“Gluten” is another name for the protein found in grains. For cooks, gluten is useful: it acts like a glue holding molecules together, helping food maintain its shape. However, gluten also causes inflammation of the small intestines, and for many people, adopting a gluten-free diet can lead to better health.

Since many popular pastries use grains that contain gluten, finding recipes for gluten-free sweets can be a challenge. Here are ten fantastic gluten-free desserts, drawing on culinary traditions from around the world.

Persian Shortbread (Nan-e Nokhodchi)

These rich shortbread cookies – a favorite in Persian Jewish communities – get their intriguing flavor from chickpea flour. In professional bakeries, these cookies are usually made in a tiny four-leaf shape using a cookie-cutter; I love making them at home and opt for an easier circular shape to save time.

  • 2 cup chickpea flour
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 cup butter (plus 1-2 T butter, if needed)
  • 1 t ground cardamom (or crush 10-12 whole cardamom pods, discarding the outer shells)

Mix ingredients together using first a spoon, then your hands. The dough will be very stiff: add extra butter as needed until it binds together.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Form dough into round balls, one inch in diameter. Place on parchment paper and flatten the balls slightly with your thumb. Bake at 350 degrees F for 10 minutes, until barely golden. Cool before serving.

Makes 2 dozen cookies.

Recipe from The Legendary Cuisine of Persia by Margaret Shaida (Interlink Books, 2000).

Chocolate Mousse (Mousse au Chocolat)

Chocolate Mousse makes an elegant dessert. This version is from the classic French cookbook, Ginette Mathiot’s Je sais cuisine (“I know how to cook”), which has educated generations of French cooks. (Note: raw eggs are not recommended for everyone. I’ve tried making this dish using pre-pasteurized eggs; it comes out less stiff, but still delicious.)

  • 7 oz chocolate
  • 2 T water
  • 6 egg whites
  • 2 T powdered sugar

In a heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, gently melt the chocolate in the water, stirring occasionally, to make a thick paste.

Whisk the egg whites to soft peaks, add the sugar and continue whisking until very stiff. Fold the chocolate gently into the egg whites. Pour into a bowl and refrigerate for up to 3 hours. Serve cold.

Serves 6.

Almond Cake in Orange Syrup (Gateau au Sirop d’Orange)

This classic Sephardi cake has its roots in the Jewish community of Spain. Ideally, it should be made the day before it is served, as it becomes more succulently moist with time. This incredibly rich version is from Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food.

  • 8 eggs, separated
  • 1cup (200 g) sugar
  • Grated zest of 2 oranges
  • 2 t cinnamon
  • 1 cup (100 g) ground almonds
  • ½ cup (50 g) blanched almonds, finely chopped

For the syrup:

  • 2 ½ cups (600 ml) freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 1 cup (200 g) sugar

Mix well the egg yolks with 1 cup (200 g) sugar, orange zest, cinnamon, and all the almonds. Beat the egg whites until stiff and fold them in. Pour into a greased and floured 10-inch (26-cm) cake pan and bake in a preheated 350 degree F (180 C) oven for about one hour.

Make a syrup by bringing to the boil the orange juice with the remaining sugar. Remove from the heat and stir to dissolve the sugar.

When the cake has cooled, make little holes on the top with a fork to allow the juice to be absorbed, and turn it out onto a deep pan or dish that will just contain it and the syrup. Pour the syrup on top and leave to soak for a few hours or overnight.

A nice way of serving this splendid cake is with orange slices in syrup:

  • 4 large sweet oranges with thick skins
  • 5 cups (1 kg) sugar
  • 2 cups (500 ml) water
  • Juice of ½ a lemon

Wash the oranges and leave them to soak in cold water for at least an hour. Then cut them into thick slices (about 1/3 inch [1 cm]) and remove the seeds. Put the sugar, water, and lemon juice in a large pan and bring to the boil. Put the orange slices in, pressing them down into the syrup. Put the lid on and simmer gently for 1-1 ½ hours, or until they are very soft. Lift out the slices and arrange on a serving dish. Reduce the syrup by simmering, uncovered, until it has thickened enough to coat a spoon, and pour a little over the slices. (Leftover syrup can be kept in a covered jar.)

Almond Macaroons

These rich cookies are sweet and chewy, and can be made with all sorts of ground nuts, including walnuts and hazelnuts; flaked coconut can also be used. Ground almonds provide the most delicate texture and refined flavor and are an elegant end to a meal.

  • 2 ¼ cups whole or slivered blanched almonds
  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • 3 large egg whites

Position rack in upper third of oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or wax paper; grease liner lightly with margarine.

