Belgium is renown for producing some of the best chocolate in the world, but the Belgian sweet spot extends to so many more top Belgian desserts, cookies and candies.
The Belgian love their savoury top Belgian cuisine but they also have a sweet tooth, which is clear in the country’s bountiful selection of delicious desserts. Some desserts, such as waffles, are national treats while other sweet specialities can only be found in the Belgian region where they were created. This makes travelling around Belgium a gourmet – and sweet – surprise.
Belgian chocolate, of course, could be considered as Belgium’s most famous ‘expat’ due to its world-renown fame. Famously known as the birthplace of pralines, Belgium produces 172,000 tons of chocolate yearly and a rich variety of Belgian chocolates can be found in more than 2,000 chocolatiers spread across Belgium. Stroll around any Belgian city centre and you will see shops selling chocolates of all shapes and sizes from classic hazelnut-filled seashells and spherical melt-in-your-mouth truffles to more individualist creations like white chocolate ganache flavoured with saffron and mild curry. There are also some historical chocolate specialities, such as Congolaiskes, praline covered in dark chocolate, and Gayettes (coal) de Charleroi, dark-chocolate truffles filled with butter cream referencing Charleroi’s mining history.
In 2017, five Flemish bakery products were granted protected regional status, including: Adriaan Brouwer cake from Oudenaarde, Bakkemoezevlaai from Limburg, Gentse Vlaai, Geuteling (a kind of Flemish pancake from Ardennes area) and Geraardsbergse mattentaart (see below).
But if you think that chocolate is the only speciality this little country has to offer, you would be sorely mistaken. From hard-to-find delights like the cheese curd-filled mattentaarten or tooth-cracking Coque de Dinant, which can only be found in certain Belgian cities, here are the top 10 Belgian desserts – other than chocolates – you must try.
Mattentaarten are small, round sweet puff pastry cakes with a light, airy filling of mattenbrij or curd cheese. The cakes are the speciality of the city Geraardsbergen in the Flemish Ardennes. Mattentaarten were granted the Protected Geographical Indication by the European Union in 2006, indicating they can only be made in the city or the nearby municipality of Lierde. The mattentaart is a source of pride for Geraardsbergen residents as it is one of the only towns in Belgium to have received this EU designation.
Another small tart with historical origins is the Lierse vlaaike, made from a spiced cake recipe – supposedly secret – more than three-hundred years old, making it one of the oldest baked goods from the Antwerp province.
Make your own
- Although you can’t officially call them mattentaarten unless you’re making them in Geraardsbergen, try the recipe for the puff pastry here (in Flemish).
- Watch a video on how to make this dessert.
2. Belgian waffles
Waffles are the pièce de résistance of Belgian sweets and don’t need much introduction. What is less known is the variety of waffles found in Belgium, where one might even say ‘Belgian waffles’ don’t exist. Instead, there are regional varieties and the two most popular are the gaufres de Liège, also known as gaufres de chasse or hunting waffles, and the Brussels waffle.
The Liège waffle is the ‘newer’ version of the two but many say tastier, made of brioche bread dough mixed with pearl sugar that caramelises when baked. This denser, chewier and sweeter waffle is the most popular one found around Belgium.
Unlike the uneven Liège waffle, the Brussels waffle is lighter, crispier and easily recognisable by its perfect rectangular shape. It is made with an egg-white-leavened or yeast-leavened batter and – unlike many North American versions – traditionally served plain or with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. You can find both the Liège and Brussels waffles in street stands, restaurants and gauferies or tea rooms all over Belgium. But whichever version you pick, make sure to eat them with your hands like the Belgians do.
There’s also a thin, crispy waffle version traditionally from west Flanders, known as a boterwafel in Flanders or in Wallonia as a Galette au Beurre (butter crisps). These differ from ‘Butter Waffles’, another distinct version.
Make your own
- Here’s the recipe for the Brussels waffle.
- Try making Liège waffles if you have more of a sweet tooth.
- You can also try a recipe for another type of Belgian waffle called the Flemish waffle.
3. La Dame Blanche
La Dame Blanche is the Belgians’ twist on the hot fudge sundae. The dessert is served in a glass and comprises vanilla ice-cream, a fresh whipped cream topping, cherries and a special warm sauce au chocolat of heavy cream, bittersweet chocolate and butter. A special touch is added to the La Dame Blanche by typically pairing it with a dessert beer such as the Cherish Raspberry Lambic. This simple yet tasty dessert is a staple on restaurant menus in the country but also as an after dinner treat in many Belgian households.
Make your own
- Learn the easy recipe to make La Dame Blanche.
- Make different variations of the dessert such as the ‘Dark Lady’, by substituting vanilla with chocolate ice cream, or make the ‘Green Lady’ with a pistachio ice cream.
