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Treat yourself after a hearty dinner with these glorious American desserts that may have initially been synonymous with a region or state but soon found a home in restaurants, bakeries, and kitchens throughout the United States.
As our American foods rundown proved, America doesn’t hold back when it comes to truly delicious food! Satisfying that sweet craving should come easy with some of these beloved classics, which have been putting smiles on faces for generations.
From buttery pies to frozen delights, there’s something for everyone on this list. So join me on a journey of sheer indulgence as I share with you sixteen of the country’s favorite desserts and why they’re so special.
Favorite American Desserts
Cakes & Pies
1 – Cupcakes
Although cake, in some form or another, has been around for hundreds of years, the cupcake is in fact an American invention! Amelia Simmons, the author of America’s first cookbook, American Cookery, recorded the recipe for “cake to be baked in small cups” in 1796.
Virtually any cake recipe can be adapted as a cupcake, and American bakers haven’t been shy about doing just that. Dedicated cupcake bakeries create dozens of different flavors, from the classic chocolate or vanilla to more exotic choices, such as salted caramel or raspberry amaretto, just to name a few! Cupcakes are usually frosted, and some can be quite elaborate.
2 – Red Velvet Cake
The origin of this cake is the subject of much debate. Although “velvet cakes” date back to Victorian times (so called because of the soft texture the addition of cocoa powder gives to the cake batter), how the red hue developed is unclear.
It may have been an accidental chemical reaction between cocoa powder and the acid in buttermilk, creating a mahogany tint to the final product. Although the cake is generally associated with southern cooking, it’s likely that the red velvet cake we know today was created by the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City in the 1920s. Interestingly, around the same time, a department store in Toronto served it, claiming that a local socialite named Lady Eaton created the recipe.
Wherever the cake was invented, it went out of style after the 1950s until it made an appearance in the movie Steel Magnolias in 1989. It became popular once again, and it remains so until now.
Today’s version of red velvet cake is considerably redder than any of history’s versions because during World War II, rationing forced cooks to use the newly invented food coloring or beet juice to create the red hue.
Today’s recipes still use cocoa powder, buttermilk, and vinegar to preserve the color. Almost all recipes make use of red food coloring.
These days the cake is generally topped with a cream cheese frosting, although the original recipe called for a white frosting known as “ermine.”
3 – Cheesecake
Amazingly, cheesecake recipes go all the way back to Ancient Greece! Throughout history, various cultures have created versions of a dessert using cheese mixed with flour and sugar.
Today, cheesecake in the U.S. comes in many different varieties, and the specific ingredients are usually hotly defended by preference. Cheesecake is made with or without a crust, and that crust can be pastry or cookie crumbs, such as graham crackers or Oreos.
It can be made with ricotta cheese, cream cheese, or even cottage cheese, and cheesecake can be baked or not and then chilled in the refrigerator.
Some cheesecakes are flavored or marbled with chocolate or something else, such as peanut butter. Some are topped with fruit compotes and whipped cream, and the variations are vast and delicious!
4 – Apple Pie
Even though apple pie was consumed in England all the way back to the 1300s, Americans have claimed this dessert as their signature treat, and, in fact, early colonists did bring it to this country.
We’re all familiar with the saying that something is “as American as apple pie!” Most versions of this pie use a tart apple such as the Granny Smith and spice it with cinnamon.
But it’s not just apples in pie that Americans love. There is also pumpkin pie, introduced to early settlers by Native Americans (without the crust) and ubiquitous at any Thanksgiving dinner nowadays. Then there is pecan pie, filled with a corn syrup, butter, and egg mixture and topped with toasted pecans, beloved by southern Americans.
Key limes, smaller and more tart than regular limes, only grow in tropical and sub-tropical climates, such as Key West, Florida, where the key lime pie was invented. The pie crust is filled with lime juice and zest, condensed milk, sugar, and eggs, and then topped with meringue.
The matter of fact is that wherever you are in the US, you are bound to find some truly delicious pie!
5 – Boston Cream Pie
Despite its name, this dessert hardly qualifies as pie at all, and it is actually a sponge cake with pastry cream in the center and toasted almonds on the edges. The whole thing is topped with a chocolate glaze.
Its recipe evolved over time in New England and was finally made famous by the Parker Hotel in downtown Boston when it opened in 1856.
6 – Strawberry Shortcake
If you’re making strawberry shortcake from scratch, you likely bake two or more round shortcakes, a sweet dough that has a biscuit-like texture, and sandwich them with sweet, whipped cream in between each section.
The whole thing is topped with another scoop of whipped cream and draped with sliced fresh strawberries. If you’re making the fast version, you’ll buy premade sponge cake rounds rather than making a shortcake dough.
Some version of a fruit-filled shortcake has been around for hundreds of years, likely originating in England. Even William Shakespeare mentions a shortcake in one of his works.
However, the version that Americans know and love today was first recorded in cookbooks in Ohio and Pennsylvania in the mid-1800s, likely to celebrate the annual harvest of strawberries.
Related: 20 British Desserts You Need to Try
7 – Hot Fudge Sundaes
Sundaes of all kinds are an American invention. Basically, they’re a scoop or two (or even three) of ice cream topped with any kind of sweet sauce, sprinkles, candy, nuts, or bananas (banana split sundaes are another popular dessert) and whipped cream.
It’s not known for sure where in America the sundae originated (or why it is spelled that way), but the classic Hot Fudge Sundae was invented in a Los Angeles ice cream parlor in 1906 and is usually topped with a maraschino cherry.
