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Just as the landscape, culture, and customs change from one Croatian region to the next, so do the Croatian desserts. From deep down in the Mediterranean south all the way to the fertile plains in the Danube region, the map of Croatian desserts is as impressive and plentiful as the country itself.
- Desserts in Zagreb and Central Croatia
- The wealth of desserts in Slavonia and the Danube region
- Desserts in Istria and Kvarner
- Gorski Kotar and Lika
- Mediterranean Influences on desserts in Dalmatia
After their first encounter with Croatia, most people are amazed to see just how much diversity there is in such a small country. For comparison, the total area is less than the size of West Virginia. The diversity in Croatia comes from its geography, mostly. However, the influences from bigger neighboring countries and their cultures (Italian, French, Hungarian, Austrian, Turkish) found their way to the sweet department, too.
Yet, the basis of traditional sweets is always similar. Their background can usually be traced to the very simple and modest recipes of our grandmas. They used what was available and abundant, ordinary ingredients like eggs, flour, fresh cream and cheese, seasonal fruit and nuts like apples or walnuts. The really fancy stuff was kept for rare special occasions, and experimenting began only after the tradition had been firmly established.
Although Zagreb and northwestern Croatia seems like a small and fairly compact area, things do get complicated. There are many little sub-regions with their special features: Zagorje, Međimurje, Prigorje, Moslavina, Podravina… Plenty of similarities, but also a lot of differences. A common trait is that many traditional desserts here include dairy products. And what the folks lacked in exclusive ingredients and spices, they compensated for with creativity and dedication.
Zagreb is another story. While rural areas based their sweet heritage on simplicity, the bourgeois class in Zagreb looked up to Vienna. The citizens of Zagreb greatly admired the more elaborate, fancy desserts. These two basically separate traditions – peasant food and culinary bourgeoisie – began to overlap at some point, to mutual benefit.
Many typical Zagreb dishes, as well as desserts, originally stem from Viennese cuisine. Gradually, they evolved into local variations, taking on a life and identity of their own. The ubiquitous strudels and dumplings with plums or apricots are definitive proof of the region’s Austrian-Hungarian heritage. A quaint little place with strudels and other old-school Zagreb desserts is the Jakšić pastry shop just off Kvaternik Square. In popular downtown pastry shops like Vincek and Cukeraj, you can try Zagreb’s signature cake modeled on the famous Sacher cake from Vienna. Local pastry masterminds even created a rich chocolate cake and named it after the famous historical figure – Jelačić torta.
Samobor and kremšnita
The little town of Sambor is home to one of the most famous Croatian desserts – kremšnita. Even though its variants are now a supermarket item all over Croatia, the original is something special. Protected and listed in the Register of Cultural Goods, the recipe was devised in the 1920s. It consists of two layers of puff pastry and fluffy custard cream in between. The U prolazu pastry shop and the Livadić café are the only two places with the authentic Samobor kremšnita on offer.
If you visit small town fairs, like the one in Samobor, have some traditional paprenjaci (pepper cookies) and medenjaci (honey cookies). Also, pancakes with walnuts in wine sauce from Samobor’s Gabreku 1929 restaurant are a must-try.
Zagorje and štrukli
Zagorski štrukli are the trademark of the Zagorje region. This handmade pillow-shaped dough with a filling of cottage cheese, eggs and cream is very versatile. Štrukli can easily be a starter, main course or dessert, either savory or sweet. The sweet version contains some sugar or even fruit, fresh cream on top and into the oven it goes. La Štruk in Zagreb is štrukli heaven, while the ones at the Esplanade hotel are an institution.
Međimurska gibanica is the flagship of Međimurje, one of the richest and most complex traditional Croatian desserts. Layers of phyllo dough are the basis of the gibanica, as always. Between those layers of dough? Almost everything they could find: cottage cheese, walnuts, apple, and poppy seeds. A meal on its own, indeed. The one in the sophisticated Mala hiža restaurant is to die for.
