clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

180 Years of America's Classic Desserts: From Baked Alaska to Marionberry Pie

Classic desserts and where to find them.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What makes a classic? All week, Eater has examined classic restaurants, dishes, and the people who made them famous. Now, it's time for a sweet finish and a look at the classic desserts that have stood the test of time. Though many American desserts started out as homespun creations, restaurants and bakeries from coast to coast took those recipes, fueled by their childhood memories, and turned them into American icons. These classic American desserts prove that it's not just apple pie that inspires nostalgia from the first bite: Here now, a primer on cream cakes, fruit-filled pies, and desserts set aflame.

Boston Cream Pie

Flour Bakery, Boston

Created: Probably sometime between 1834 and 1856.

One of America's most-recognized classic desserts, a vanilla sponge cake filled with vanilla cream and topped with a shiny chocolate glaze, hails from Boston. The origins of Boston cream pie — which has always been a cake, not a pie — are murky. The most famous tale is the one told by Boston's Parker House Hotel (now the Omni Parker House), which claims that the hotel's Armenian-French chef M. Sanzian created the dessert in honor of the hotel's opening in 1856. (In the 19th century, the terms "cake" and "pie" were interchangeable, hence the cake's original name, "chocolate cream pie.")

But according to Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England, by Keith W. F. Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald, Boston cream pie probably existed before the hotel's opening. A cousin of Boston cream pie, Beecher's cream cake — which is actually a pie, not a cake — was a common recipe of the time, and a poem from 1844 called Johnny Green and the Cream Cake alludes to the French-style of cake filled with cream:

On the Fourth of July Johnny Green came to town;
He eyed a plump cream cake, a nice one I'm sure—
(But Johnny had ne'er seen a cream cake before— )

It wasn't until 1918 that the first recipe was published for a cream cake topped with satiny chocolate icing. And today, Boston cream pie remains the official dessert of Massachusetts.

Pastry chef Joanne Chang opened Flour Bakery in Boston in 2000, and "Boston cream pie has been on our menu since we opened," she confirms. Chang's version puts a twist on the original: The four-layer cake is soaked in coffee syrup before being filled with vanilla pastry cream lightened with whipped cream. The whole cake is then glazed with chocolate ganache.

Chang got the idea for the coffee syrup soak from Bentonwood Bakery, where she worked prior to opening Flour. "It's a classic dessert, so it's the type of thing that tourists will come and try and the type [of cake] that locals want, too," Chang says. "But the coffee syrup is our touch. Sponge cake is really light and airy so it benefits from a light soaking, adds flavor and moisture, and makes it a little bit more interesting." Could Chang imagine Flour Bakery without Boston cream pie? "I wouldn't dare take it off the menu," she says with a light laugh.

Key Lime Pie

Fen Labalme/Flickr

Created: Circa 1850.

Tart and sweet, creamy and light, Key lime pie has captured the heart of America and remains a standard pie at bakeries from coast to coast. According to the Food History Almanac by Janet Clarkson, the first recipe for Key lime pie appeared in a cookbook in the 1930s. But culinary historian Andrew F. Smith writes that trees producing tiny limes were introduced to the islands by the Spanish in the late 1700s, and probably resulted in a pie-like dessert by the 1850s. Either way, the dessert didn't become popular until after World War II, and by then, most of the Florida Keys' lime trees had been destroyed by hurricanes. Today, much of the key lime pie produced in the Florida Keys is made from the sweeter Persian lime. But not at Pepe's.

Matthew Lumb/Flickr

Pepe's Cafe & Steakhouse has continually served the Florida Keys since 1906. Though the restaurant has gone through three owners, its bakers have been consistently making Pepe's key lime pie using the original recipe, according to Tracy Leslie, a Pepe's manager. "People come from all over just for the pie. Sometimes they eat lunch or dinner too, and get the pie for dessert, but a lot of the time they just want the pie," Leslie says. "We go through about eight pies a day, six slices per pie." And while some bakeries might closely protect their signature recipes, Pepe's pie recipe is no secret: The simple combination of eggs, sweetened condensed milk, and key lime juice (no exceptions) has stood the test of time. "We give the recipe out to everyone," Leslie says. "But it doesn't stop them from coming back for more."

Baked Alaska

Courtesy The Oceanaire, Dallas

Created: 1876 (though variations may have originated earlier).

Pop quiz: Can you bake ice cream in a hot oven without it melting? Pastry chefs have long made good use of basic science, and Baked Alaska — the dessert that consists of a layer of cake topped with a dome of ice cream, covered in meringue, and then baked until golden — is the most famous of these inventions. Various origin stories exist — some involving China and some involving France — but the first Delmonico's Restaurant in New York City is most often credited with creating and naming the dessert in 1876, in honor of the newly acquired Alaskan territory. George Sala, an Englishman who traveled the United States and documented his experiences in a book titled America Revisited (1882, London), wrote of the dessert:

"The 'Alaska' is a baked ice....The nucleus or core of the entremet is an ice cream. This is surrounded by an envelope of carefully whipped cream, which, just before the dainty dish is served, is popped into the oven, or is brought under the scorching influence of a red hot salamander."

