Pastries occupy the magical dessert realm between bread, pies, and cookies. They come in a countless variety of shapes, sizes, and flavors — and that’s a big part of what makes them so special, and so delicious. There are warm spiced pastries, filled pastries, nutty pastries — even savory pastries. In fact, according to Merriam-Webster, any baked good qualifies as a pastry as long as it’s made with a rich flaky dough containing some type of fat (typically butter).
Food historians estimate that pastries date back to the dawn of civilization, and were some of the first foods ever made that required a recipe. Flash forward to today and the humble pastry has become a global dessert juggernaut, with people around the planet spending an estimated $31.2 billion on pastries annually and downing more than 400 million pounds of pastries each year. Domestically, one-third of all Americans enjoy some type of pastry or baked treat daily, with 65% of Americans opting for sweet pastries as their breakfast of choice.
When it’s all said and done, that’s a lot of dough!
But which pastry reigns supreme? Which buttery treat is better than all the rest? Grab a cup of coffee and your favorite pastry of choice and read on, to see where you land in the debate…
Our favorite types of pastries
With a history that dates to ancient Mesopotamia, baklava is a classic Middle Eastern and Mediterranean pastry that’s made with layers of thin, flaky pastry dough (phyllo dough or filo pastry) alternated with layers of a sweet and nutty filling. It’s packed with warm, cozy spices like cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom, plus the nutty goodness of walnuts, pistachios, and almonds, all sandwiched between layers of moist, buttery, flaky dough that is then topped with a drizzle of sweet syrup or honey.
Make it even better: Serve baklava in traditional small, diamond-shaped or rectangular pieces with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. For even more nutty flavor, sprinkle on some finely chopped pistachios before you dig in!
A true celebratory classic for holidays or any special occasion, kringle wreaths are made from a large round ring of buttery pastry dough. The dough is baked until tender and flaky, and then topped with a sweet icing or glaze. Some kringle wreaths are also filled with a variety of decadent sweets ranging from fresh fruit preserves to sweetened cream cheese to almond paste, cinnamon sugar, and chopped nuts.
The traditional kringle wreath is believed to have originated in Denmark and Austria in the 17th century. While many people might associate kringle wreaths with Christmas — and Santa Claus (aka Kris Kringle) — the two are not actually related. Instead, in this case, the word “kringle” comes from a Scandinavian word used to describe circles or rings, or even a type of large twisted pretzel also popular in the region.
Make it even better: Warm your kringle wreath slightly in the oven or microwave and then serve it in large, generous portions. Pair it with fresh berries and a hot cup of coffee or tea — the warmth of the drink will contrast beautifully with the flaky pastry.
A tongue-twisting pastry if there ever was one, rugelach — pronounced “ROO-guh-lahkh” — is a classic Jewish dessert that morphed and evolved over time in countries like Poland, Hungary, and Russia, and has since spread all over the world.
The tender, flaky pastry dough for rugelach typically contains flour plus some combination of cream cheese, butter, or sour cream. Small balls of the dough are rolled thin, topped with apricot or raspberry preserves, chopped walnuts or pecans, sugar, cinnamon — and sometimes chocolate chips — and then rolled back up to create a shape almost like a mini croissant. This century’s old technique is actually where the pastry’s name comes from: “Rugelach” is a variation of a Yiddish term meaning “little twists,” the perfect description for this regal pastry.
Make it even better: Although rugelach are technically a pastry, many people think of them as cookies and will eat them in the same way, sometimes even dipping them in warm coffee or melted chocolate or caramel sauces for an extra layer of flavor.
Picture a flat, rolled croissant topped with a sweet, fruity filling, and you have a pretty good idea just how delightful, and tasty, a kiffle can be.
This Eastern European pastry, which is also sometimes dubbed a “Hungarian cookie,” consists of a flaky pastry dough that’s typically topped with some sort of fruit preserve (apricot and raspberry are favorite choices) plus a fine dusting of ground walnuts or pecans. The dough is then rolled into a crescent or pinwheel shape and baked until golden brown. Some recipes also call for adding cream cheese to the dough, which can give the kiffle a rich, tangy flavor that pairs beautifully with fruits and nuts.
Make it even better: These light, delicate pastries are great at room temperature or slightly warmed. Stock up because they disappear quickly, especially when paired with a bright floral green tea or citrusy cup of Earl Grey.
This old-school Eastern European pastry hails from the Balkan region, specifically Croatia and Slovenia. It may look like a simple loaf of marbled bread to the untrained eye, but, in reality, creating povitica — pronounced “po-va-teets-sa” — is actually a labor of love.
To make each of the intricately patterned loaves, sweet yeast-filled bread dough is rolled thin and then topped with some sort of filling. Options range from finely ground nuts and seasonal spices to sugar and cocoa powder to chunks of fresh fruit, such as apples or dried cranberries. Once the filling is in place, the dough is then meticulously hand-rolled back into loaf shape and baked to golden perfection.
Make it even better: Cut povitica in thin slices so you can see the beautiful swirls baked within the loaf. Warm each slice slightly before serving — you might even toast it — and top with a small dollop of whipped cream, butter, or cream cheese.
Similar to povitica, babka is another filled pastry shaped into a loaf. However, unlike that Balkan treat, babka is made with a sweet, brioche-like yeast dough, and its filling tends to be even sweeter, consisting of some variation of chocolate, spices, nut spread, and sometimes fruit preserves.