In almost all parts of continental Croatia, especially in the countryside, orehnjača (walnut roll, sometimes also called the orahnjača) and makovnjača (poppy seed roll) are standard. It seems that each region brought its own touch to this basically simple cake. Zlevanka is a simple pie from the northern regions, boasting a combination of cornflour and cottage cheese.
The east of Croatia is unfortunately not so prominent on the tourist map. It has, however, always been known as the place where people express their hospitality and friendship with food. (Think of Italian grandmas, but with heavier artillery.) Returning home with a few extra pounds is quite normal. On top of that, it has traditionally been the ground where vegetarians fear to tread (don’t worry, that’s changing now). The cuisine of Slavonia stands for a lot of meat and fat, hearty dishes and huge portions, but also a lot of comfort and happiness. The desserts follow the same principles. And they just keep coming, as almost every social gathering eventually turns into a festival of treats.
Croatian desserts in Slavonia come in all forms and sizes, from creamy and buttery cakes for festive occasions to simple little sweets. The genre of so-called wedding cookies actually served on a wider range of occasions, is true art. There are probably hundreds of them. Some of the most popular are breskvice, čupavci, oraščići, bećar šnite, vanili kifle, julka šnite, bijela pita…
Mađarica, the ultimate crowd pleaser and an icon among Croatian desserts is particularly good in this area. Its name literally means a Hungarian girl, but nobody knows its exact origin. Basically, it’s just layers of dough and chocolate buttercream. Seems simple, but takes a lot of effort to make. Women often compete whose mađarica will have more layers!
Salenjak is something like a Slavonian croissant. It is puff pastry wraps, filled with homemade jam. But, it has a secret ingredient: lard is used, not butter! Dessert with the funniest name is most probably poderane gaće – torn underpants. Imagine a doughnut, but flattened, very simple, and often found as a sweet snack sold at fairs. Bazlamača is an old-fashioned pie similar to zlevanka, but often topped with jam or walnuts.
Tačkrle or taške is a traditional take on ravioli: potato dough, filled with plum jam and topped with breadcrumbs in butter. Strudels, pies, and pancakes are an import, but nowhere are they as rich and mouthwatering as in east Croatia.
Istria is known as the region with a very developed gourmet scene, which goes hand in hand with its blooming tourism. This is the area where the Mediterranean meets the Alps, where Venetian and Austrian influence helped shape the local tradition into something unique. You can dine either in Michelin-star establishments or rural taverns and family farms. The style will be different, but the service and food will be equally good.
Pasta dishes are a staple of Istria, so a lot of desserts are pasta-like and pastry based. Kroštule are a simple treat, a perfect companion to a brandy at the end of a meal. In the past, these crispy deep-fried little ribbons were associated with the carnival season, but now they are here all year round. One of the most peculiar and delicious Croatian desserts can be found only around the town of Labin – labinski krafi. Basically, it’s a sweet ravioli with a heavenly filling of cheese, raisins, brandy or rum, lemon zest. You can have krafi served with a savory sauce. However, when they are meant as dessert, you get a decadent sweet sauce on top.
Povitica is a local version of the walnut roll, but made in the shape of a Bundt cake. It is a traditional part of the Easter menu. Pandišpanj is a simple, aromatic sponge cake with lemon and orange zest. One of those old-fashioned cakes that don’t capture attention with their looks, but certainly do with their taste. The same goes for bucolaj, a traditional sweet bread, perfect for breakfast, with milk.
International classics with local twists
There are adaptations of some international classics. Whipped zabajon comes from the Italian zabaglione, but it’s made with local Muscat wine. Likewise, the Austrian Schneenockerln (floating islands) became paradižet in Istria and Dalmatia, while it is šnenokle in the continental part. Restaurants will often serve their take on Italian favorites like tiramisu, panna cotta or semifreddo.
