20 Must-Try Traditional Mexican Desserts

So you want to embark on a culinary tour of Mexico but can’t because of travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

Fear not because you can taste their cuisine without reaching their shores. Indulge your sweet tooth by getting to know their classic desserts and learning how to make them yourself.

Postres, traditional Mexican desserts, include flans, churros (fried dough strips), buñuelos (fritters), cajetas (caramelized candies), plátanos fritos (fried bananas), pan de elote (sweet corn cake), bionicos (fruit salad), and tres leches (sponge cake with three kinds of milk), among many others.

For a more detailed journey into the realm of Mexican desserts, continue reading. Share recipes from various culinary sources with family and friends. (Reserve the mega-spicy ones for enemies.)

A History of the Mexican Dessert

Mexico’s rich culinary tradition originates from thousands of years of history. According to Aztec History, authentic Mexican food may have started with the Mayan Indians, who were nomadic hunters and gatherers.

The Mexicas, subjects of the Aztec empire, domesticated bees for honey and collected algae (called tecuitlatl) from Lake Texcoco to make bread and desserts with cheese.

Maize (aka corn or mealies) was the Aztec empire’s staple grain, whose different formats feature in both savory and sweet dishes.

Mexico has over 60 varieties of maize. From maize, bean paste, squash, pumpkin seeds, and tropical fruits came the sweet concoctions we know today. 

Indigenous fruits include limes, oranges, pineapples, mangoes, papayas, and coconuts. Herbs, like cilantro and epazote, and the nopal cactus were also used in many dishes.

The Aztecs were also responsible for the ingredients of the modern-day salsa (the Spanish term for sauce): avocados, chipotle, tomatoes, and tomatillos. The last ingredient is a small, green, tomato-like fruit used to make green salsa.

Influence From Other Nations

In the 16th century, the Spaniards—inspired by European neighbors and subjects from their occupied territories—introduced dairy products (from the livestock they brought with them), garlic, wheat, fruits from a temperate climate, herbs, and spices to Mexican cuisine.

The Spanish religious whipped up the original versions of now traditional Mexican desserts, such as cajetas (caramelized candies), buñuelos (fritters), and liqueur rompope (eggnog-like drink). 

The French-supported Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, who ruled Mexico between 1864 and 1867, injected French flavor into Mexican cuisine. An example of a French-inspired Mexican bread is bolillo or pan francés. 

Arrivals from West Africa, South America, the Caribbean, France, and Portugal also contributed to the diversity of Mexican cuisine.

An article in The Culture Trip reports on the lesser-known history of the Afro-Mexicans, one of Mexico’s ethnic minorities, and their huge impact on Mexican food.

Because of them, Mexican desserts have the added richness of ingredients like plantains from the Canary Islands, peanuts, and tropical fruits like taro, malanga, cassava, and sweet potatoes.

The Origin of Mexican Chocolate

Mexican Chocolate Dessert
Mexican Chocolate

Chocolate comes from the beans of the Mexican cacao tree. In the mid-1300s, Aztec influence brought cashews, peanuts, honey, salt, chili peppers, sweet potatoes, and chocolate to Mayan desserts.

Mexicas didn’t use sugar on their chocolate drinks. They added cornmeal, peppers, and spices instead.

The word chocolate comes from the Aztec/Mayan xocolatl, a bitter upper-class drink. Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conqueror, substituted sugar and vanilla for spices. Thus was born the sweet chocolate atole.

Classifications of Mexican Desserts

Mexican Polvorones, Traditional Cookies
Mexican Polvorones, Traditional Cookies

Geographical Distinction

Dessert presentations vary depending on the region. For instance, locals from Guadalajara flavor desserts with lemon juice, molasses, raisins, and anise.

In tropical south Mexico, the staple dessert ingredient is the banana. In Oaxaca, they flavor puddings with pineapples and chickpeas.

Categories

According to Fandom and Wikipedia, Mexican desserts are categorized into cakes, puddings, cookies, hot fudge sauces, sweet tamales (cornmeal dough wraps), polvorones (crumbly Spanish shortbread), and sweet tacos (folded fried tortillas).

The tortilla, Mexico’s staple food, is made of flour or corn. The presentation of a tortilla differs depending on the section of the country it came from.

Those not familiar with Mexican cuisine may think that the tortilla is meant only to be savory and used as a main dish. It is, however, also used in desserts and is therefore sweet. It can also be crunchy, soft, or chewy.

