Chocolate Mousse, France
An airy confection made with just a handful of ingredients, chocolate mousse is a delicious paradox: the richer it is, the lighter it seems. Gallic chefs have been whipping up chocolate mousse -- the word means "foam" in French -- for at least a few hundred years, but the quest for foamy chocolate is much older.
Among the Olmec, Maya and Aztec peoples who consumed chocolate long before contact with Europeans, a hefty layer of foam was considered the height of good taste, and ancient codices depict cooks pouring chocolate from several feet in the air to create a froth.
Coconut Cake, Southern United States
Bouncy, buttery rounds of vanilla cake are piled high with shredded coconut and seven-minute frosting for a classic Southern dessert. This is the kind of all-American sweet that stars at potlucks, cake walks and church picnics, and it's often made with recipes passed down on hand-written recipe cards.
There are dozens of versions, but every single one is cloaked in a frothy layer of shredded coconut ... preferably fresh.
Layer cakes weren't invented in the United States, but the distinctive profile of the coconut cake is pure Americana, and there's no mistaking the high, round shape of an American layer cake for a slim European torte.
Despite the minimalist, all-white color scheme, the coconut cake is an over-the-top, old-fashioned pleasure. The tooth-achingly sweet meringue frosting is a throwback that's rarely seen outside of the South, and it's worth making the original version for a taste of a unique American tradition.
Cornes de Gazelle, Morocco
Even in a crowded field of tempting Moroccan sweets, these filled pastries are perennial favorites, and the labor-intensive dessert appears at celebrations and special meals throughout the year.
In the classic version, a thin layer of dough curves around a filling of ground almonds scented with orange blossom water. Since cornes de gazelle are baked just until they're lightly golden, the dough retains a tender texture that melts into the center.
While cornes de gazelle are prepared across Morocco -- as well as in the nearby countries of Tunisia and Algeria -- the most visually elaborate versions come from the Moroccan port city of Tetouan, where bakers use intricate molds to create patterns in the dough before baking.
Crème Brûlée, France
Shiny, burnt sugar tops this creamy dessert, and the perfect crème brûlée is a study in contrasts. Each bite should blend a bit of crispy caramel -- burned just to the very edge of bitterness -- with the aromatic flavor of vanilla custard.
Often made using pure cream, crème brûlée is among the richest of all the custard desserts, and it must be gently cooked in a water bath to prevent curdling and overbaking.
For pastry chefs, part of the appeal of preparing crème brûlée is the fiery drama of burning the sugar topping. They execute the job with everything from a blow torch to a traditional salamander, a cast-iron disk that can be heated to blazing temperatures and is said to produce the most even results.
Dan Tats, Hong Kong
Follow the wafting scent of egg custard into a Hong Kong bakery to sample one of the territory's most iconic treats. Perfectly sized for eating out-of-hand, dan tats are best enjoyed fresh from the oven, when the warm custard meets a perfectly crisp crust. And with a map-spanning backstory, dan tats are among the tastiest symbols of globalization.
Many trace dan tats to the similar pastéis de nata of Portugal; those eggy tarts traveled with Portuguese traders and colonists to cities around the world. After establishing a foothold in Hong Kong via nearby Macau, they were re-exported to Chinatowns around the globe, where they tempt passersby from steaming pastry cases and shop windows.
Doughnuts, United States
In the Pantheon of world desserts, fried dough is a mainstay. Everything from French beignets to Greek loukoumades are doughnuts of a kind, and it's no wonder they're so beloved; a quick swim in boiling oil transforms simple bread dough into a fast and filling treat. But it's latter day American doughnuts that earn a place on this list for their creative approach to fillings and flavors.
From Portland, Maine's The Holy Donut to Voodoo Doughnut in Portland, Oregon, the old-school doughnut has been loaded down under piles of maple frosting, crispy bacon, fresh fruit glazes and boozy toppings that take the sweet into uncharted territory
Eszterhazy Torta, Hungary
In its glory days, the Austro-Hungarian empire stretched across central Europe, and a century after the empire fell its creamy legacy can still be found in pastry shop windows from Vienna to Sarajevo.
For this elegant cake, slim rounds of almond meringue are piled high between stripes of chocolate buttercream, then topped with a marbled spiderweb of chocolate and vanilla fondant.
A melting texture and rich sweetness make this old-fashioned cake a perennial favorite in sweets-loving Budapest, but it's just as easy to find in Vienna, the grand city that once led the empire. It remains deeply influenced by a shared culinary tradition.
Flan, Latin America
In the sprawling family tree of custard desserts, Latin America's flan is the coolest cousin, blending perfect simplicity with creamy sophistication.
A whisper-thin layer of dark caramel tops the dessert, melting into syrupy sauce around the base. Flan might have arrived in Latin America from Spain, but it's since been claimed and reinvented by generations of cooks here.
In Mexico, where the dessert is served everywhere from neighborhood cafes to family celebrations, the silky texture of a classic flan is the perfect foil for a meal with fiery chiles and aromatic spices.
Gâteau Fondant au Chocolat, France
Cut into a warm round of gâteau fondant au chocolat -- that means "melting chocolate cake" in French -- to release the slow flood of chocolate from the interior.
This dark and rich cake is a high-wire act of time and temperature: Serve too early and it's a sticky pool of hot cake batter; serve too late and it's a brownie. When the balance is perfect, however, the treat blends the tender bite of a chocolate cake with the oozy pleasure of a melted chocolate bar.
In the 1990s, the cake became a menu star as a lava cake or molten chocolate cake. While the heat of the craze has passed, this sensuous dessert remains one of the world's most sophisticated ways to end a meal.
From shaved ice to sorbet, frozen desserts are melting evidence of one of the world's great food truths: there's nothing so welcome as a cold, sugary treat on a summer afternoon.
On the global heat map of frozen desserts, though, gelato's sweet innovations earn top honors. Lower fat content and a warmer serving temperature help flavors shine brighter than in ice cream, whether you're savoring a sunny scoop of lemon gelato, a rich hazelnut version or classic chocolate.
In Italy, the year-round treat in an essential food experience, and true aficionados even make the pilgrimage to the Gelato Museum in Bologna, where tours include a guided tasting at the museum cafe.