Today, variations on Baked Alaska are made all over the world. One American restaurant chain, the Oceanaire Seafood Room, revived the dessert when it opened its first location in 1998. "It was the first dessert we put on the menu," says chef Wade Wiestling. "The Oceanaire was created to have a supper club, nostalgic feel to it, and we thought this dessert would get a 'wow.'" Oceanaire's cake is prepared ahead of time, torched in the kitchen to order, and them flambeed tableside. "At the table, the server ignites what we call the 'Baked Alaska fuel,'" says Wiestling, "which, depending upon the day and the ice cream inside, is a mixture of Bacardi, Grand Marnier, Creme de cacao, or Creme de menthe." The tower of meringue and ice cream stands eight inches tall and is about six inches in diameter at its base. "It could feed one very hungry person," says Wiestling, "but is probably better for a group of four or six."

R. Lopez/Eater DC

At DBGB in Washington, D.C., pastry chef Celia Lewis offers a show-stopping version of Baked Alaska, with layers of ice cream and sorbet fully encapsulated by cake and artfully piped meringue. Slices of the cake are flambeed tableside, and burn for about 10 seconds at the table. "It's enough time for the 'wow' factor without having people awkwardly standing around waiting for it to [flame] out," Lewis told Eater DC.

Banana Split

Morgenstern's, New York City

Created: 1904.

Rare is the dessert with an undisputed origin story, but the banana split — a classic sundae with several scoops of ice cream, a fresh banana, and a mountain of whipped cream — was most certainly created by David Evans Strickler at Tassel Pharmacy in Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 1904. Apparently, when the 23-year-old apprentice put the trio of ice creams and fresh banana together and charged 10 cents for it — twice the price of every other sundae at the shop at the time — it became an instant hit with local college kids.

Today, a classic banana split is (typically, arguably) made on a base of a banana split lengthwise. Three scoops of ice cream sit atop the splayed fruit, caramel and/or chocolate sauce gets spooned on, whipped cream towers over the ice cream, nuts are sprinkled on top of the whipped cream, and the whole thing is crowned with a bright red cocktail cherry. There are endless variations.

Morgenstern's Ice Cream in New York City has created a new classic: Its banana split starts with five scoops of ice cream. "Obviously I knew I needed to do a banana split here, and we went big with it," says owner Nick Morgenstern, who remembers eating banana splits as a kid growing up in San Francisco. ("We'd go to Swanson's or Fentons in Oakland," he says. "Fentons — that was a good banana split.") At Morgenstern's, the classic sundae starts with a fresh banana and pickled pineapple. "There's always whipped cream and a Luxardo cherry, sesame caramel, and sesame honeycomb," Morgenstern says. "I don't think we went too far off the track, but the sesame caramel and sesame honey... those flavors go really well with the banana and the pineapple." Even at $18 a pop, it's a popular item at Morgenstern's; the shop sells "20 to 30 per day" during the summer.

New York Cheesecake

Charles Siritho/Flickr

Created: Sometime between 1912 and 1929.

Cheesecake is as old as cheese-making, agriculture, and modern man. Eater senior critic Robert Sietsema recounts some of its early history in his comprehensive guide to New York Cheesecake, published last year on Eater New York:

If you dig back far enough in culinary history, you could say the Greeks invented cheesecake. Historian Thucydides recounts how 2,400 years ago he and his pals were in the habit of kneading honey into fresh feta and baking it over hot coals in an outdoor brazier. Vegetarian BBQ! Three hundred years later the Romans adopted it, but they made a few improvements. For one thing, they incorporated spelt flour, which turned it into something we could call a cake. In a fancier version served principally at weddings, the Romans gave cheesecake a wraparound crust, then filled it with ricotta flavored with bay leaf and sweetened with an ungodly amount of honey. (One typical recipe calls for 14 pounds of cheese and four pounds of honey.)


It wasn't until 1912 that James Kraft, founder of Kraft Foods, created what we know now as cream cheese, and it was sometime afterward when people started putting cream cheese in New York-style cheesecake. By 1929, New York-style cheesecake began popping up at places like Turf Restaurant at 49th and Broadway. In 1950, Junior's opened its deli cases in downtown Brooklyn, and 65 years later, it still serves what Sietsema calls "the city's best cheesecake." The critic describes the cake as "dense, near-runny, and almost decaying: the product reportedly sits for 48 hours before being sold to encourage the pungent flavor."