To add a very distinctive local touch to anything, including desserts – just add truffles! Istria is the truffle country of Croatia, so don’t say no if somebody offers a cake or ice cream with truffles. Most artisan shops will certainly have products like chocolate bars, pralines or spreads with truffles. The town of Lovran on the Kvarner Riviera is the capital of chestnuts. When they are in season, all will be full of chestnut-based desserts. The highlight is the traditional Marunada festival in October. To keep it simple, just grab the classic chestnut purée in the charming Kaokakao patisserie in Volosko or Opatija.
Kvarner islands do have their own peculiarities on the dessert menu, but they are not easy to find. Bukaleta is a great little off-the-beaten-track tavern on the island of Cres. They are specialists for lamb dishes, but also have two almost forgotten traditional desserts. Combine sheep suet, flour, dried figs, raisins, and spice, mash and boil them together and then slice the result – you get olito. Grašnjaci are little round fritters, filled with jam and walnuts. Sheep-farming has a long tradition on the islands, so skuta, sheep’s milk curd cheese is a common ingredient in homemade desserts. Another fine example of using fresh dairy is presnac from the island of Krk. It consists of pastry base and a sweet sheep’s milk cheese filling.
On the other hand, you won’t have any problems finding the famous rabska torta, the pride of Rab. This beautiful and original spiral-shaped cake made from ground almonds, flour, lard, maraschino, sugar, eggs, lemon, and orange zest goes back to the 12th century. The story goes that even Pope Alexander III enjoyed it greatly when he had some in 1177. The place to overdose on it is Kuća rabske torte (The House of Rab Cake) in the old town of Rab. Muštaćoni are Rab’s delicious native cookies, with almonds, chocolate, and mixed spice.
The mountain area dividing the coastline from the continental Croatia is a beautiful green wilderness full of forests and mountains. Not much farmed or populated, but certainly has its representatives on the list of Croatian desserts. Things do grow there, but mostly on their own, in the woods. This is the land of delicious wild berries and some of the best honey in the country, among other things. These two regions gave a significant contribution to the genre of strudels and pies.
Gorski Kotar is famous for its wild blueberry strudel. Try it in Bitoraj or Volta, well-known restaurants in Fužine.
The cuisine of Lika is very traditional and humble, everything revolves around meat, potato, cabbage, and dairy. Desserts pretty much follow the same direction, but don’t disappoint. Masnica is a rich pie filled with cream, cheese, onion, prosciutto, raisins – it can be either savory or sweet. Lički uštipci are delicious, deep-fried balls of dough (and joy!), similar to Dalmatian fritule. Sometimes the dough includes dried plums or raisins, but originally they’re just plain. Thousands of visitors flock to Plitvice Lakes, but Plitvice strudel has its fans, too. Triangle-shaped, with a bit thicker pastry, it has a rich filling that can include cottage cheese, apples, walnuts, sour cherries, or poppy seed. Lička kuća restaurant, inside the national park, offers an authentic version of cheesecake. Basa, a very local version of creamy soft cheese, goes into it.
On the Dalmatian Coast, you’ve reached the genuine Mediterranean. A lot of olive oil, aromatic herbs, figs, almonds, oranges, lemons, carob… It’s all there. Obviously, Dalmatia shares a lot of basic recipes and procedures with the rest of the Mediterranean basin. The Italian influence is quite strong because, throughout history, the Venetian Republic and Italy ruled large parts of Dalmatia. Yet, every town and every island is also proud of its authentic culinary heritage. One thing almost all Croatian desserts there have in common is a lot of pleasant, seductive aromas typical for the Adriatic.
The little balls of joy you often see at street food stalls are fritule. Simple round fritters aromatized with brandy were once a staple of any festive season. But since they are easy to make and irresistible, they are now here all the time. On the other hand, sirnica (pinca is its continental counterpart) is still traditionally prepared only for Easter. It’s a simple sweet bread, with the wonderful aroma of lemon zest and rum, or brandy. On the more exotic side, baškotini are one of the best-kept secrets of the island of Pag. These toasted biscuits, perfect for dipping in latte, have been baked in St. Margaret’s Convict in Pag for centuries.
