From cookies and cakes to croissants, each dessert has an origin story worth telling. Many of the most popular treats and baked goods were created by mistake and happenstance to later gain popularity and evolve with the tide of the times, differing in recipe depending on the country it's being baked. Behind every mouthwatering pastry and delectable dessert lies a rich tapestry of history and culinary evolution. From ancient civilizations to modern-day bakeries, these sweet treats have traveled through time, picking up flavors, techniques, and cultural influences along the way.
Let's go back a few centuries and learn how each of these pastries and deserts have traveled by era to now be a classic delight baked in your kitchen to share with family and friends.
In the 18th-century, the Dutch had what they call “olykoek” (oily cake) which originally was a pastry without the ring-shape and open-hole. In 1750-England, a recipe published for fried dough titled “nuts” was mistakenly labeled “Dow nuts”, thus the treat was born. The most common doughnuts are ring-shaped or jelly-filled. Today, all doughnuts are not created equal…with so many different types and flavors and now, the oily cake has become an American staple.
Buttery and flaky, savory or sweet. Its original name “kipferl” dates back to the 13th-century. Much later, in the 1800s, an Austrian officer opened a bakery in France, later inspiring French bakers to call the crescent-shaped delight “croissant"..
Mochi is a dessert made of rice that is steamed, pounded, and made into a paste before being molded into its desired shape. Although mochi is big in Japanese culture, it is said to have its roots in China. In Japanese culture, mochi is a symbol of good fortune. It is a traditional food eaten for the Japanese New Year as well as celebrations and festivals.
There is a debate that crème bruleé originated from either France, Spain, or England, although the name is French for “burnt cream”. This dessert was first printed in 1691 in a French cookbook by Francois Massailot who called it “le cuisinier royal et bourgeois”. Originally, the 1st-recipe had a disc of burnt caramelized sugar placed on top, now it is more common to burn or torch the top-layer of the custard..
Baklava is known as one of the sweetest honey layered filo delights, having been a delicacy of the Ottoman Empire, which today is colloquially known as the Turkish Empire. The nutty and baked pastry originates from as early as the 2nd-century. Though, the word "baklava" became an English term in 1650. Today, baklava is most commonly made in large-rectangular-pans and is layered filo dough, honey, butter, and chopped nuts, that are cut into all types of shapes and sizes.
In the late-1600s, Antonio Latini was the first person to write down the recipe for “sorbetto”, creating the first milk-based sorbet. The Italian version produced later was named “gelato” and by the 1700s it was introduced in America. The first ice cream parlor was opened in New York City.
A hamantash or (hamantaschen) is a triangular filled pastry that is associated with the Jewish Holiday, Purim. “Haman” refers to the villain in the Purim story and the name Haman in Hebrew means “Haman’s ears”. Originally, the cookie was filled with poppy seed paste but has evolved with many different jams and flavored creams. Hamantaschen has been around since the 1800s.
The popular cookie was invented in 1938 by Ruth Graves Wakefield, when she owned the Toll House Inn, in Whitman Massachusetts. She added chopped chocolate bits of a Nestle semi-sweet bar to a mix thinking that the chocolate chunks would melt, but instead made the first chocolate chip cookie. She is also the reason why Nestle began producing chocolate into smaller “morsels”.
Pound cake is said to be of European origin dating back to the 1700s. The original recipe contains a pound each of flour, sugar, butter, and eggs. With such a heavy and dense cake, it could easily feed and fill large groups of people. Over time, the recipe evolved and became much smaller, lighter and is now baked in bundt-pans or as loaves. It is a very popular dessert in southern states.
Scones are said to have originated from Scotland in the early-1500s and named after the medieval town of Scone. They originally were made using oats and the large-round the size of a plate, then cut into wedges. It has been made popular and often served with jams, butter, clotted creams, and tea.
This pastry developed in Sweden in the 17th-century. In Sweden, they are called “kanelbulle” and have their own national holiday on October 4th. It is a staple in Scandinavian culture and is also popular all around the world with different sizes and variations.
Although it is now known as “America’s favorite dessert,” it was created in England in the 18th-century and brought to the colonies by European settlers. To be honest, not much of this dessert came from America at all. The pie, the dough, and even the apples were all brought to America from other origins.
The first form of cheesecake was invented over 4000-years ago in ancient Greece. It was made by fresh cheese pounded until smooth with flour and honey and cooked on a griddle. Now, the creamy cake is made in many variations due to how the recipe recipe has traveled amongst different countries. Some of the most popular cheesecakes are New York cheesecake, and no-bake cheesecake.
Originated in the Emirate of Sicily--the cannoli is a symbol of Italian heritage. Legend goes, the desert was created by nuns or concubines between 1827-and-1091. The cannoli is made for traditional celebrations and holidays. Today, the pastry is baked with all kinds of different flavor filling such as nuts, or chocolate.
Not to be confused with coconut macaroons, the French macaron is a meringue based cookie that originated in France during the Renaissance. In the beginning, they were sold flat without any filling, while the ones we know today are two almond meringue discs with a flavorful filling.
This comes from the Italian word “maccherone” meaning “paste”, the dessert is created from an either an almond or coconut paste. Traced back to an Italian monastery in the 8th century--the sweet treat later came to France by nuns who were asked to make this confection in exchange for housing. Today, we often see the mounds of coconut with the bottom dipped in chocolate.
Pavlova is a meringue-based dessert. Originating in either Australia or New Zealand in the early 20th century, it was named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. Taking the form of a cake-like circular block of baked meringue, pavlova has a crisp crust and soft, light inside. The confection is usually topped with fruit and whipped cream.
The origin story of the brownie began when Bertha Palmer, wife of a hotel owner, asked their pastry chef for a confection smaller than a piece of cake, but also suitable for ladies attending an event as a lunch-box treat. As a result, the chef came up with the ‘Palmer House Brownie’ a tasty concoction made of chocolate, walnuts, and apricot glaze. The word “brownie” first appeared in a cookbook in 1896 and has evolved ever since. This chocolate-y bite-sized treat is easy to bake and share as a snack for any event.
The history behind your favorite pastries and desserts is a testament to the global exchange of flavors, techniques, and traditions. These sweet creations have traveled through time, reflecting the cultural heritage and creativity of generations of bakers. The next time you indulge in a luscious dessert or savor a flaky pastry, remember that every bite is infused with the captivating tales of its past.