4. Rum omelette
Once dubbed by the New York Times as an ‘obscure hidden gem from the 19th century’, rum omelettes are rare on modern-day Belgian menus. The dessert requires you to thoroughly mix beaten eggs, caster sugar, cream, butter and a glassful of sherry rum together before cooking it in a shallow pan, and then serving it with powdered sugar on a hot dish. For a show-stopping dessert, set light to a big spoonful of run, pour it over the omelette and watch your food ignite.
Make your own
- Try this step-by-step guide to make this rare Belgian recipe.
- Watch the theatrics behind making a flambéed rum omelette.
The perfect dessert with hot or iced coffee, appelflappen or chausson aux pommes are puff pastries stuffed with a mixture of apple, cinnamon and sometimes almond paste, raisins, or currants, then sprinkled with sugar. When placed in the oven, the apple becomes sweet and gooey. The trick to making the best appelflappen is baking with real butter and using yellow-green apples for the filling. You can also add a dash of grated lemon peel and a pinch of rum powder to the finished product.
Make your own:
- Make appelflap at home with this recipe (in Flemish).
- Use these detailed photos to make your appelflappen a success.
- Here are five Belgian koffiekoeken – sweets perfect with coffee – including the appelflap you can try (in Flemish).
Stofé is popular sweet cheesecake originating from the city of Wavre in Belgium’s French Wallonian region. Cottage cheese, or in Walloon stofé, is blended with meringue and bitter and sweet almonds and poured over a bed of sliced apples. The neighbouring city of Jodoigne also has a soufflé-like version called the blanke doréye, which replaces the almonds with a hint of vanilla and the sliced apples with mashed ones. Whichever way you make it, make sure to use quality cottage cheese as this is what gives the dessert its unique flavour.
Pies (tartes or vlaaien) in general are popular around Belgium: in the south of Belgium you can find suikertaart (sugar pie), Limburgse vlaai is noted by toppings of fresh fruit, and ricetart (rijsttaart) is similar to rice pudding only baked onto a pie crust.
Make your own:
- Try this stofé recipe (in French).
- Test your culinary skills by baking a blanke doreye (also in French).
7. Couque de Dinant
The Couque de Dinant originates from a single Belgian city, namely Dinant in Wallonia. This hard-as-rock sweet biscuit is made with only two ingredients, wheat flour and honey, which legend says were the only ingredients left when the town was under siege in 1466. The biscuit’s tooth-cracking consistency comes from the dough being cooked under the extremely high temperature of 300°C for 15 minutes, which allows the honey to caramelise.
Coques come in a wide variety of designs, taking after people, flowers, animals and even landscapes. They can also be preserved for a long time and tend to be used as Christmas tree ornaments or to commemorate special occasions. Residents of Dinant feed this tough biscuit to small kids to make their gums stronger. But don’t bite and chew straight away! It is best eaten by breaking off small chunks and slowly melting them in your mouth to release the honey flavour.
Make your own:
- Cook the famously hard biscuit with this Couque de Dinant recipe.
- Watch how they’re made on this video.
Other than baked goods, Belgians have a strong love for candies or snoep or confiserie. One of the most well-known snoepjes in Belgium is cuberdon, a cone-shaped candy made of gum arabic that has a hard outer layer but a soft core. Cuberdons originated in Flanders and are sometimes referred to as neusjes in Flemish due to the resemblance to a nose (neus) or chapeau-de-prêtre in Wallonia (a priest’s hat). They come in a wide variety of flavours from the classic violet raspberry to more recent variants like tropical fruits, cookie or jenever (gin-flavour). You can savour it the traditional way by biting off the top and sucking out the syrup or dropping it on champagne, tea or vodka, to add an explosion of taste.
You’ll find Napoleon bonbons popular in Antwerp, although the name comes from a marketing ploy rather than a royal connection. These circular cellophane-wrapped candies have a hard sugar layer that, when bitten in half, gives you a sour burst of flavour. Lemon is the traditional taste but you’ll also find flavours such as orange, wine, coffee, chocolate and apple. They also come in a lollipop version.
You can also try babelutten, stick-like butterscotch chews famous in the Belgian coast. They were first commercialised by ‘Mother Babelutte’ in Heist, and the name comes from the Flemish expression ‘to have a chat’, or babbelen. The long, sticky candies are made of sugar syrup mixed with butter, giving it a melt-in-your-mouth taste.
The most popular sweet in Namur is the ‘biétrumé’, a toffee caramel based on fresh cream and roast hazelnuts.
Make your own:
- Learn how Belgium’s secret gelatinous sweet, the cuberdon, is made with this more than 150-year-old recipe.
- Create a modern twist on babelutten with this babelutte parfait recipe (in Flemish).
