignets to Greek loukoumades are doughnuts of a kind, and it's no wonder they're so beloved; a quick swim in boiling oil transforms simple bread dough into a fast and filling treat. But it's latter day American doughnuts that earn a place on this list for their creative approach to fillings and flavors.
From Portland, Maine's The Holy Donut to Voodoo Doughnut in Portland, Oregon, the old-school doughnut has been loaded down under piles of maple frosting, crispy bacon, fresh fruit glazes and boozy toppings that take the sweet into uncharted territory
Eszterhazy Torta, Hungary
In its glory days, the Austro-Hungarian empire stretched across central Europe, and a century after the empire fell its creamy legacy can still be found in pastry shop windows from Vienna to Sarajevo.
For this elegant cake, slim rounds of almond meringue are piled high between stripes of chocolate buttercream, then topped with a marbled spiderweb of chocolate and vanilla fondant.
A melting texture and rich sweetness make this old-fashioned cake a perennial favorite in sweets-loving Budapest, but it's just as easy to find in Vienna, the grand city that once led the empire. It remains deeply influenced by a shared culinary tradition.
Flan, Latin America
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In the sprawling family tree of custard desserts, Latin America's flan is the coolest cousin, blending perfect simplicity with creamy sophistication.
A whisper-thin layer of dark caramel tops the dessert, melting into syrupy sauce around the base. Flan might have arrived in Latin America from Spain, but it's since been claimed and reinvented by generations of cooks here.
In Mexico, where the dessert is served everywhere from neighborhood cafes to family celebrations, the silky texture of a classic flan is the perfect foil for a meal with fiery chiles and aromatic spices.
Gâteau Fondant au Chocolat, France
Cut into a warm round of gâteau fondant au chocolat -- that means "melting chocolate cake" in French -- to release the slow flood of chocolate from the interior.
This dark and rich cake is a high-wire act of time and temperature: Serve too early and it's a sticky pool of hot cake batter; serve too late and it's a brownie. When the balance is perfect, however, the treat blends the tender bite of a chocolate cake with the oozy pleasure of a melted chocolate bar.
In the 1990s, the cake became a menu star as a lava cake or molten chocolate cake. While the heat of the craze has passed, this sensuous dessert remains one of the world's most sophisticated ways to end a meal.
From shaved ice to sorbet, frozen desserts are melting evidence of one of the world's great food truths: there's nothing so welcome as a cold, sugary treat on a summer afternoon.
On the global heat map of frozen desserts, though, gelato's sweet innovations earn top honors. Lower fat content and a warmer serving temperature help flavors shine brighter than in ice cream, whether you're savoring a sunny scoop of lemon gelato, a rich hazelnut version or classic chocolate.
In Italy, the year-round treat in an essential food experience, and true aficionados even make the pilgrimage to the Gelato Museum in Bologna, where tours include a guided tasting at the museum cafe.
Gulab Jamun, India
A lush, syrupy distillation of milky flavor, these deep-fried Indian treats are anything but a simple doughnut.
Traditional recipes for gulab jamun dough start with a scoop of khoya, a reduction of cow or buffalo milk that simmers for hours over a low flame, lending the finished product a melting texture.
Frying gulab jamun in ghee provides a second injection of fatty flavor before the dumplings are soaked in an aromatic syrup infused with cardamom seeds and roses.
The rich and labor-intensive sweet is a favorite at Indian celebrations from Eid al-Fitr to Diwali, but the name points to origins in Persia.
For the cheesecake aficionado who finds the New York version a trifle heavy, this Japanese treat might be a revelation. In the creamy sweet, which blends the flavorful tang of cheesecake with the loft of a sponge cake, the richness of lightly cultured cheese is offset by a light and airy texture.
The secret is an unusual technique of blending beaten egg whites -- a meringue -- into a warm batter that is rich with cream cheese and vanilla. Versions of this cheesecake are available everywhere from Japanese convenience stores to top-shelf bakeries.
When making your own or shopping for the perfect slice, watch for a characteristic jiggle that hints at the light, tender texture to come.
Kashata, East Africa
Wander through a market in East Africa to find this golden sweet, which blends the satisfying crunch of caramelized sugar with the rich heft of peanuts, fresh coconut or a blend of the two.
Bridging the delicious divide between cookie and confection, kashata gets an aromatic boost from the addition of cardamom, which elevates the brittle-like treat into the realms of world-class sweets.
