We Americans love our dessert. Our countrymen spent years perfecting the thermodynamic art of inserting ice cream into cake molds during the late 1800s’ Baked Alaska craze. In 1904, we transformed stodgy old Europe’s spoon-laden iced creams and gelati into handheld convenience with the birth of the ice cream cone at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Now, as our nation marks its second year of Cronut™ mania, we are examining the content of our confectionary character. From Dole canned fruit rings in the post-industrial age, to the early aughts’ cupcake craze in downtown Manhattan, here is a century of iconic American desserts.
1915-1925: Pineapple Upside Down Cake
America’s answer to tarte tatin had been turning up in home kitchens throughout the past decade, but it makes its national, print debut as part of a 1925 canned fruit competition. James Dole and his Hawaiian Fruit Company (he later rebrands the business under the family name) hosts a recipe contest to promote its canned pineapple slices. Out of 60,000 applicants, 2,500 submit homemade versions of pineapple upside down cakes.
The campfire classic — then called “Some Mores” — makes its first printed appearance in a Girl Scouts handbook titled Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts.
1934: Mock Apple Pie
Newly launched Ritz Cracker Company capitalizes on lingering Depression-era thrift with a back-of-the-box “apple pie” recipe that substitutes all-American packaged goods for fresh fruit.
1938: Chocolate Chip Cookies
Ruth Wakefield begins serving cookies studded with chocolate chips to accompany ice cream at her Toll House restaurant in Whitman, MA. The recipe is published in 1938, and sold to Nestlé (reportedly for one dollar) the following year.
1943: Baby Ruth Wartime Cookies
Rations may be scarce, but patriotic homemakers bake cookies using Baby Ruth candy bars, which have proclaimed themselves on the side of the Allies with the slogan: “Food is Fuel for Victory.”
1951: Bananas Foster
A Dutch chef creates the quintessential New Orleans dessert at Brennan’s restaurant, a now-shuttered French Quarter institution scheduled to reopen in late 2014. Chef Paul Blangé names his creation for Brennan’s regular Richard Foster, chairman of the neighborhood’s crime commission.
1964: Chocolate Fondue
The timeless Swiss art of dunking things in hot cheese gets the sweet treatment at now-shuttered Manhattan restaurant Chalet Suisse (not to be confused with Canadian chicken chain Swiss Chalet). Rumors abound surrounding the exact date and origin of chocolate fondue’s inception, but many point to a Toblerone promotion that inspires Swiss-born chef Konrad Egli to serve a bubbling blend of chocolate, cream and kirsch to Chalet Suisse patrons hungry for European sophistication. American rec rooms are never the same.
1975: Watergate Salad
An unholy alliance of pistachio pudding, canned pineapple, Cool Whip and marshmallows, the Watergate is a salad in name only. Originally called Pistachio Pineapple Delight by Kraft, the Watergate’s popularity soared while the country reeled from political scandal.
1983: Ice Cream Cookie Sandwich
Richard LaMotta began selling packaged Chipwiches two years earlier, but the build-your-own ice cream sammies at Diddy Riese in Westwood, CA are an enduring icon. Lines of UCLA co-eds and SoCal diet-breakers mix and match scoops of peanut butter cup or strawberry ice cream between cookies with flavors like sugar cinnamon, double chocolate chip and, of course, quintessentially ‘80s white chocolate macadamia nut.
1987: Molten Lava Cake
Jean-Georges Vongrichten is credited with creating the haute cuisine classic of the 1980s and 1990s. As the story goes, J-G’s cake runneth over when he removes a not-quite-set chocolate confection from the oven of Manhattan’s Lafayette Restaurant (the original one at the Drake on East 56th, not Andrew Carmellini’s spot in NoHo).
1992: Krispy Kreme
Vernon Rudolph began baking glazed yeast doughnuts in Winston-Salem, NC in 1937, but the launch of its first retail-only location and its glowing, “Hot Doughnuts Now” sign transforms a southeastern grocery supplier into a national phenomenon worth sitting in a parking lot for.
2000: Magnolia Cupcakes
The New York City bakery is an immediate success when it opens in 1996, and publishes its first cookbook in 1999. But it is an episode of the third season of Sex and the City that launches Magnolia’s handheld, buttercream-powered juggernauts into the stratosphere. The bakery now serves cupcakes at outposts in Dubai, Moscow, Tokyo and Kuwait City.
2008: Compost Cookie
Christina Tosi redefines leftovers at Momofuku Milk Bar, combining chocolate and butterscotch chips, pretzels, potato chips, graham crackers and ground coffee into one, nostalgia-inducing guilty pleasure.
On May 10, James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Dominique Ansel introduces the Cronut™, a croissant-doughnut hybrid two months in the making, at his eponymous Manhattan bakery. Considerable trademarking drama, epic lines and utter mass hysteria follow. Dentists, lock up your daughters.