Grind almonds with ¼ cup sugar in food processor until mixture forms fine, even crumbs. Add egg whites and vanilla sugar, if using, and process until smooth, about 20 seconds. Add remaining sugar in 2 additions and process about 10 seconds after each or until smooth.

With moistened hands, roll about 1 T mixture between your palms to a smooth ball. Put on prepared baking sheet. Continue shaping macaroons, spacing them 1 inch apart.

Press each macaroon to flatten it slightly so it is about ½ inch high. Brush entire surface of each macaroon with water. Bake macaroons 18-20 minutes or until very lightly but evenly brownd; centers should still be soft. Remove from oven. Transfer to a rack to cool.

Makes about 30 macaroons

From 1,000 Jewish Recipes by Faye Levy (2000).

Plantain Custard (Flan de Platano Maduro)

Plantains look similar to bananas, but are usually larger and, when young, their skins a brighter green color; as they age, like bananas, plantain skins become brown; plantains are ripe when their skin is a mottled black color. Plantains are higher in starch, which makes them a nice substitute to gluten; they are less sweet than bananas, and unlike bananas, cannot be eaten raw. Look for them in grocery stores that sell Latin American foods.

  • 1 T butter
  • 2 very ripe, brown plantains, peeled and cut into 1-inch-thick diagonal slices
  • 1 t lemon juice
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ½ t grated nutmeg
  • ½ t ground cinnamon
  • 2 whole eggs and 2 egg whites
  • 1 t vanilla
  • 2 cups milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Melt the butter in a medium-size sauté pan over medium heat. Add the plantains and sauté 2-3 minutes on each side, just until soft. Remove from the heat, transfer the plantains to a large bowl, and mash with a fork or potato masher.

Mix in the lemon juice, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, eggs, and vanilla, blending well. Scald milk in a small saucepan and temper egg mixture by slowly adding hot milk in a slow steady stream while whisking to raise the temperature of the eggs without curdling. Then mix well. Transfer the flan to 6 individual custard cups or a 9-inch round baking dish or pie plate. Place in a pan of hot water to come halfway up the sides of the custard and bake on the middle rack of the oven for 1 hour (20-30 minutes for the custard cups), or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Remove the dish or cups from the pan of water and allow to cool slightly, then invert one at a time onto a small plate. Slide the flan onto a serving platter, let cool, and cover with plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator before serving.

Makes 6 servings.

From A Taste of Cuba by Linette Creen (Plume 1994)

Carrot Halva (Gajar Ka Halva)

We tend to think of carrots as a savory food, but they contain a great deal of sugar, and in Indian cooking, are often used for sweets, especially this sweet, rich pudding. This version of carrot halva comes from Madhur Jaffrey, the doyenne of Indian cuisine, and her book Indian Cooking.

Many of us know the term halva as the delicious, modern-day Israeli confection, made from sesame seeds. The term halva is used throughout the Middle East and India, however, to refer to a wide range of sweet confections.

  • 6 medium carrots
  • 3 cups (700 ml) milk
  • 8 whole cardamom pods
  • 5 T vegetable oil
  • 5 T sugar
  • 1-2 T golden raisins
  • 1 T shelled, unsalted pistachios, lightly crushed
  • 1 ¼ cups (275 ml) heavy cream, lightly whipped (optional)

Peel the carrots and grate them either by hand or in a food processor. Put the grated carrots, milk, and cardamom pods in a heavy-bottomed pot and bring to a boil. Turn heat to medium and cook, stirring now and then, until there is no liquid left. Adjust the heat, if you need to. (This boiling down of the milk will take at least half an hour or longer, depending upon the width of your pot.)

Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan over a medium-low flame. When hot, put in the carrot mixture. Stir and fry until the carrots no longer have a wet, milky look. They should turn a rich, reddish color. This can take 10-15 minutes.

Add the sugar, raisins, and pistachios. Stir and fry another 2 minutes.

This halva may be served warm or at room temperature. Serve the cream on the side, for those who want it.

Serves 4.

Frozen Ginger Parfait

The famous British Jewish cookery writer Evelyn Rose did kosher cooks a huge favor when she adapted for parve meals this luscious dessert, a specialty of the famed Croque en Bouche restaurant, which reigned as one of the finest restaurants in Britain.

