Baked Alaska
Baked Alaska by vxla (CC BY)

The Surprising Stories Behind Popular Regional Desserts

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Baked Alaska
Baked Alaska by vxla (CC BY)

Legendary Sweets

You probably don't think a lot about the history of the desserts you eat, and understandably so. But there's a lot of interesting, unusual, and just plain weird stories behind some of them, especially the ones that sprang up as regional favorites. Whether you've had — or heard of — all these desserts or not, you'll likely not forget them once you hear their unusual history. Do you have other stories? Tell us in the comments.


Related: The Best Dessert to Try in Every State

Sugar Cream Pie
Sugar Cream Pie by Robyn Anderson (CC BY-NC-ND)

Hoosier Pie

Hoosier pie, also called sugar cream pie, got its start with Shaker and Amish communities in Indiana in the early 1800s. It's considered a "desperation" pie because you could make it when times were tough and fresh fruit and eggs weren't available. The filling is a simple, custardlike pudding made with cream, flour, vanilla, and nutmeg or cinnamon. It's been around about as long as the state itself, so it makes sense that it's Indiana's official state pie.


Try it yourself: Saveur 


Related: Simple Depression-Era Desserts That Actually Are Indulgent

Hummingbird cake
Hummingbird cake by Vegan Feast Catering (CC BY)

Hummingbird Cake

The story of hummingbird cake, a Southern classic, actually starts in another country. Hummingbirds are Jamaica's national bird, where they're called doctor birds. In 1968, a Jamaican airline created a press packet that included a recipe for "doctor bird cake" that included bananas, crushed pineapple, and spices baked in a tube pan. It didn't get its new hummingbird moniker, layers, and signature cream cheese frosting until 1978 when Southern Living magazine published a recipe by Mrs. L.H. Wiggins that became the classic.

 

Try it yourself: Southern Living


Related: The True Origins of Classic “American” Foods

Bizcochitos
Bizcochitos by Megan Eaves (CC BY-SA)

Bizcochitos

New Mexico was the first state to adopt an official state cookie in 1989 when it recognized the bizcochito as the locals' favorite treat for holidays and breakfast. Spanish colonists were enjoying similar cookies by the 16th century, and brought the anise- and cinnamon-scented shortbreadlike cookies to the Southwest, where it was adapted to regional tastes over the years. They're almost always made with lard, but butter or shortening can be used for vegetarian versions. 


Try it yourself: Santa Fe New Mexican


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Shoofly Pie
Shoofly Pie by Anna Creech (CC BY-NC-ND)

Shoofly Pie

Like so many old recipes, it's impossible to trace the exact origin of shoofly pie, a Pennsylvania Dutch specialty that's had the name since at least the late 19th century. It's likely a descendant of the British treacle tart, with molasses, a popular ingredient in Appalachia, substituted for treacle. The gooey, crumb-covered pie's catchy name could have a number of sources, including the fact that its sticky sweet filling attracted flies while cooling, or a brand of molasses made in Philadelphia named after a popular traveling circus animal, Shoofly the boxing mule.


Try it yourself: Southern Living

Benne Wafers
Benne Wafers by Wally Gobetz (CC BY-NC-ND)

Benne Wafers

Benne wafers are a South Carolina low country speciality made with nutty sesame seeds in a thin, crispy brown sugar cookie. Enslaved West Africans brought sesame seeds, which are called benne in Bantu, to the Southern American colonies. Like other West African crops — collards, black-eyed peas, and okra, to name a few — sesame became part of traditional Southern cuisine. You can get the wafers all over Charleston, but most other parts of the country have never heard of this centuries-old confection.


Try it yourself: King Arthur

Bananas Foster, Brennan's, New Orleans
Brennan's

Bananas Foster

Leave it to New Orleans to make one of the most flamboyant desserts around: bananas foster. It was created in the early 1950s by Ella Brennan at Brennan's restaurant to honor a loyal customer, Richard Foster. There, servers prepare the dish tableside, sauteing sliced bananas with brown sugar, butter, cinnamon, and banana liqueur. When the dish is ready, it's flambéed with rum or brandy before being poured over vanilla ice cream, wowing the entire dining room.