Desserts called dulce (meaning sweet) are usually puddings. Types of dulces include pineapple, banana, coconut, almond, sweet potato, and bread. An example of the last one is dulce de pan.

Many puddings are made interesting with sherry or other sweet white wines.

Tortas are cakes made from cantaloupes, carrots, and chickpeas.

Helados are frozen desserts like sorbets or ice cream. An example is the vino tinto made from sweet red wine. Helado flavors include watermelon, mango, and hazelnut.

1. Mexican Candy

Traditional Mexican Candies
Traditional Mexican Candies

Bombones are caramel candy-like desserts swathed in milk. An example is yemitas, made of boiled egg yolks and sugar, served dipped in sticky syrup.

Major Ingredients

  • Milk (leche)—the main fixture in capirotada (bread pudding with nuts and raisins), tres leches (sponge cakes sweetened with frosting or syrup and sprinkled with toppings), caramelized flans, wedding cakes, and cheesecakes.
  • Chocolate—used for candies, drinks, sundaes, cakes, chocolate-cinnamon combos, frozen desserts, and savory meat dishes. Gourmet claims that Mexican and Central American expeditions brought chocolate to Europe. The indigenous chocolate drink was bitter and spiced with cinnamon. The Spaniards sweetened it with sugar, vanilla, and milk—the precursor to the modern hot chocolate drink.
  • Vanilla—the main ingredient in many desserts, especially ice cream. It comes from the fruit pod of an indigenous orchid. Natives harvest the pod and dry it out for months to extract vanillin, its strong flavor.
  • Fruits—extensively used in desserts, such as apple enchiladas, bananas foster, spiced-rum chimichangas, and fruit-filled nachos. Fruits are also used to stuff sweet pastries, like churros (deep-fried sugar and cinnamon-sprinkled fritters). Street vendors sell fruits sprinkled with hot red chili powder.

Much as we would like to publish recipes for all the dishes mentioned here, space is at a premium. So please refer to recipe links for desserts without procedures. Recipes come from various sources for diversity.

2. Churros (Fritters)

Mexican Churros and Hot Chocolate
Mexican Churros and Hot Chocolate

Although thought to be of Spanish origin, churros are considered ubiquitous Mexican fare, as it is found on typical calles (streets) throughout Mexico.

Many argue that they originated in China. The most popular churro is the Spanish rolled strip, though there is a stuffed version called the churro relleno. Fillings include vanilla, chocolate, or cajeta (caramel).

See this recipe for churros filled with dulce de leche (a confection made with sweet condensed milk) from Tablespoon Kitchens.

3. Plátano Frito (Fried Banana)

Found throughout Mexico, but most plentiful in coastal regions, these bananas or plantains are pan-fried in butter, dusted with cinnamon, and dribbled with condensed milk.

Patacónes or tostónes are made from unripe green plantains; tajadas, from ripe yellow ones.

Plátanos are served both with main dishes and cooked rice at lunchtime and as desserts. A variation of the topping is sour cream or cheese instead of condensed milk.

See the Mexican Food Journal’s recipe for plátanos con lechera (bananas with sweetened condensed milk).

4. Flan

This caramel custard is an all-time favorite. See its history below.

Ingredients:

  • one 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • two 13-ounce cans evaporated milk 
  • 1.5 cups sugar
  • 6 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Prepare six ramekins and a baking dish to hold them.
  2. Heat a pan over medium flame. Once warm, add one cup of sugar. Stir constantly until it becomes brown and turns into caramel. 
  3. Add 2-3 tablespoons of caramel to each ramekin while tilting it and swirling the caramel to cover the entire base. If the caramel hardens, reheat and repeat.
  4. Whisk the eggs.
  5. Add milk, ½ cup sugar, and vanilla while blending to a smooth mixture.
  6. Pour the custard into each caramel-lined ramekin. Fill the baking dish (glass or ceramic) with 1 to 2 inches of warm water. Place the ramekins in it. 
  7. Bake for 45 minutes. The flan is ready when you stick a knife in and it comes out clean.
  8. Transfer the dish from the oven to the fridge and leave for an hour.
  9. To serve, flip each ramekin onto a serving plate so the caramel will ooze over the entire custard.