For the meringue:

  • 3 egg whites
  • ½ t cream of tartar
  • 6 oz (175 g / ¾ cup) caster (superfine / powdered) sugar
  • 1 t cornflour (cornstarch)

For the syrup:

  • 1 T instant coffee
  • 2 t sugar
  • 2 T boiling water

For the parfait:

  • 15 fl oz (435 ml / 2 cups) double (heavy) cream or 12 fl oz (275 ml / 1 ½ cups) non-dairy cream
  • 1 T coffee liqueur
  • 3 pieces stem ginger, finely chopped
  • 3 T of the ginger syrup (above)

For the garnish:

  • 2 Cape gooseberries per serving

First make the meringues. Put the egg whites into a mixing bowl and add the cream of tartar. Mix the sugar and cornstarch together. Whisk the whites until they hold floppy peaks, then add the sugar mixture a tablespoon at a time, whisking until stiff after each addition. Spoon or pipe meringues onto sheets wined with silicone (or parchment) paper, leaving 2 inches (5 cm) between them. Preheat oven to Gas No. 2 (300 degrees F / 150 degrees C). Bake for 1 hour, until crisp to the touch and easy to lift off the paper. Allow to go quite cold, then break into roughly 1-inch (2.5 cm) pieces.

Make the coffee syrup by mixing all the ingredients until they dissolve. Chill well.

Whip the cream to the soft-peak stage, then whisk in the liqueur and half the coffee syrup. Fold in the ginger, meringues and ginger syrup. Marble the mixture with the remaining coffee syrup.

Spoon either into individual timbale moulds, petit pots or little soufflé dishes, or into a 2 lb. (900 g) loaf tin lined with silicone (or parchment) paper. Freeze for at least 24 hours, and prefereably 48, before serving straight from the freezer.

Garnish with the Cape gooseberries.

Serves 8-10.

From The New Complete International Jewish Cookbook (Robson Books, 1997).

Rice Shortbreads (Nan-e Berenji)

These traditional Persian cookies are delicate and sweet, with a melt-in-your mouth sensation.

  • 1 t finely ground cardamom
  • 3 cups fine white rice flour
  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 ½ cups powdered sugar
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 1 T rosewater
  • Poppy seeds (for garnish)

Mix the cardamom and rice flour together and put to one side. Cream the butter and sugar together, then add the eggs one at a time, beating constantly. Beat in the rosewater. Gradually beat in the rice flour and continue beating until the mixture is stiff and smooth. Cover and chill for six hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Take a teaspoon of the mixture, roll it into a ball, press on to a greased baking sheet. Imprint a pattern with a thimble and sprinkle with a few poppy seeds. Bake for 12-15 minutes. They should be firm but should not change color. Remove from the baking sheet, and serve room-temperature.

Recipe from The Legendary Cuisine of Persia by Margaret Shaida (Interlink Books, 2000).

Arrowroot Drops

Arrowoot is a root vegetable native to the West Indies; it is high in starch but gluten-free, making it an excellent substitute for grains. Use ground arrowroot, available in large supermarkets and some specialty grocery stores, in this colorful, easy-to-make recipe from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent.

  • ½ cup (4 oz – 125 g) butter, softened
  • ½ cup (4 oz – 125 g) sugar
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 ½ cups (7 ½ oz / 225 g) arrowroot
  • Maraschino cherries
  • ¼ cup (2 fl oz / 60 ml) milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C / Gas 4). Cream butter and sugar until light. Blend in eggs, then arrowroot. Spoon 2 to 3 teaspoons of the mixture into small cup-cake tins lined with paper liners. Place a cherry on top of each. Bake until cakes spring back when gently pressed, about 20 minutes. Let cool on rack before serving.

Makes 10

From The Complete Caribbean Cookbook by Pamela Lalbachan (Lansdowne Publishing, 1994).

Hasty Pudding

This is an old dish, perhaps best known for its inclusion in the song Yankee Doodle Dandy. The early American colonists brought recipes for hasty pudding with, where it was long associated with New England. The oldest student club at Harvard University is the Hasty Pudding; dating from 1795, it was named after the dish its founding members ate at their first meeting.

This modern update of the classic recipe was first published in The New York Times, and turns Hasty Pudding into a luscious – and gluten-free – dessert.

  • 1 quart milk
  • ½ cup cornmeal
  • 3 T butter
  • 1 cooking apple, pared and diced
  • ½ cup molasses
  • Pinch of salt
  • ½ t grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Butter a covered 2-quart baking dish.

Bring 1 1/3 cups of the milk to a boil and gradually add the cornmeal, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and add the butter, apple, molasses, salt and nutmeg. Mix well and add the remaining milk. Pour the mixture into the baking dish and cover. Bake 3 to 3 ¼ hours.

Serve hot either plain or with cream, unsweetened whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

From The New York Times Cook Book by Craig Claiborne (Harper and Row, 1990).