All-American desserts like apple pie and ice cream sundaes can be found from sea to shining sea. But other dessert foods take some seeking out. For example, you’ll have to travel to Key West to get your hands on a real key lime pie. And you’ll need recipes straight from a Southern grandma’s cookbook to get some of America’s best desserts right. Many of the most nostalgic desserts from the West Coast are still unheard of in the East. But why not spread the love? From pies to cookies to cakes and so much more, here are some of America’s best regional dessert foods you need to try.
Every New Englander knows that apple picking is one of the essential fall weekend trips to take every year. And while the apples themselves are great, there’s nothing quite like a warm apple cider doughnut at the end of a long day on the orchard. The flaky, sugar-coated doughnuts are the perfect fall dessert. If you do make it to one of the best apple orchards in America, don’t leave without trying one.
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When you think of Alaska and dessert, your brain might go right to baked Alaska, one of the most retro desserts out there. But as anyone who knows better will tell you, baked Alaska isn’t from Alaska at all — and the state has a few fabulous desserts of its own. Akutaq, also called Eskimo ice cream or Alaskan ice cream, is made by mixing together oil, shortening, a variety of berries, sugar and, traditionally, whitefish or tallow. “Akutaq” is a Yup’ik word that means “something mixed.” Original recipes from long ago were created by natives of Alaska to bring on long hunting trips for survival, and often didn’t include sugar. Recipes have adapted over time, and now many Alaskan families will have a recipe of their own that’s been passed down for generations.
Bananas Foster is one of those foods you’ll remember if you grew up in the ‘50s. The dish originated in New Orleans during that decade because the city had large imports of bananas. It’s boozy and super sweet, made from cooked bananas and vanilla ice cream that’s drenched in a sauce made from butter, brown sugar, banana liqueur and rum. Before they are served, the bananas are flambeed with the sauce, caramelizing the edges of the syrupy dish. You can also make a simpler version at home using your slow cooker.
Famously originating at Cafe du Monde in New Orleans, beignets are a type of French doughnut every Louisiana visitor should try. They’re fluffy and look like small, powdered sugar-dusted pillows. Typically, these Southern treats are made from deep-fried choux pastry, but other types of dough can be used as well. For a fresh twist, try this recipe for blueberry beignets that are too good to pass up.
If you’re from New York, you know the nostalgic joy of a black and white cookie. Every good NYC bakery, bodega and bagel place has a black and white cookie for sale, whether baked fresh, pre-packaged or wrapped in cellophane. Half chocolate-frosted, half vanilla-frosted, the base of these treats taste more like a cake than a cookie.
True to its name, Boston cream pie is one of the most iconic desserts in America and is cherished by residents of the city. Boston cream pie is a yellow butter cake filled with custard and frosted with a chocolate glaze. You could try making your own at home, but no one does it better than Massachusettsans. Residents of the state love the dessert so much they passed an ordinance in 1996 declaring it their official “Dessert Emblem.”
Also known as the Buckeye State, Ohio is home to buckeyes, one of the foods you can only find in the Midwest. The treats were named for their resemblance to the nuts that grow on a buckeye tree, which used to cover Ohio’s landscape. The candy is made by mixing together peanut butter with butter and powdered sugar, rolling it into balls and dipping the mixture in sweet milk chocolate.
Chess pie was first invented in England before migrating to New England and Virginia where it became popular in part because of its simplicity. Chess pie is known as the “ultimate pantry pie” since the recipe is so simple. You just need a pie crust and can make the filling with items you probably already have in your pantry: flour, butter, sugar and eggs. The result is a sweet, dense pie that inspires plenty of variations. Some popular flavors of chess pie are buttermilk, lemon and chocolate.
Southern dinner recipes use Coca-Cola with surprising frequency, and dessert recipes are no different. The South loves its soda, deeming Coca-Cola the “Champagne of the South,” and they love this cake too. Though Coca-Cola now has its own recipe for the cake, they didn’t invent it. It’s been around since the 1950s, when it was occasionally found in newspaper articles in Charleston. The cake is known for being super sweet. In addition to cocoa, tons of sugar, buttermilk and (of course) Coca-Cola, there are also marshmallows in the mix.
You probably know this Kentucky dessert by a different name: Derby pie. However, Kern’s Kitchen, the Louisville bakery that invented Mayday pie, copyrighted the name “Derby pie” and has earned a reputation for protecting the name quite aggressively, so it’s often referred to by the more generic title “Mayday pie” or “that horse race pie.” The pie — which is similar to pecan pie and chess pie — is made with bourbon, chocolate and walnuts. Here’s how to make a version of your own at home. We encourage pairing it with one of the best Kentucky Derby cocktails.
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A “do-nothing cake,” also known as a Texas Tornado cake, gets its name because of how simple it is to make. Back before boxed cake mixes were a thing, baking something so easily was a novel concept. While you have to do a bit more than nothing, all it takes to whip one of these up is to dump a few pantry staples into a bowl with canned, crushed pineapple and give it a quick whisk. Then you pour the batter in a pan and bake until it’s done. The frosting of this cake is simple, as well, consisting of coconut, chopped nuts, butter and sugar. Your final result is a cake way better than something made out of the box.