When it comes to small everyday cookies, the island of Korčula is the champion. Its most famous sweet treats are cukarin, klašun, and amareta. Unusually shaped, crisp, and simple, cukarin needs to have a companion: a glass of sweet wine called prošek. Crescent-shaped and tender klašun is filled with almonds or nuts, including rose liqueur, lemon zest and spice. As the name suggests, amareta is made from ground almonds. Meet them all, as well as some original creations, in the legendary Cukarin pastry shop.
There is yet another crisp and aromatic cookie in many Dalmatian places, especially in Trogir. It is called rafiol. Although the name suggests a connection with the ravioli pasta, the two are totally different. Rafiol is actually a sugar-coated, crescent-shaped cookie with an aromatic filling. The recipes for the filling vary; usually, it includes ground almonds or nuts, but also chocolate.
Trademark cakes in Dalmatian cities
Split, the largest Dalmatian city, impresses with its ancient architecture, but also with splitska torta – Split cake. Layers of meringue mixed with almonds, dried figs and raisins are filled with orange-infused buttercream. Yes, it’s a calorie bomb, but one you can’t refuse. Oš kolač artisan pastry shop is a great place to try modern interpretations of Split’s favorite desserts. Many Dalmatian cities have their trademark cake; rich, luxurious and made for special occasions. This tradition usually doesn’t go to far back: just like we mentioned before, the trademark cake comes with the rise of the middle class. When the expensive ingredients like chocolate, refined sugar, or mixed spice became widely available, desserts were taken to the next level.
Skradinska torta from Skradin is something really special. Special enough to be served to the newlyweds before their first nuptial night. A mixture of eggs, sugar, rose liqueur, honey, ground walnuts and almonds is baked and glazed with dark chocolate. Imotska torta, from Imotski, is a tart, consisting of a pastry base and almond filling with spice and aromatic liqueur.
Torta makarana, from Makarska, is the queen of any festive occasion. The pastry base is filled with a mixture of ground almonds, eggs, sugar, citrus juice and zest, spices, and aromatic liqueur. This one has an interesting history, traced back to 1838. It was served to Frederick Augustus III, the last king of Saxony, who was so delighted that he named it.
Endemic cakes, found in one place only!
A very endemic cake is still around on the island of Brač, more precisely – in the village of Dol. Hrapaćuša has a layer of sponge and a layer of thick sweet nuts, sugar, and egg whites mixture. The name comes from a type of stone used for building houses in Dol. And don’t even try getting the recipe: a handful of local families guard it with their life!
And speaking of strange desserts, nothing beats Stonska torta, the cake from Ston. It’s made from a local pasta called makaruli, similar to penne tubes. They are joined by a mixture of ground almonds or walnuts, grated chocolate, cinnamon, and lemon zest, plus eggs and butter, all coated with more dough.
Everywhere you look, there’s a fig
The south is full of fig trees, offering their sweet soft fruits in the summer. Of course some of those will end up in Croatian desserts! In Zadar, there’s a charming little festival dedicated to figs, and in Pet bunara restaurant you can taste their original creation called Šinjorina Smokva cake. Dried figs are used to make smokvenjak, a great way to preserve memories of summer on long winter days. How do you make it? Ground dried figs with a bit of brandy, maybe some almonds or herbs. Either flat and round or shaped like salami, you cut it little by little. Smokvenjak loves the company of homemade herbal brandy. On the island of Vis it is known as hib.
Something a bit lighter and wobblier than all those heavy cakes comes from Dubrovnik. Rožata or Rozata is usually defined as the local version of crème caramel. Nowadays you can find it all along the coast. It is a delicious custard pudding with caramel topping, but the secret lies in the local rose liqueur. And all those beautiful bitter oranges that don’t make it as zest? Arančini are the candy of Dalmatia – candied orange peel. The version with lemon is called limončini.
Throw in some candied almonds while you’re at it as well – bruštulane mendule. Let’s not forget, Hvar is the island of lavander. So why not use it in artisan chocolates and pralines, together with other Mediterranean ingredients? At Gamulin Chocolates they can show us how.