The traders who once plied the coast of East Africa in dhow sailboats brought new words, flavors and spices from across the water, and the name of this beloved treat is adapted from Arabic -- but for many, kashata is among the sweetest and most nostalgic flavors of East Africa.
While the rest of the world eats jam, central Europe enjoys the rich flavor of lekvár, a chunky preserve that retains all the tartness of the region's ripe apricots and plums. The hearty fruit preserve is the delicious prize inside these crescent pastries.
A soft, flaky dough is shaped into a plump half-moon that barely contains the sweet filling, then topped with a light blanket of powdered sugar. Not that kifli are limited to fruit preserves. The sweets, which are especially beloved at holiday times, are often stuffed with sweetened walnuts or poppy seeds.
Golden pastry tops sweet cream, nuts or salty cheese in this syrupy dessert, which offers a satisfying contrast of texture and flavor. Like many Middle Eastern desserts, knafeh is soaked in an aromatic sugar syrup that infuses the pastry topping and filling with the flavor of roses or orange blossoms.
While crowds line up for sweet slices of knafeh from Amman to Alexandria, the most iconic place to try the dessert might be in the Palestinian city of Nablus, which claims the title of knafeh's home town.
In the Nablus version, a tangy filling of goat cheese is covered by threads of fine pastry or a tender blanket of baked semolina.
Kouign Amann, Brittany, France
Once a little-known treat that drew pastry pilgrims to Brittany, the kouign amann has officially made it big. Celebrity pastry chef Dominique Ansel gave it a boost by serving the caramel-crusted rounds in his SoHo bakery, but it's the kouign amann's sheer perfection that sent it down the sticky road to fame.
Brittany is known for the high quality of its butter and sea salt, and kouign amann simply means "butter cake" in the Breton language. It earns the name. Like a croissant, the kouign amann is rolled and folded with layers of butter, but fewer folds mean the kouign amann has a toothier, more rustic texture than its sophisticated city cousin.
A roll in sugar, a sprinkle of Breton sea salt and one of the world's great pastries was born.
Among the most voluptuous treats in the ice cream family, this frozen dessert has a temptingly rich texture. Traditional recipes, which can require hours of constant stirring, start by simmering fresh milk over a low flame, a slow reduction that lends a caramel sweetness to the milk's natural sugars.
While modern-day kulfi appears in dozens of flavors, classic versions are infused with some of India's most lilting tastes.
In cities across the country, visit a kulfiwallah for a transporting sample of rose, cardamom, saffron or pistachio kulfi; while recipes change with time, the sweet treat you're tasting is thought to have roots in the Mughal Empire.
Lemon Tart, France
A slender layer of lemon cream fills this classic French tart, whose flavor balances rich butter, the acidity of lemon juice and the bite of lemon zest. The crust, with a texture that's similar to a shortbread cookie, retains a fatty crunch that's an ideal contrast to the silky filling.
When perfectly executed the result is dessert heaven, and the simplicity of the tart makes it a fitting icon of the French pastry kitchen. While the old-fashioned version remains a beloved stand-by, some of the best tarts in Paris offer intriguing twists: try Sadaharu Aoki's yuzu tart, made with an aromatic relative of the lemon, or head to Pierre Hermé to taste an extra lemony version topped by bits of candied citrus.
Linzer Torte, Austria
Like its namesake city in Austria, this slender torte is an old-fashioned favorite that's still a star in the 21st century. A dough enriched with ground nuts, often hazelnuts or walnuts, melts into a jammy filling for a treat that's somewhere between cake and tart.
Recipes for Linzer tortes have been around since at least 1653, and in the torte's Linz homeland, families pass variations on the richly spiced confection from generation to generation.
Along with the peek-a-boo lattice crust that hints at the filling at the heart of the torte, spices lend this tender sweet its lasting charm. While the filling is often a simple fruit preserve, Linzer torte dough is aromatic with ground cloves, cinnamon and lemon zest that make the Austrian treat a perennial favorite.
Cut into this golden spiral of pastry to uncover a rich filling of ground nuts, orange blossom water and mastic, a natural resin that perfumes sweets from Tangier to Turkey. Paired with a traditional glass of Moroccan mint tea, it's a generous and celebratory dessert that invites every guest to serve themselves as much as they'd like, scattering the slivered nuts and ground cinnamon that decorate the top.
Even thinner than filo, the delicate warqa dough that's used for this Moroccan sweet is prepared by daubing a ball of dough on a hot griddle; it's an impressive labor of love that takes deft hands and many hours of practice.