To make the classic Jewish treat, the dough is rolled into a large rectangle and topped with filling. It’s then rolled into a log and twisted many times, creating a distinct swirl pattern within the mixture of dough and filling. Babkas follow a classic recipe and technique that have been handed down from generation to generation. That history even led to the pastry’s name: The word “babka” means “grandmother” in Polish and Ukrainian.
Make it even better: Some babkas are topped with streusel, crumb topping, or a drizzle of icing, making them even more delectable. The dough itself can also be flavored — there are cinnamon and pumpkin spice babkas, along with wonderful chocolate babkas.
Whether you’re looking for a classic French-inspired breakfast, a fluffy treat you can pair with some dark chocolate, or an unexpected vehicle for your turkey and avocado or chicken salad sandwich, croissants should be your go-to choice.
Although these iconic pastries are typically associated with all things Parisian, croissants actually got their start in Austria, where they were inspired by another crescent-shaped baked good known as kipferl. To make a croissant, prepared dough is topped with a layer of butter and then rolled and folded over and over, creating countless thin, delicate layers of crispy, buttery goodness.
Make it even better: While delicious on their own, croissants also pair with a wide variety of toppings and fillings, including chocolate (“pain au chocolat” in France), jams and jellies, and custard. The pastry is also great with savory ingredients, such as bacon and eggs, smoked salmon, and especially ham and cheese, which can be tucked into the croissant before it’s baked to golden perfection.
While cinnamon rolls might seem as American as apple pie, the beloved ooey, gooey pastry staple actually got its start in Sweden! There, the local variation is called kanelbullar and packs added cardamom in its dough.
You may have seen someone in your family making cinnamon rolls before, and maybe even sampled a bite or two of the amazing raw, sugar-coated dough (thanks, Grandma!), but if not, here’s how they’re made. Freshly made dough is rolled out, dusted with cinnamon and brown sugar, and then rolled back into a log, which is then cut into individual slices and baked. Sticky buns — a close cousin of the cinnamon roll — are made in much the same way but have the added indulgence of all that sticky, nutty caramelized topping.
Make it even better: While they’re good at room temp, cinnamon rolls really shine when served warm — either fresh out of the oven or reheated briefly in the oven or microwave. Add a dollop of butter once they are warm and pair them with coffee or tea. Classic, and amazing!
Hot cross buns
While hot cross buns are today considered an Easter essential — the cross on top of the pastry represents the crucifix — these sweet, spice-filled buns aren’t actually the first baked good to sport similar markings. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans also all reportedly placed cross-like marks on top of certain types of bread they made, in each case honoring a variety of different cultural deities they worshiped. The Greeks even called these ceremonial cakes “bouns,” the origin of the English word “bun.”
Today, bakers work spices and dried fruits into the dough for hot cross buns as they prepare the confection. The cross marking is then added either directly to the bun before baking or etched on top with icing once the finished bun has baked and cooled.
Make it even better: For an even richer and tastier pastry, split your hot cross bun in half, toast it, add a generous smear of butter, and then top with your favorite jam or marmalade.
Surprise: Danishes aren’t from Denmark! The pastry actually originated in Austria (where it’s called wienerbrød, or “Vienna bread”). It was then brought to Copenhagen in the mid-19th century, when the Danes adopted it as their own.
Danishes are created with a technique similar to that used for croissants: Dough is topped with butter and then folded and rolled out over and over, creating layer after wonderful layer of flaky yumminess. Some sort of fruit or cheese filling is added on top of small sections of the dough, which is then shaped to hold the filling in and baked until golden brown and set, creating a luxurious pastry packed with contrasting textures and flavors.
Make it even better: Danishes aren’t just for breakfast. They also make an incredible option for brunches, family meal desserts, and even an indulgent late-night snack.
Leave it to the French to give us yet another classic pastry that makes our list of favorites — this time, the simple, flaky palmier, which is known for its incredible caramelized layers.
Also sometimes referred to as “palm leaves” or “elephant ears,” the palmier is essentially made from just a couple of ingredients: a yeast-free version of a puff pastry-like dough and sugar. The dough is rolled into a rectangle, coated with a generous layer of sugar, and then folded back from both sides so it meets in the middle. Depending on the exact technique, the resulting pastry might resemble a heart, a butterfly, or even a pair of glasses. As the pastry bakes, the sugar caramelizes, creating the unique deep, rich, toffee-like flavor for which the palmier is famous.
Make it even better: Eat palmiers on their own like cookies or pair them with fresh whipped cream and a drizzle of melted chocolate for an impressive dessert you can quickly put together and serve to visiting friends or family.
Last, but certainly not least, on our list comes the turnover. This beloved folded and filled pastry has been enjoyed in some form or another by cultures all around the globe for centuries.
Turnovers are typically made with some type of rich puff pastry or shortcrust pastry dough. But what really makes them special is the filling, which might contain succulent apples, cherries, berries, jam, or even tart, luscious cream cheese. Many bakeries also carry savory meat, veggie, and cheese-filled turnovers. The only clear rule for what goes inside is that it needs to perfectly complement the buttery richness of the baked pastry dough.
Fun fact: The Latin American empanada is essentially a spicy, savory version of a turnover.
Make it even better: Top sweet turnovers with a simple icing or glaze, a dash of added cinnamon, or even a spoonful of fresh whipped cream before eating. Warming the turnover before you serve it makes the dough even flakier.