5. Bionico (Fruit Salad)

This fruit cocktail from Guadalajara consists of chopped fruits (apples, bananas, strawberries, papaya, and cantaloupe) topped with pecans, raisins, coconut, granola, and sweet cream. Invented by a street vendor in the early 1990s as a breakfast meal, it is sold at juice bars, ice cream parlors, and by hawkers.

Recipe by Nicole Burkholder of Simple & Seasonal.

Ingredients:

  • Your choice of fruit, but she recommends these:
  • 3 sliced bananas
  • 3 peeled and diced kiwis
  • 3 cored and diced apples
  • 1 pound sliced grapes 
  • 1 pound sliced strawberries
  • ½ cup dried cranberries or raisins
  • coconut flakes

Sweet cream components:

  • 1 pint sour cream 
  • one 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • one 12-ounce can evaporated milk
  • 16 ounces plain yogurt or vanilla
  • ¼ cup honey

Instructions:

  1. Mix cut fruit in a large bowl.
  2. Blend the sweet cream ingredients in a separate bowl. Aim for consistency thicker than milk but thinner than yogurt.
  3. Sweeten the cream with honey if preferred.
  4. Cool the fruit and cream in the fridge until serving time.
  5. Serve fruit in a bowl, pour sweet cream over it, and top with coconut.

6. Pan or Pastel de Elote (Sweet Corn Cake)

Elote means corncob. Although pan means bread, this sugared dessert is a cross between a cake and a pudding. It is served as a cake slice or an individual cupcake. The corn-condensed milk combination lends it a custard-like texture. See this recipe from the Hispanic Kitchen.

7. Cajeta

Mexican Cajeta Caramel Sauce
Mexican Cajeta Caramel Sauce

Cajeta is a type of dulce de leche. The Spanish phrase dulce de leche means sweet milk. The French version is called “confiture de lait.” This thick, viscous, creamy, caramelized confection is made from condensed milk. Although considered a Mexican dessert, it is found worldwide, especially in Latin American countries. Its consistency ranges from a sauce to a soft, chewy candy.

Recipe from Baking a Moment. 

Prep time: 5 minutes

Cook time: 2 hours

Ingredients:

  • one 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • Toppings include hot fudge, lemon curd, chocolate glaze, creme Anglaise, and apple butter

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 425°F.
  2. Pour the milk into a baking dish or pie plate. Cover securely with foil. 
  3. Put the covered dish in a large pan filled with one inch of hot water.  
  4. Bake in the oven for two hours, or until you get the color and viscosity you want.
  5. Get rid of lumps by whisking the dulce de leche. It will get thicker as it cools.
  6. Serve drizzled with your choice of topping.

8. Cocada (Coconut Bark)

Cocada is the sweet, chewy egg and shredded coconut concoction from the state of Colima. The traditional version is oven-baked to bite-sized golden brown chunks and served at room temperature on aluminum trays or in baskets. They are usually sold by vendors at the beach, but can also be bought from markets nationwide.

The traditional ingredients are grated coconut, eggs, sugar, and water, but modern variants include vanilla, almond extract, and other flavors. Sometimes, food coloring is added to cocadas to reflect the flag colors of various Latin American countries. See Marcela Valladolid’s recipe from the Food Network. 

9. Tres Leches (Three Kinds of Milk)

Plate and fork with tres leeches piece of cake
Tres Leches Cake

This creamy sponge cake contains three types of dairy: cream, evaporated milk, and condensed milk. Hence, the name. Tres Leches have become so prized that in 2003, Häagen-Dazs introduced a special tres leches edition to their ice cream lineup.

The dessert’s origin is under contention. One theory claims that the dessert became popular due to the Nestle Corporation’s marketing ploy to sell more milk in 1940s Mexico. They printed the recipe on the cans of their condensed and evaporated milk.

Another theory says that the dessert is an offshoot of the liquid-soaked cakes from medieval Europe that Spaniards brought to Mexico.

This procedure is from All Recipes. Their version has three layers: cake, filling, and topping. They used four types of milk for the filling and topping: evaporated milk, condensed milk, whole milk, and heavy cream.