8 – Ice Cream
Ice cream of all kinds are another favorite American dessert. There are an endless variety of flavors available in ice cream parlors and grocery stores.
Milkshakes and the Malted are also made from ice cream, mixed with milk and, in the case of the Malted, a scoop of malted milk powder, which gives it a toasty flavor. The mixture is put into a blender, where it becomes frothy and drinkable.
9 – Baked Alaska
Although this opulent dessert is named after America’s most northern state, it was invented in New York City at the famed restaurant Delmonico’s in 1867 to commemorate the acquisition of the Alaska territories by the U.S. from Russia.
The Baked Alaska is comprised of layers of cake and ice cream and then covered with snowy meringue and baked. In fact, versions of this dessert existed in France in the early 1800s when a physicist discovered that meringue acted as an insulator to ice cream, preventing it from melting in the oven!
Cookies and Bars
10 – Rice Krispie Treats
This dessert showcases a creative use of marshmallows, butter, and a very popular breakfast cereal! Mix it with any popped rice cereal and melted butter, let it chill, cut it into bars, and it’s ready to enjoy.
Its simplicity, not to mention its crunchy and chewy texture, makes it particularly popular for serving to children and at picnics. This dessert was invented in 1939 by employees of Kellogg’s, the inventor of the original cereal of the same name.
11 – Brownies
As with so many favorite American desserts, the true origins of the chocolate brownie are unknown. Most attribute its creation to the socialite Bertha Palmer, of the Palmer House hotel in Chicago, in honor of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, although they were not called brownies at the time.
In fact, no one truly seems to be certain of how the name came to be, other than the fact that they are obviously brown in color!
Brownies are now the subject of a lot of creativity. Some are cake-like, and some are chewy and fudge-like. Many have a natural glossy top after baking which is created by dissolving the sugar ingredient into melted butter before adding other ingredients. Some are frosted with cream cheese or chocolate. Most are cut into a square shape.
Although brownies started out as a plain chocolate batter, modern cooks will add nuts or chocolate chips to the batter and sometimes creatively flavor it with things like salted caramel or marble cheesecake into it.
12 – Whoopie Pies and Moon Pies
They may seem similar to each other, but fans of either the Whoopie or the Moon Pies would likely beg to differ!
The Whoopie Pie is comprised of two cake-like circles that sandwich a vanilla frosting filling. The Moon Pie, by contrast, is made from two circles of a soft graham cracker cookie, filled with a marshmallow and buttercream combination, and then dipped in a chocolate coating.
Modern versions of both of these treats can come in many different sizes and flavors or covered with sprinkles and other decorations.
No one is quite sure where the original Whoopie Pie came from, although at least four different states claim it. Legend has it that the Moon Pie was invented in Kentucky for coal miners, one of whom asked for a cookie “as big as the moon.”
Fans of these two desserts will be happy to know that there are annual festivals to celebrate both of them. The state of Maine has a “Whoopie Pie Day” and the town of Belt Buckle, Tennessee has a festival as well, with both celebrations held in June.
Related: 21 Foods (including Desserts) You Must Try in Kentucky
Other Favorite Desserts
13 – S’mores
This gooey and sticky treat is the quintessential dessert for campfires and fireplaces and is especially popular with children. Start by roasting a marshmallow on a skewer and when it’s done to your liking, slap it on top of a chocolate bar section and then put it in between two graham crackers.
The S’more was first created by girl scouts in the early 1920s. The name is a contraction of the phrase “some more!”
14 – Fudge
Another component of the Hot Fudge Sundae, mentioned above, is the fudge itself. Fudge is made from sugar, milk, butter, and flavoring, which is cooked and then beaten as it cools to create a firm, sugary texture that can be cut into squares.
Fudge is an American invention, probably from the 19th century. Fudge is not necessarily chocolate and can come in many different flavors. Nowadays, fudge is a fixture in many tourist destinations, especially in northern Michigan.
15 – Jell-O
Not everyone appreciates this sugary, jiggly dessert! But those who do, love it passionately.
It was first invented in New York City by Peter Cooper in 1822. Cooper owned a glue factory and wanted to find further uses for the animal by-products that glue is made of.
Eventually, he came up with “portable gelatin,” an unflavored powder. The patent was purchased in 1897 and marketed as Jell-O with fruit flavors added.
Jell-O is frequently used to make a range of dessert salads and molded dessert dishes. It seems to be particularly popular in hospital cuisine!
16 – Funnel Cake
You’ll find the Funnel Cake at any state fair, and many other outdoor carnivals as well, although it is possible to make it at home. It’s made by pouring sweet dough through a funnel in a circular pattern into hot oil.
The circles of dough are layered on top of each other and are fried until the dough is brown and crunchy, although amazingly, it’s light and airy in the center. Funnel Cakes are usually topped with sprinkled confectioner’s sugar.
Funnel cakes are popularly thought to be Pennsylvania Dutch in origin, brought over by their German ancestors. However, versions of this circle-patterned and deep-fried dessert can be found in other cultures, such as Mexico, the Philippines, and India, for example.
Favorite American Desserts Summary
The United States is known for some world-renowned dishes, and there are plenty of wholesome and wonderfully sweet desserts that can be found in that last.
You simply cannot spend ample time in the US without trying some, if not all, of these favorite American dishes. Their flavors are glorious, their textures divine, and they are sure to put a smile on your face following a big, hearty meal.
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Contributor: Wendy Ponte is a social media expert and content writer specialist, who loves to write about American travel, cuisine, and culture.