Blum's Coffee Crunch Cake

Valerie Confections, Los Angeles

Created: 1941

Through the 1950s and 1960s, Blum's Bakery operated more than a dozen locations along the West Coast. It was known for its pink bakery boxes, tuna salad on rye, and inventive cakes. But the cake that people in San Francisco and Los Angeles remember the most is Blum's coffee crunch cake: Layers of vanilla sponge slathered with coffee-flavored whipped cream, and covered in honeycomb crunch.

Blum's began serving the cake in 1941, when Earnest Weil took over as bakery manager for the company. Like many now-famous dishes, the cake's invention was an accident. When a candy maker at the bakery overcooked honeycomb candy, Weil saved the day by pressing broken-up bits of the crunchy confection all over a coffee cream-filled vanilla cake. It was immediately a hit. But when Blum's ceased operations in the 1970s, Weil's recipe remained mostly a secret.

Many bakers from Blum's went on to open their own bakeries, using some of Weil's original recipes, thereby keeping the dessert alive. But the cake wasn't officially revived until Valerie Gordon, a chocolatier and pastry chef based in Los Angeles, began resurrecting classic cakes from the 1930s, '40s, '50s, and '60s. "The Blum's coffee crunch cake was a defining cake in my youth," Gordon says. She worked with others who remember tasting the cake at the Blum's in Beverly Hills in the 1950s. "I spend years recreating these recipes," Gordon admits. Today, it's one of the most popular desserts on Valerie Confections' menu and can be ordered online. The cake can also be enjoyed by the slice, at a counter — the way Gordon remembers having it as a child — at Valerie Confections' stall inside downtown Los Angeles's Grand Central Market.

Marionberry Pie

Sweedeedee, Portland

Created: Sometime after 1945.

The marionberry is a cross-breed of two different types of blackberries — the Chehalem and Olallie — developed by the USDA ARS breeding program in cooperation with Oregon State University in 1945. It was first tested in Marion County and remains in high production across Oregon today. Though it looks like every other blackberry, the marionberry is larger, sweeter, and juicier than more common blackberry breeds, so it probably didn't take long for housewives in Oregon to begin making pies with the new, juicy berry in the late 1940s.

Sweedeedee, Portland

Cut to 2012: Eloise Augustyn, an ambitious baker with a history in the restaurant business, opened Sweedeedee Bakery in North Portland. Augustyn knew immediately that she wanted to serve marionberry pie: "It's a classic home dessert, and so it was one I wanted to put on the menu," she says. Though the berries are only in season in late summer, thanks to a partnership Sweedeedee has with Polar Farms, Augustyn is able to serve the pie year-round (Polar freezes its berries and stores them until Sweedeedee needs to restock).

How did Augustyn develop her recipe? "It's something I've been making since I first started making pies, a cup of sugar here, and some lemon zest there, and now we have our house recipe," she says. "Our crust uses all-pastry flour, and European butter — it's an all-butter crust." And how popular is the pie? "It gives our [famous] salted honey pie a run for its money. It's the pie that I like to eat the most," says Augustyn, who grew up in Portland eating the marionberry cobbler her mom used to make. "My mom," she notes, "didn't make pie."

Bananas Foster

David Porter/The Roaming Boomers

Created: Early 1950s.

Bananas Foster is the rare classic dessert still served at the restaurant where it was originally created. Brennan's in New Orleans — which opened in 1946 — invented the dessert in the early 1950s, according to current owner Ralph Brennan. "My aunt Ella Brennan was responsible for creating Bananas Foster," Ralph Brennan explains, saying the dish was invented "to honor a longtime customer we had at the time named Richard Foster." At the time, New Orleans, which was one of the U.S.'s major ports, had become an important importer of bananas from South America. Bananas were everywhere in New Orleans, and when Foster, a friend of the family, celebrated his birthday at the restaurant, his namesake dish was born.

Eater NOLA

Bananas Foster is made from sliced bananas, butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, banana liqueur, and rum or brandy. The sautéed and flambéed bananas are then poured over vanilla ice cream and served immediately. Brennan's has always served the dessert tableside: A tuxedoed waiter approaches the table with a cart set up with a kerosene stove and the dish's components. After the banana liqueur is poured into the pan, the rum or brandy follows and is set aflame. Why the tableside preparation? Ralph Brennan says: "My aunt wanted to do something different and spectacular. Flaming a dessert in the dining room 'wows' customers."

Fact: Ralph Brennan has been eating Bananas Foster for 60 years. "I'm 63, and I first had the dessert as a toddler, back when the restaurant was on Bourbon Street," he says. "I've enjoyed it my whole life."

Sign up for the Sign up for the Eater newsletter

The freshest news from the food world every day