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Gooey butter cakes are gooey and, yes, loaded with butter. They were supposedly invented by accident when a baker in St. Louis, Missouri, mixed up the amounts of butter and flour that were called for in a cake recipe. If you know how to make it right, the consistency should be similar to that of a brownie. This cake is so delicious, you can eat it any time of day. That’s why it’s one of the dishes you just might find on a Midwestern breakfast table.
A hummingbird cake is the cozy combination of banana, pecan, pineapple, cinnamon and nutmeg. This dessert is often served with a thick cream cheese frosting. Hummingbird cakes have become a popular Southern dessert option, though they were actually invented in Jamaica and named after the official national bird of the island country.
New Jersey and New York have no shortage of Italian bakeries, most of which sell a variety of cute little Italian cookies. Spumoni slices, butter cookies, biscotti, spritz cookies, pignoli cookies, pizzelles and biscotti are just some of the array of treats you’ll find behind bakery windows. Some are covered in sprinkles, others are chocolate-dipped. You really can’t go wrong; families in the Northeast will bring home a variety in a box or stop in a bakery to grab a few as a midday treat.
Key West is famous for its beaches and for good reason, but this stunning, sunny destination is also worthwhile for its pies. Sure, you may have tried a key lime pie elsewhere, but they probably paled in comparison to what you can get at some of the best restaurants in Florida. For the uninformed, a Key lime pie features a dense, graham cracker crust and a creamy, tangy Key lime filling. A dollop of whipped cream on top makes this pie a true slice of paradise.
Alabama’s lane cake, also called a prize cake or Alabama lane cake, is one of the most famous foods in America. It’s made from layers of white sponge cake held together by layers of bourbon-soaked raisins and coconut and a white meringue frosting. The dessert was made famous after being mentioned in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and was named Alabama’s official state dessert in 2016.
If you’re ever in Oregon, this dessert is a must-try. A marionberry is a specific variety of blackberry that’s rarely found outside the state. The berry was specially developed at Oregon State University in 1945 and tastes sweeter and more complex than your average blackberry. Unfortunately, the berries don’t ship well due to their fragile nature. But in Oregon, they account for approximately half the blackberries grown in the region.
Mississippians love their mud pie, and it’s easy to see why. The crust is made from chocolate cookies and chopped pecans, while the smooth filling is made with coffee-flavored liqueur, vanilla extract and chocolate. All of this is topped with a generous portion of whipped cream and, often, a few extra chocolate shavings. The pie gets its name because the chocolatey interior is dense and messy-looking enough to resemble the murk of the Mississippi River.
The Moravian sugar cake is native to Pennsylvania and North Carolina, having origins in Moravian Church settlements in these states. It tastes and looks similar to a mashup of coffee cake and bread pudding and has an interesting secret ingredient — mashed potatoes. The thick, yeasty dough is baked and forms dimples, which are then filled with pockets of melted butter, brown sugar and cinnamon that creates a crust that simultaneously sinks into the cake and creates a layer of sugary crust on top.
Scotcheroos are one of the greatest foods to come out of the Midwest. A scotcheroo is a dessert bar made from crisp rice stuck together by butterscotch, chocolate and peanut butter. They require zero baking and can keep for hours without being refrigerated, making them the perfect summertime treat. Here’s how to make a batch for yourself (and more than a few friends).
If you ever travel to Hawaii, don’t leave before trying a helping or two of shave ice. It’s similar to a snow cone, but rather than crushed ice, shave ice is made with, well, shaved ice. You’ll hear it referred to by Hawaiian locals as either “ice shave” or “shave ice,” and the dessert is often served with locally inspired flavors such as passion fruit, guava, lychee and coconut.
Shoofly pie originated in the 1880s from the Pennsylvania Dutch, whose families needed to find a use for shelf-stable ingredients such as lard, molasses and flour during harsh winters. The molasses-based pie rumoredly got its name because the sweet, sticky mix of molasses would attract flies to the kitchen. Try making this tried-and-true dessert at home. After you make the crust, the sweet filling comes together in close to 10 minutes.
Named after an island located off the coast in the Chesapeake Bay, Smith Island cake was declared the official state dessert of Maryland in 2008,. On Smith Island, locals will sometimes refer to the cake simply as “layer cake,” which is pretty accurate. The cakes typically have at least eight thin layers — normally more — of yellow cake, between which you’ll find generous amounts of chocolate frosting.
Sugar cream pie goes by many names: Hoosier sugar cream pie, Indiana cream pie and Indiana farm pie, to name a few. And, if you couldn’t tell, it’s the pride and joy of Indiana. Residents will tell you that sugar cream pie was first invented the year the state was established in 1816. The custard filling is made with vanilla, sugar and heavy cream.
Texas is home to more than a few iconic recipes, including some seriously decadent desserts. The Texas sheet cake, also known as “cowboy cake,” is no exception. Served on a large sheet tray and surprisingly easy to make, this is the perfect treat to feed a crowd. It’s dense, chocolatey and rich, made with buttermilk, cocoa and butter then topped with pecans and a decadent fudge chocolate icing. Once you’ve tried this recipe from Texas, indulge your sweet tooth with the most iconic desserts from every state.
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