Try it yourself: Brennan's

Buckeyes
Buckeyes by Travis Wise (CC BY)

Buckeyes

Buckeyes, an Ohio specialty named after the nut of the state's tree that the peanut butter and chocolate candy resembles, supposedly can be traced back to one woman. Gail Tabor is credited with the creation in the 1960s when she was experimenting with Christmas treats. She noticed they resembled the buckeye, so she started taking them to every rivalry Ohio State vs. Michigan football game. After people clamored for the recipe, after 17 years she finally relented and gave it to a friend who was moving out of state. Scandalously, that same friend leaked the recipe, much to Tabor's chagrin.


Try it yourself: Bon Appetit

Boston Cream Pie
Boston Cream Pie by Kimberly Vardeman (CC BY)

Boston Cream Pie

Boston cream pie's moniker reveals its age: In the 19th century, the terms cake and pie were interchangeable. The legend of the vanilla cake filled with custard and topped with chocolate glaze is that it was created by the chef of Boston's Parker House Hotel for its grand opening in 1856. But chances are that variations of the dessert existed before then, and the first printed recipe didn't appear until 1918, so who really knows.


Try it yourself: Sally's Baking Addiction

Gooey Butter Cake
Gooey Butter Cake by Amanda (CC BY)

Gooey Butter Cake

The St. Louis specialty gooey butter cake may have been one of the happiest accidents in dessert history. There are a number of claims to the origins of the treat — which is more like a bar cookie than a cake, topped with a layer of creamy, gooey filling — but most involve a baker in southern St. Louis accidentally mixing up ingredients during the Great Depression, resulting in something most definitely not a cake. Another story claims that World War II rationing is what led to the unique creation when bakers had to get creative with ingredient substitutions. No matter the real origin story, it's hard to sink your teeth into it unless you live in St. Louis.


Try it yourself: I am Baker

Marionberry Pie
Marionberry Pie by Chelsea Nesvig (CC BY)

Marionberry Pie

Marionberry pie is so ubiquitous in Oregon that it's hard to believe it didn't even exist until the 1950s — that's when marionberries were first cultivated. They're a cultivar of blackberry that was bred by George F. Waldo at Oregon State University and released in 1956 with the name Marion, after the county they were grown in. The homegrown berry quickly became a hit because of its sweet complexity and deep purple color, but it doesn't travel well, so good luck finding the berries outside of the Pacific Northwest. 


Try it yourself: Taste of Home

Blue Moon Ice Cream
Blue Moon Ice Cream by Bill McChesney (CC BY)

Blue Moon Ice Cream

One of the Midwest's most unique and beloved ice cream flavors is a complete mystery to everyone who eats it. At practically every ice cream parlor in the upper Midwest — especially Wisconsin and Michigan — you'll find a neon blue flavor called blue moon. It tastes similar to Froot Loops with a punch of almond, but you can only get the flavoring from one company, Weber Flavors. It owns the flavor's patent, which was probably created in the 1960s, and doesn't have any plans to release the secret recipe.


Try it yourself: Atlas Obscura

New York Cheesecake
New York Cheesecake by Kimberly Vardeman (CC BY)

New York Cheesecake

Cheesecake itself has been around since ancient times, when people would sweeten cheese with honey and cook it. But what Americans think of as cheesecake is New York style, and that didn't come about until after Kraft perfected its recipe for cream cheese in 1912. It didn't take long for people to start using the smooth, creamy product in cheesecakes, and restaurants were serving it by the 1920s. In 1950, Junior's opened in New York, and it soon became the city's — and country's — gold standard. 


Try it yourself: The New York Times

Key Lime Pie
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Key Lime Pie

There are two theories for the history of key lime pie, and one attracts ire from Floridians. The first is a quaint story about sea sponge fishermen in the 1800s who used limes to prevent scurvy on their boats, mixing the fruit with condensed milk for pouring over Cuban bread. Eventually, that recipe made it to someone named Aunt Sally — whether she was real or a legend is disputed — who created the pie form of the dessert. On the other hand, the earliest known written recipe for the pie came from the New York-based Borden condensed milk company in 1931. You can guess which story Floridians prefer.


Try it yourself: Once Upon a Chef

Baked Alaska
Baked Alaska by vxla (CC BY)

Baked Alaska

Baked Alaska, with a center of frozen ice cream and cake surrounded by a sheath of baked or flambeed meringue, is a marvel of science. We can thank American scientist Benjamin Thompson for it, who discovered that whipped egg whites are an excellent insulator. By the early 19th century, French chefs were creating similar desserts — quite a marvel of technology back then. The dish finally got its name at Delmonico's in New York City in 1867 as a way to commemorate the country's purchase of the new state. 


Try it yourself: Food Network