Ma'amoul, Middle East
When celebrating some of the year's most anticipated holidays, many in the Levant reach for the comforting taste of these filled cookies, whose thin, semolina crust wraps around a delicious blend of chopped dates, nuts or both.
The simple cookies are shaped in wooden molds carved with intricate patterns, emerging as finely-wrought rounds or detailed cones.
They're a memorable treat with an appealingly mild sweetness, and a love of ma'amoul unites the region's three predominant religious traditions: Jews enjoy ma'amoul as a Purim treat, bakers shape vast piles of the sweets for Easter, and in some areas, ma'amoul are an essential part of Eid feasts.
Mandazi, South Sudan
The addition of coconut milk lends a tender bite and subtle aroma to these satisfying fritters, whose light sweetness is especially appealing when paired with a cup of milky coffee or chai tea.
In some versions, a pinch of ground cardamom provides an extra jolt of spice, and the simple doughnuts are an invitation to get creative with flavors, toppings and sides.
While many mandazi lovers trace the origins of these fried treats to South Sudan -- where they're often served with a rich chocolate dipping sauce that lands them firmly in dessert territory -- mandazi are also a beloved snack across Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique and Uganda.
A touch of honey infuses an aromatic lilt into the slender layers of this cake, which is among Russia's most beloved treats. In between the cake layers, which can be stacked 10 high in the most elaborate versions, is a creamy frosting that melts into the honeyed rounds.
Variations on medovik differ widely, but the most popular takes incorporate one of two very Russian ingredients into the sweet filling.
Some use the rich sour cream that adds flavor to some of Russia's most comforting foods, from borscht to blini. Others get their flavor from sweetened condensed milk, which became an icon of Russian cooking during the Soviet era, when fresh milk could be hard to come by.
New York Cheesecake, United States
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The Big Apple's most iconic dessert seems to defy pastry physics. A light crumb offsets rich creaminess, a winning combination that elevates a simple list of flavors.
Like the city itself, New York cheesecake draws inspiration from around the globe, and a genetic map of the cheesecake world would likely include the crumbly, dry-curd cheesecakes of Eastern Europe, German kasekuchen and the fresh-cheese versions that are beloved in Italy.
Unlike more fanciful recipes, New York's classic take on cheesecake eschews toppings or pronounced flavors, with just a hint of vanilla extract or lemon zest to lend a lilting aroma to a blend of sugar, eggs, cream and cream cheese, almost always Philadelphia brand. The brand is so associated with American cheesecakes that it's often called out by name on menus around the globe, where tarta de queso Philadelphia or gâteau fromage Philadelphia are rich diplomats for a beloved New York sweet.
The Netherlands' sweet contribution to the world of fried dumplings, oliebollen are a deliciously Dutch way to celebrate New Year's Eve. A crunchy, crispy ball of sweetened batter studded with raisins or currants, then dunked in powdered sugar, oliebollen are best eaten hot from street stands called oliebollenkrams.
It might seem like a simple snack, but oliebollen are serious business in the Netherlands, where an annual contest uses blind testing at the academic Center for Taste Research in Wageningen to choose the country's very best oliebol.
Pavlova, Australia and New Zealand
Pastry-loving Aussies and Kiwis get riled when dinner conversations turn to Pavlova, a wonderfully messy meringue dessert that's a long-running sore point between Australia and New Zealand.
Anna Pavlova, the globe-trotting Russian ballerina that the dessert is named for, visited both countries. Each claims the sweet as their own, but that's where the dispute ends -- no one denies the crunchy, creamy pleasures of a perfectly made Pavlova.
Sink a fork into the crisp meringue shell, and you'll discover a sweetly chewy interior. Piled high atop the meringue are fluffy whipped cream and tart fruits, a lofty topping whose richness and bright flavor offset the sugary base for a world-class dessert.
Polvorónes, Latin America, Spain and the Philippines
Tiny, powdered cookies that crumble at the lightest touch, these shortbread treats are beloved from Manila to Mexico City. In the United States, a version of these cookies is often called Mexican wedding cookies, but it would be a shame to leave them for special occasions alone. Polvorónes are the kind of simple treat that's welcome as an afternoon snack or piled onto a dessert tray, where they can hold their own against the world's greatest cookies.