Ingredients:

  • one 14-ounce can sweet condensed milk
  • one 12-ounce can evaporated milk
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1.5 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ cup unsalted margarine or butter
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 5 large eggs
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Cream components:

  • 1.5 cups heavy whipped cream
  • another cup of white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. Take a 9×13-inch baking pan, grease it, and flour it.
  3. Sift the baking powder and flour. Set aside.
  4. Whip the sugar or butter/margarine until it is fluffy.
  5. Then, add eggs and vanilla extract. Blend well.
  6. Then, mix in the flour combo into the butter mix gradually at 2 tablespoons. Blend well.
  7. Pour batter into the pan.
  8. Bake at 350°F for half an hour.
  9. Check the consistency of the cake by piercing it using a fork several times.
  10. Mix the three types of milk, then pour it over the cake.
  11. Blend the whipped cream, the second cup of sugar, as well as the second teaspoon of vanilla until it is thick. Spread it over the cake.
  12. Put the cake in the fridge for a few minutes before serving.

10. Marranitos or Puerquitos (Pig-Shaped Gingerbread Cookies)

Marranito means pig; puerquito means piglet. Both refer to various soft pan dulce (sweet bread) shaped into pigs and flavored with ginger. They are made with:

  • Eggs
  • Baking powder
  • Baking soda
  • Flour
  • Molasses
  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Butter
  • Allspice
  • Cinnamon
  • Ginger
  • Buttermilk

Baked until golden brown, marranitos are best served with hot chocolate or milk.

See this recipe from Esteban Castillo’s cookbook, Chicano Eats.

11. Capirotada

This oven-baked pudding is made with old bread, cinnamon, brown sugar, syrup, peanuts (or pine nuts), fruits, and topped with cheese. Fruits used include apples, bananas, coconuts, raisins, and dates.

The Moors and the Jews indulged in the capirotada way before the Spaniards did, though their version was savory. It was transformed into a sweet dish when it arrived in the New World. 

Mexicans serve this dessert during Lent, particularly on Good Friday, because it holds special significance to the Passion of Christ.

The bread symbolizes his body; the syrup, his blood; the raisins, the nails that bound him to the cross; and the cheese, the shroud that wrapped his remains.

See this recipe from Yvette Marquez-Sharpnack’s cookbook, Muy Bueno: Three Generations of Authentic Mexican Flavor.

12. Jericalla

Though named after Jérica, the Spanish birthplace of one of the nuns who invented this after-dinner snack, the jericalla originated from Guadalajara.

This gelatinous flan, which tastes like custard, is flavored with vanilla and cinnamon. See Claire and Rosemary’s recipe at Authentic Food Quest.

13. Carlota de Limón (Key Lime Icebox Cake)

With alternating layers of crumbled Maria cookies and cream (combined milk and lime juice), this cake needs no baking. Instead, the cream is frozen to ice cream consistency.

Carlotas are served during Christmas and Easter. See this recipe from Nancy Lopez-McHugh’s Mexican Made Meatless blog.

14. Biscochito

New Mexico’s first Spanish colonists invented the biscochito, the state’s official cookie. It is made of flour, baking powder, milk, butter, sugar, cinnamon, and anise.

The most popular versions are from the state’s north and south regions. Immigrants brought variants from their home countries.

Mexicans have biscochitos with coffee or milk for breakfast but also serve them during celebrations and festivals. See this recipe from Allison’s Some the Wiser blog.

15. Nieve de Garrafa

This Mexican sorbet sans dairy is made of mashed fresh fruit, ice, salt, and sugar. Nieve means snow. Garrafa refers to the ice and salt-lined steel tubs where the sorbet is churned.

Flavors include pitaya, mamey, and flor de Jamaica. See this recipe from Irene Arita’s blog, My Slice of Mexico.

Those who prefer ice cream, check out Mexican fried ice cream (deep-fried balls of crispy coated ice cream flavored with cinnamon and drizzled with honey) and chocolate/cinnamon ice-cream sandwiches spiced with vanilla and cloves. 

16. Coyota

The term literally means female coyote and refers to a female of Indian-Spanish heritage, and a cookie from Hermosillo, Sonora, invented in the 19th century. 

Made from flour dough, coyotas are filled with any of these: dates, figs, peaches, pineapples, guavas, caramel, or piloncillo (unrefined Mexican sugar).

Top them off with ice cream or dip them in milk, then serve with coffee or tea. 

Mexican Recipes show how to make coyotas.

17. Pay de Queso

This is the Mexican version of the ancient Greek cheesecake. Flavors include strawberry, chocolate, and limón. Find them in bakeries and abarrotes (groceries). See Aurora McBee’s recipe at Just a Pinch.