9. Pancakes and oliebollen
Like their Dutch neighbours, pannenkoeken are a typical dessert in Belgian cuisine especially in Flanders. Made with a batter of flour (or buckwheat), milk, eggs and salt, Belgian pancakes are bigger and much thinner than North American pancakes but thicker than French crepes. Pannenkoeken are eaten sweet or savoury with toppings such as bacon, cheese, raisins, sliced apples, candied ginger, smoked salmon – or almost anything you can think of. A final garnish of stroop, a thick saccharine syrup, is usually added to finish off dessert versions. Cooking pannekoeken is typically a group affair, so invite your friends or family for a feast.
Another Dutch-favourite shared with Belgium is the oliebollen, or smoutenbollen or croustillonsin French. Translated as ‘oil balls’, the deep-fried spheres are a step above your normal doughnut and usually eaten to celebrate New Year’s Eve. The dough, which has sugar and lemon zest added to it, sometimes contains sultanas and other dried fruit. Eat your oliebollen either piping hot straight off food stands or cold with a cup of coffee – just don’t forget to top it off with generous helping of powdered sugar.
Make your own
- Here’s a basic pannenkoekenrecipe.
- Try Belgian pancakes filled with caramelised almonds and peaches.
- Try this oliebollen recipe, where you soak the raisins in rum the night before.
- Watch oleibollen being made by a Dutch chef (in Flemish).
- This classic recipe with great reviews.
10. Koekjes: speculaas, Antwerpse handjes, bernadins and more
Belgium has a smorgasboard of biscuits (koekjes) to try, many which are regional specialties. When you order a tea or coffee in Belgium, you can easily find the internationally known speculaas or speculoos cookie on the side, which is a spiced, shortcrust biscuit traditionally eaten around St Nicholas Day (Sinterklaas) on 6 December. With punctuated flavours of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cardamom and nutmeg, speculaas are usually flat and crunchy but some regional variants, such as those from Hasselt, are bigger with a crispy outside and tender centre. For a Belgian invention try speculoospasta, a sweet paste made from the cookies to spread on bread.
You should also sink your teeth into the Antwerpse handjes, a buttery shortcrust pastry shaped into, as the name suggests, hands. The distinctive biscuits are homage to the folklore about Antwerp’s legendary giant Druon Antigoon, who guarded the river Scheldt and demanded high tolls from passing ships. Those who refused had their hand chopped off, the same fate that befell Antigoon when a young Roman soldier named Brabo (inspiring the region name ‘Brabant’) challenged the giant and later killed him. Bakers transformed this legend of the hand, the symbol of Antwerp, into sweet biscuits and even chocolates.
South of Antwerp in the city of Fleurus you’ll find bernadins, which are oval biscuits made of almond dough and garnished with two almond halves. After baking, its mix of white and brown sugar gives the biscuits a brownish shade, the same colour of the Bernardine monks’ habits.
There are many more regional biscuits, pastries and cakes to try:
- Poperingse keikopjes, affectionately named ‘cobble-head’ after Poperinge’s resistance against Ypres, were created to honour the 800th anniversary in 1988 of the town’s weekly Friday market, with a merigue-type mix of egg whites, almonds and candy sugar.
- Kletskopje is a thin and crunchy biscuit prepared with almonds or peanuts, or with cheese for a savoury version, typically from Flanders. You can also find them folded or rolled up and filled with whipped cream and ice cream.
- Krakelingen or mastellen are typically thrown out to crowds during Geraardsbergen’s festival in February, and has a hole in the middle but is neither a bagel nor a donut.
- During Carnival in Belgium, in Tournai pichous are thrown to crowds from the Belgry tower, which are sweet biscuits with candied fruit in the shape of the small naked boy legend of Saint-Piat neighbourhood.
- In Brussels you’ll find pain à la Greque, a rectangular pastry with cinnamon and coated in sugar chunks. The name likely comes from a mispronunication of grecht (after Wolvengracht, where they were given out to the poor), and has no relation to Greece.
- Peperkoek or pain d’epices is a rye cake spiced with cloves, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. It’s served for breakfast or as a snack but is now mostly industrially produced due to the weeks-long process required to let the dough mature for a full flavour.
Make your own
- Follow this guide to baking traditional thin speculaas biscuits (in Flemish).
- Make Hasselt’s chunky version (in Flemish).
- Show off your cooking skills with this tiramisu made of speculaas (in Flemish).
- Try the famous Antwerpse handjes (in Flemish).
- Bake your own bernadins (in Flemish).
Photo credits: Sandra Fauconnier (Mattentaart), Jrenier (Liege waffles), mitchenall (Appelflap), zingyyellow (Stofé), Oreo Priest (Couque de Dinant), Arouet (Curberdon), Carolina Georgatou (Oliebollen), Ibu (Antwerpse handjes).