Recipes vary, and include almonds, walnuts or pecans, but each iteration of the cookies shares the same tender bite and origins in Spain; some speculate that the treats have even older roots in the Middle East.
Qatayef, Middle East
As if hours of fasting weren't enough to pique the appetite, many Ramadan adherents can look forward to the sweet taste of qatayef when the sun finally does set.
The dessert starts life as a kind of yeasted pancake batter, but qatayef is griddled on just one side, creating a toothy balance between the golden-fried crust and tender interior. Stuffed into the folded base is a sweet mixture of fresh cheese, dried fruits, nuts or cream, often scented with rose water or ground cinnamon.
Some versions of qatayef can be eaten just like that -- perhaps with the addition of some aromatic syrup -- but classic recipes are fried before serving, adding an additional layer of crunch and flavor before the beloved sweets hit the holiday table.
Rigó Jancsi, Hungary
Fluffy chocolate sponge cake is sandwiched with apricot jam and airy chocolate mousse in this classic treat. Topped with a whisper-thin layer of chocolate glaze then cut into tidy cubes of chocolate, the Rigó Jancsi stands out even in the notably crowded field of fabulous Hungarian desserts.
Beloved for a silky texture and rich flavor, the seductive cake was named for a love story that caught the world's attention with racy images and juicy details. Rigó Jancsi was a Romani violinist who won the heart of the (married) Princesse de Caraman-Chimay of Belgium, and the two made international headlines when they ran off together in 1896.
Saffron Ice Cream, Iran
Scented with saffron, rosewater and pistachios, it's no wonder that this Iranian ice cream is a favorite at Nowruz, the Persian New Year.
From a lightly golden color to its distinctive aroma, the creamy treat is the essence of spring. Saffron ice cream, or bastani, is a memorable experience on its own, and its flavor alone easily snags a spot among the world's greatest frozen desserts.
For the complete bastani experience, though, opt for a traditional Iranian ice cream sandwich of saffron ice cream between two thin wafers. The wafers' mild flavor and crispy texture are the perfect foil -- and conveniently shaped handle -- for the rich and aromatic ice cream, which is beloved from Tehran to Tehrangeles.
Sesame Balls, Jian Dui, China
Bite into the crisp shell of a deep-fried jian dui to discover a sweet filling within the golden, sesame-seed-studded exterior. This traditional Chinese treat is often filled with a sweet bean paste or a soft puree made from lotus seeds; both versions offer a deliciously mild counterpoint to the crunchy seeds.
Jian dui are especially popular as a treat at Lunar New Year celebrations, but not just for their delicious flavor. Dessert blogger and author Anita Chu writes that for many Chinese people, jian dui offer a special symbolism during that time: both the spherical shape and golden color are good omens for the year to come, as is the way the jian dui puff up when fried in hot oil.
Snow Ice, Xue Hua Bing, Taiwan
Like snow cones, Hawaiian shaved ice, raspados, granitas and dozens of other local variants, snow ice is Taiwan's answer to one of the world's great food truths: Nothing beats a sweet, icy treat when the weather is steamy.
Unusual shaving technique and complex toppings elevate the Taiwanese version above the competition. A creamy base, which can be flavored with everything from green tea to fruit purées, is frozen solid then shaved into a lofty pile of crumbling ice flakes.
To top it all off, blend your own perfect mix of treats. Favorites include adzuki red bean paste, taro, grass jelly, fresh fruit, sweetened condensed milk and mochi, but Taiwanese snow ice is an invitation to get as creative as you'd like. Snow ice has spread to cities worldwide, but for the classic experience, head to Taipei's Shilin Night Market, where locals line up for the xue hua bing sold by dozens of vendors.
Sour Cherry Pie, Midwestern United States
Slice into the crispy top of a sour cherry pie, and the brilliant filling might come as a shock -- it's an electric color that seems more likely to be harvested from a can than a tree. That electric red comes from the tart Montmorency cherries that are the classic filling for this pie. Since the tender fruits are more perishable than their sweeter cousins, if you live outside the Midwest or Northeast United States you might never have seen one.
Sour cherries have plenty of acid to counterbalance the sugar in the filling, and they're rich in tannins, too. It's a hint of complexity that put this fruit pie over the top as one of the best in America.
Sticky Rice with Mango, Thailand
Ignore the chalky versions sold in restaurants that are 10 time zones from a mango tree; a ripe, tender dish of sticky rice with mango is among the world's most perfect desserts. This traditional sweet begins with the glutinous rice that's grown in paddies across Southeast Asia, and the starchy grains combine with rich coconut milk and palm sugar for a treat that retains a chewy bite even when it's perfectly soft.