18. Chongos Zamoranos

Chongo means curd. Zamora is the town where this dessert originated. It is made with egg yolks, raw milk, and rennet (curdled milk from calves). Add cinnamon and sugar to flavor this rubbery, sponge-like dessert. Top it off with sugar, syrup, dried fruits, or liquor.

Chongos are prepared in clay pots called cazuelas. Their popularity led them to be packaged in cans. See Jose Luis’s recipe at Gourmet Sleuth.

19. Camotes (Sweet Potatoes)

A crucial part of Mexican cuisine, camotes come in the form of stand-alone snacks or sweet puddings hawked by street vendors.

Whistles from the steam that cooks the camotes announce their presence. Serve them with condensed milk or jam

This recipe for camotes enmielados (candied sweet potatoes) is from Mely Martinez from Mexico in My Kitchen.

Ingredients:

  • two one-pound sweet potatoes
  • 1 cup of water
  • half a cinnamon stick
  • 8 ounces of brown sugar or piloncillo (raw sugar cane cone)

Instructions:

  1. Rinse the potatoes. No need to peel them because their fiber-rich skins are edible. Place them whole in a large pan.
  2. Add the cinnamon stick, piloncillo, and water. Be careful with the piloncillo when it turns into thick syrup because it can get scalding hot.
  3. Cover and cook over medium heat for 25 minutes. Test with a knife. The camotes are ready when tender on the outside but firm in the center. 
  4. Cut the cooked potatoes in half. 
  5. Serve with syrup or milk.

20. Las Alegrías (Amaranth Candies)

One of Mexico’s oldest snacks, the alegría (meaning happiness), is an oblong or circular dessert made of toasted amaranth seeds, honey, and sugar.

Variations have chocolate, nut, and raisin additions. Alegrías are shaped into animals, flowers, and skulls to celebrate the Day of the Dead.

This recipe is from Bob’s Red Mill

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 10 minutes

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup amaranth
  • ¼ cup pumpkin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon blackstrap molasses

Instructions:

  1. Heat the amaranth in a covered pan with a wide base over medium-high heat, 1 tablespoon at a time, for half a minute or until most of the grains have popped.
  2. Put the popped amaranth in a bowl. Add pumpkin seeds.
  3. Medium-heat sugar in a deep pot until the granules melt. Add molasses. While the molasses are boiling, stir in the sugar.
  4. Remove from heat. Add the amaranth and pumpkin seeds. Stir well.
  5. Using a spatula, spread the mixture evenly onto a 9×9-inch pan lined with wax paper.
  6. Cut into circular bits or the shapes mentioned above. Allow them to cool before serving.

Mexican Foods That Didn’t Originate From Mexico

Foods associated with Mexican cuisine, but came from somewhere else include:

The Flan

Gourmet says there was a time in ancient Rome when the Romans had too many eggs. So they asked the Greeks to invent new preparation methods and recipes using eggs.

Out of these emerged a custard dish that later became the flan. The original was savory, but the Spanish prepared theirs with caramelized sugar.

The Moors added almonds and citrus to their version. Christopher Columbus brought the flan to Mexico.

Doritos

Cut and fried from tortillas and flavored with a Mexican spice, doritos were first introduced in Disneyland’s “Casa de Fritos” in the 1950s.

Chimichanga

Chimichanga is a deep-fried burrito common in Tex-Mex and Southwestern US cuisine was said to have resulted from a burrito that was accidentally dropped into a deep fryer. This event allegedly happened in the United States, not Mexico. 

Tex-Mex refers to the fusion of Texan, Mexican, and American cuisine. Examples are quesadillas, burritos, and fajitas.

Quesadillas

Despite being considered quintessentially Mexican, quesadillas are actually hybrids: part-Spanish (cheese, meat, and shredded lettuce), part-Native American (corn tortilla), and part indigenous (chili pepper sauce).

Resources for Traditional Mexican Desserts

Blogs

Cookbooks

Culinary Sites

Conclusion

Mexican cuisine goes beyond tortillas, enchiladas, and tacos. The food selection in Mexico is much more diverse than what’s available in the US, which is either watered down or fused with other cuisines.

More than their savory fare, Mexicans have a mind-boggling array of desserts with colorful histories to match.

Dip into their repertoire of fritters, cookies, cakes, puddings, fruit cocktails, sorbets, and chocolate concoctions in the form of pastries, candies, drinks, and ice cream.

We hope this article gives you a peek into the delights of Mexican desserts and possibly inspire you to make one yourself.

Sources

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