I recently had a longtime dream come true: I went to Spain! This post is a tribute to some of the amazing sweets I ate there. Just as I’ve imagined since my bygone college Spanish classes, I fell in love with the sites, the spirits of places, and the souls I met — in addition to the desserts.
And I was reminded of how lucky I am to have met my dear friend Pilar a few years ago. She was visiting California from Madrid when we crossed paths, and when she left for home, she said smiling, “Now it’s your turn to visit me!” So I daydreamed of it, letting life’s mandates distract me for dozens of months, until I finally took the plunge this year.
As many people say about travel, it’s hard to describe the breathtaking places and experiences on my trip — those moments when the combination of sound, smell, sight, and touch all felt so vibrant, new, and irreplaceable that I even sometimes wept. No, not only the mind-blowing Gaudí sites or the breathtaking museums or the Alhambra — but also the simple walks through old twisting streets, the voices in cafes and plazas, the smell of the air and its breeze on my skin. All of it with a wonderful person by my side who patiently waited as I took too many photos and conversed in garbled, rusty Spanish.
Of course, the sense of taste was a vital and remarkable part of my experience, too. I’ll long remember my many mouthwatering meals in Spain: from pintxos to pisto, gazpacho to paella, tortilla to tomato-toast, I savored every bite. I relished in the silky local olive oil drizzled on bread — miraculously, without ever missing butter (and I even learned I’d been mispronouncing “aceite” all these years). But as you’ve surely guessed by now, it was the Spanish sweets that stole the spotlight and won my heart. We visited Barcelona, Granada, and Madrid, making sure not to miss a sampling of desserts in each incredible city.
One evening in Barcelona, fed up with crowded restaurants, we decided to buy take-out and eat it in a plaza. In the narrow streets of the Gothic district, we ordered pizza slices then found a dessert shop where the passionfruit cheesecake was highly recommended.
I don’t usually crave cheesecake after a heavy meal, but I pushed aside my skepticism and ordered it alongside Pilar’s apple tart. What an excellent choice! The trio of crispy seeds, sweet gooey fruit, and tart cream cheese was heavenly.
Another day, adamant that I try as many typical Spanish foods as possible, I ordered paella at a reputable spot in the Eixample district. The paella was perfect, and the desserts were so divine. Mine was a mousse made purely of coconut, under juicy roasted pineapple and buttery shortbread crumbs.
Next, we headed to Granada — such a lively and beautiful city! It was warmer there, which is perhaps the reason we reached for frozen treats more than once. First, we ordered gelato one evening while exploring the streets on foot. Pilar chose mango and spicy chocolate, and I (nostalgic for the cheesecake in Barcelona) ordered passionfruit and a flavor new to me: Málaga, a sweet wine named after the Spanish city of its origin.
All the gelato flavors were luscious and refreshing, but paled when we ordered violet ice cream after lunch the next day. To our surprise, the order was comprised of five scoops! (See first photo above.) Beautiful and creatively served, the ice cream was sprinkled with violet petals and sat on a bed of tart yogurt and marmalade. The delightful presentation and generous quantity were matched by a decadent balance of creaminess and lovely floral flavor and fragrance.
After returning to Madrid, on a day of much walking and then craving a pick-me-up, we happened upon a little coffee house where we imagined ordering only caffeine-packed beverages but couldn’t resist the pastries on display. A moist, flavorful cinnamon roll and a rich chocolate tartlet (whose crust was even dipped in chocolate — genius!) proved perfect for hitting the spot.
And when we joined a birthday celebration with Pilar’s family a few days later, her aunt served a scrumptious oatmeal cake made sweetened only with the tender fruit embedded in its batter. A fellow baking enthusiast, she asked me to post a recipe written in Spanish in the future — a promise I intend to keep, even if the results are imperfect.
Also in Madrid, I tried a new-to-me pastry at a farmers market: an ensaïmada. With its origins on the Spanish island of Mallorca, the coiled, yeasted dough is tender and airy. They come in many sizes, filled or not; mine was an individual portion stuffed with smooth chocolate and dusted with powdered sugar. It was utterly delicious.
And after all this devouring of desserts, I couldn’t help but see sweets in more places than ever. On one of my last days in Spain, I visited the spectacular Prado museum and found Diego Velázquez’s sacred painting of two saints in the dessert. The past and the future are brilliantly depicted in the background, and a bird above brings bread from heaven. But what do I see in the bird’s beak? A doughnut, naturally.
There’s so much more I could share about my time in Spain, let alone the list of sweets. (Think giant spiraled churros, grated squash marmalade, custardy flan, seed-speckled cookies…) I feel so grateful for all I tasted and experienced, and I’m already dreaming of going back again. In the meantime, I’m inspired by my memories of Spanish sweets, and I hope to give them a heartfelt nod in the form of new dessert creations. Stay tuned!