The sweet world of mangoes includes hundreds and hundreds of cultivars, but for a truly Thai sticky rice with mango there are just two favored varieties: choose between nam dok mai, a sweet, yellow fruit that's pertly curvaceous, or aok rong, whose higher acidity offers a pleasant counterpoint to the sweet rice.
Sticky Toffee Pudding, United Kingdom
The ultimate in comforting British desserts, this homey sweet is a warm serving of sticky nostalgia. A base of soft cake is studded with chopped dates, then drowned in a creamy sauce. Much of the distinctive flavor comes from treacle, or molasses.
While treacle has given way to crystallized sugar in most cooks' pantries, it was once a favored sweetener that was an important part of working-class diets in the UK. It's worth noting that sticky toffee pudding is not what's known as a pudding outside of the British Isles, where "pudding" is a generic term for dessert, but it's proved a popular export.
Tarte Tatin, France
If you've never encountered this famed French dessert, then tarte Tatin may arrive as a delicious surprise. A world away from the architectural, lacquered creations that fill Parisian pastry shop windows, the very best of these are a humble mess with heavenly flavor -- preferably topped with a generous dollop of tangy crème fraîche.
To bake this caramelized treat, start by layering apples, sugar and butter in a heavy pan, then top it off with a round of dough. The pastry seals the filling into a steamy enclosure, allowing the sugar to caramelize as the apples melt into tender perfection. The crux of the operation is when the tart emerges from the oven and must be flipped onto a plate before the molten sugar turns to sticky glue.
Creamy layers of whipped mascarpone cradle coffee-soaked ladyfingers in this modern Italian dessert, which has become a sweet mainstay around the globe. It's no wonder. With a name that translates to "pick me up," it's a combination of coffee, chocolate, cream and optional booze that's sure to pique even the most jaded palates.
Most pastry-loving historians trace the treat's origins to the Treviso restaurant Le Beccherie, but by the time the world reached peak tiramisú in the late 1980s and 1990s, rival claims were hot as a strong-brewed cup of Italian espresso. Whatever the truth behind the creamy dessert, it's earned well-deserved pride of place on menus from Umbria to Ulaanbaatar.
Tres Leches Cake, Mexico and Central America
A fluffy sponge cake is the perfect vehicle for delivering loads of flavor in this wonderfully creamy dessert. The "three milks" that the sweet is named for are usually sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and cream, which combine for a delightful cake so wet it's almost a drink.
While fresh milk is now widely available, the flavor of sweetened condensed milk is a throwback to a time when the perishable stuff was hard to find, especially in warmer climates.
Even in the days of refrigerated trucks, the gooey, sweet milk retains an appeal all its own, and flavor that infuses beloved treats around the world: it's stirred into Thai iced tea, drizzled over shaved ice raspados in Latin America and cooked into Brazilian brigadeiros.
Trifle, United Kingdom
Tender layers of sherry-soaked sponge cake alternate with jam, custard and -- in a practical British twist -- almost anything sweet and delicious the baker has on hand, as long as it's topped with a lush blanket of whipped cream. And no matter what you tuck between the rounds of cake, a trifle has a sweetly old-fashioned feel.
The name dates back to at least the 16th century and is probably older, though the ingredients of the dessert have evolved over time. Even as the equally historic syllabub has disappeared from the standard playlist of homemade British desserts, trifle remains pure, creamy nostalgia for many food lovers.
The secret to the longevity of the trifle might be in its forgiving nature. When I was an apprentice baker in an Oakland café, a pastry chef told me this: As long as your flavors are good, she said, don't worry too much about cakes emerging from the oven looking flawless. The worst-case scenario? "Put it in a bowl and call it a trifle."
Tub Tim Krob, Thailand
With a name that translates to "crispy rubies," it's not hard to love this colorful and refreshing Thai dessert. After a fiery meal of Thai cuisine, tub tim krob cools with crushed ice and a sweetened coconut liquid infused with pandan leaves.
While often compared with vanilla, pandan has a lilting aroma all its own, but for tub tim krob lovers the "rubies" are the real treasure. For these, water chestnuts are soaked in vivid grenadine syrup, rolled in tapioca flour, then boiled.
The result is a sweet bite that's both chewy and slightly crunchy, with a hint of salt from the coconut broth.