10 Popular Ecuadorian Desserts and Sweets
A Gringo’s Guide to Traditional Ecuadorian Pastries and Desserts
Even as a long-time resident of Ecuador, a sometime restaurant cook, and a foodie in general, researching this article was a real eye-opener. For one thing, I don’t particularly like sweet stuff and don’t go out of my way to taste new types.
For another, most convenience stores here sell pretty much the same stuff as you’ll find in Europe or North America: Nestlé chocolates, ice cream under the several brands owned by Unilever, Oreo cookies. It really is a minor tragedy that fine chocolate isn’t appreciated more here, especially given that Ecuador is one of the major producers of premium cacao beans.
Ecuadorians do like their sweets, but don’t seem to show much preference for traditional desserts. At the three (!) bakeries within walking distance of my home, what you find is mostly Western-style cakes, donuts, and sweet buns.
Scratch the surface, though, and you soon realize that there’s no reason for traditional Ecuadorian desserts and pastries to take a back seat to imported recipes. Let’s discover some of the best traditional Ecuadorian sweets and desserts.
1. Melcocha (Sugarcane Candy)
Melcocha is an incredible handmade candy made with panela. It is known as alfeñique in Spain, and was previously called al-fanid in Moorish Iberia. In Ecuador, it’s mostly associated with the resort town of Baños but can be found all over the country.
Making melcocha by hand is hard work (look at the photo!). The recipe isn’t complicated, but it requires a lot of technique and strength. You start by squeezing out sugar cane (a major Ecuadorian crop) and mixing the juice with the sap of the guacimo tree as a binder.
This is boiled until a syrup is formed, at which point the hard work of kneading and shaping it begins. Of course, you probably don’t have a guacimo tree in your backyard and even finding panela – completely unrefined sugar – may be a chore. If so, just use water and brown sugar. Producing these melcocha is a kind of cottage industry for several families.
2. Huevos Mollos (Creamy Candy Eggs)
Huevos mollos are sweet little balls of heaven. In Manabi, Ecuadorian families make a living preparing these yummy desserts, alongside troliches; a similar recipe minus the egg.
Huevos mollos are easy to make and can be prepared well ahead of time, making them the perfect party food; milk and sugar are reduced over low heat, after which flour and egg yolks are whisked in to make a kind of sweet béchamel sauce. Once this cools, the mixture becomes firm enough to shape by hand into egg shapes (hence the huevos in the name).
Espuma means “foam”, so espumillas are… little foams! What espumillas really are is a glorious mix of meringue, syrup, and tangy fruit pulp. They’re often served in ice cream cones, which makes them a hit at picnics. For the fruit, guava is traditional, but nearly any kind of fruit should work just fine. If you have a very very sweet tooth, grab an espumilla.
4. Alfajores (Caramel Cookies)
If Ecuador has a national cookie, it has to be alfajores. They’re popular throughout Latin America, but we still think of them as ours, originating from the province of Manabí.
The star of the show here is the milk caramel filling (dulce de leche), which is complemented by dried shredded coconut. The biscuit dough is made from cornstarch, which adds a delicate texture.
Making the filling is somewhat of a chore, but as with so much in the kitchen, you get out what you put in. The hard work pays off when you finally have a delicious batch of alfajores to munch through.
5. Natilla (Cornstarch Custard)
Compared to standard custard (or crème anglaise, if you prefer), the Ecuadorian version is definitely on the firm side, so firm that it can actually be cut into blocks for serving. The consistency depends on how much cornstarch you add, and egg yolks are actually optional here.
Another variety, mazmorra de choclo, uses whole maize instead of cornstarch, which is not as weird as it sounds, and tastes great. In Ecuador, custard is served either as is or as an accompaniment to some other dessert that could do with a little lubrication, perhaps fig or guava cake.
6. Helado de Paila (Paella Pan Ice Cream)
Depending on what kind of neighborhood we’re talking about, it’s not uncommon for Ecuadorian families to sell helados (ice creams or popsicles) from their front porches. These typically consist of little more than fruit juice or soft drinks frozen onto a stick.
But helado de paila is a completely different animal. Before electrical refrigeration was a thing, this traditional ice cream was made in the highlands near Ibarra from naturally occurring ice harvested from mountainsides and the slopes of volcanoes.
A wide pan is placed over this and filled with freshly squeezed fruit juice, which has to be beaten continuously in order to break up the ice crystals, much like an ice cream machine does. Featuring egg white, the modern recipe hasn’t changed much from the original, and authentic helado de paila is still made by hand today. Done right, the resulting dessert has a very smooth texture and an absolute ton of natural, unadulterated flavor.
7. Cocadas (Coconut Balls)
If coconuts and sugarcane grew abundantly in your neighborhood, you would inevitably figure out some way of combining these into a delicious dessert, right? This is what happened in Esmeraldas province, though cocadas are made and enjoyed all over Ecuador today.
The preparation is very similar to that of huevos mollos: simply cook the milk and panela until it starts to thicken, stir in the coconut (dry or fresh) and add a few eggs to create a viscous mixture you can shape by hand once it cools. Note that cocadas can be either white or dark brown in color depending on what kind of sugar is used.
8. Turrón de Ajonjoli (Sesame Seed Praline)
It’s no secret that everybody likes crunchy food; in fact, an audible crack when you take a bite literally makes food taste better. Sesame seeds may be more closely associated with Asian cooking, but they’re also plentiful in Latin America. When combined with dry caramel and (optionally) peanuts, you get this delicious snack.
With a thickness of a quarter of an inch, these can be eaten on their own. Alternatively, they can be rolled more thinly for use as a garnish.
9. Come y Bebe (Fruit Salad)
One reason I’ve included plain ol’ fruit salad on this list is due to its expressive Ecuadorian name: come y bebe, meaning “eat and drink”. The other reason for its inclusion is that fruit salad in Ecuador is way more of an experience than you might expect.
Very little of the fresh produce sold here is of the cosmetically beautiful but ultimately flavorless kind found in most US supermarkets. Ecuadorian pineapples have pale white flesh instead of yellow, and remain green even when ripe, yet they’re incredibly sweet and juicy. The orito bananas used in a come y bebe may only be a few inches long, but these are simply packed with flavor and natural sweetness.
In short, an Ecuadorian fruit salad tastes wonderful.
10. Chucula (Plantain Smoothie)
Ever had a plantain smoothie? Ever had a plantain?! They’re cheap (in Ecuador, 25 cents will get you a decent bunch), they’re incredibly nutritious, and they look like bananas, but don’t be fooled. When ripe, they’re sweet but slightly tart, and they can’t be digested raw, so you’ll have to boil them briefly before making this rich milkshake-like concoction.
Milk, sugar and spices are mandatory in a plantain smoothie, and many people add a bit of neutrally flavored cheese for additional heartiness.
With that we come to the end of our tour of Ecuadorian sweets. From melcocha to chucula, we have surveyed a gamut of desserts, rich in natural flavors from the heart of Ecuador. Time to gorge on plantain and panela, and collapse into a glorious sugar coma. Want to join me?
Related: Most Popular Ecuadorian Foods
Featured image depicting caramelized apples by Rinaldo Wurglitsch.