BY ALLIE LAZAR
While every nation in South America has a distinct culinary tradition, shaped by local crops and waves of immigration, there is one element that unites them all: a serious sweet tooth from South American desserts.
It’s no surprise that these countries love dessert: this is, after all, where cane sugar comes from. Brazil is the world’s leading producer of the stuff, and Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru have a long history of growing sugar cane along the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines.
If you travel to South America, the array of unusual South American desserts can be daunting… but delicious. Here are a few iconic sweets to add to your must-eat list!
1. Chocotorta: Argentina
In the United States we celebrate birthday parties with cake, but in Argentina, it’s always the chocotorta, or “chocolate cake.” Its popularity is, in part, due to its simplicity: A tub of dulce de leche, a tub of queso crema (something like a hybrid of sour cream and cream cheese), store-bought wafer-like chocolate cookies, and brewed coffee. (Kahlua is optional if you’re after something a bit boozy.)
The chocolate wafer cookies are quickly dipped in coffee to soften and placed in a baking dish. The queso crema and dulce de leche are mixed together to form a creamy filling, and spread on top of the cookies. Then, a second layer of soaked cookies is added on top, more dulce de leche filling, more cookies, more dulce de leche, and so on. Stick the ice-box chocolate cake in the fridge to chill for a few hours, cut, and serve. It’s one of those simple South American desserts that ends up craveable, offering the perfect ratio of cookie to dulce de leche cream filling and a subtle hint of coffee flavor.
2. Helados de Paila: Ecuador
Ecuador’s version of ice cream, helado de paila, dates back to 1896 when 16-year-old Rosalía Suárez, of Ibarra, Ecuador, harvested ice and snow down from a nearby peak. More than a century later, it’s still made as she first prepared it: A large copper wok is placed in a basin over ice and straw, and filled with concentrated fruit juices (for sorbet) or a cream-milk-egg mixture (for ice cream). Then, the liquid is continuously stirred and spun with a wooden spoon until it begins to freeze, harden, and create a pliable, soft consistency. Street vendors will prepare the helado de paila to order and serve immediately, while most ice cream shops make it in advance and store in low temperature freezers. Popular flavors include blackberry, mango, chocolate, coconut, pineapple, tamarind, passion fruit, and unusual local fruits including guanábana (soursop) and sour naranjilla (which looks like a baby orange, but has a markedly acidic flavor). The original Doña Rosalia’s ice cream parlor is still owned by the Suárez family in Ibarra.
3. Brigadeiro: Brazil
When Jamie Oliver dissed Brazil’s most beloved confection, the country erupted in just as much outrage as it did when the soccer team was humiliated at the World Cup. Similar to a truffle, this ultra-sweet two-biter is made from sweetened condensed milk heated with cocoa powder to form a paste, then mixed with cold butter and rolled into small balls—which are then rolled in toppings like brown sugar, sprinkles, coconut shavings, or almonds. They’re often eaten at birthday parties.
4. Suspiro Limeño: Peru
At a Peruvian restaurant, it would be unusual not to find suspiro limeño featured on the dessert menu. This classic postre dates back to 18th-century Peru and translates to “sigh of a woman from Lima.” It’s made from a creamy manjar blanco caramel base, topped with a huge dollop of Italian meringue perfumed with port and cinnamon, and served in individually portioned glasses. Sugar atop sugar, it’s only for those with an insatiable sweet tooth.
5. Chajá: Uruguay
Uruguayan food might not be known internationally, but this cake certainly should be. Named after a native Uruguayan bird, chajá starts from a sponge cake base and a peach syrup that’s spiked with a few tablespoons of rum. Add on layers of meringue, fresh peaches, whipped cream, and dulce de leche, then smother the whole cake with mounds of whipped cream and top it off with more sweet crisp meringue and peaches. The sugary cake is light and fluffy and while there’s a delicate trace of peach and rum flavor, the whipped cream, dulce de leche, and meringue definitely star.
6. Canjica de Milho: Brazil
Every year in June during the annual corn harvest, Brazilians chow down on canjica de milho, a sweet, thick corn gruel dessert made with hominy (whole white maize kernels), sugar, milk, and often cinnamon, sweetened condensed milk, and peanuts. It’s a dish mostly found in southern Brazil, which originated within African slave and Afro-Brazilian communities during the late 17th century. The hominy soaks overnight before simmering with the milk until it becomes very thick and creamy, with a texture reminiscent of rice pudding.
7. Pastelitos: Argentina
Generally eaten to celebrate Independence Day, pastelitos are a point of Argentine patriotic pride. Flaky puff pastry is filled with sweet quince or sweet potato paste and formed into a flower or pinwheel shape, then deep fried in lard or sunflower oil until golden brown. It’s finished off with sugary glaze, and topped with festive sprinkles.
8. Picarones: Peru
Imagine the lovechild of a spice cake, a pumpkin pie, and a beignet, and you’ll get an idea of Peru’s picarones, which date back to Peru’s colonial days. Potatoes are everywhere in Peru—more than 3,800 varieties are grown there—so even the desserts are papa-packed. In this case, camote, a type of sweet potato, is mixed with macre, a type of squash, to form a silky purée. It’s combined with flour, sugar, yeast, and anise, formed into a round doughnut shape and deep fried. The light and airy sweets are then drizzled in chancaca (chopped raw sugar dissolved in hot water until it forms a molasses-like syrup), and served immediately.
9. Chilenitos: Chile
As one kind of those South American desserts, these sweets may not be as popular as they once were, but still make appearances at almost every old school bakery and on tables during holidays. Manjar is spread and sandwiched between two flat cracker-like biscuits before it is covered in sweet and fluffy meringue for a bite that’s creamy, sugary, and crunchy all at once.
10. Dulce de Guayaba: Paraguay
Paraguay has its share of unusual dishes—like empanadas served between two pieces of white bread, and chipa bread made with manioc flour and cheese—but my favorite is the dulce de guayaba. Boiled guava is puréed with sugar and water (and often pectin) to form a thick sweet-tart gel that can be sliced and served with a cracker or piece of semi-hard white cheese. It’s exactly what cheese course dessert lovers should be eating for the postre.