By Emily Goodman, Genevieve Looby and The Editors at Tast of Home via Reader's Digest
ILLUSTRATION BY Maria Amador
This dessert made 19th-century southern hospitality a piece of cake. Perfect for impromptu guests, Lane cake is filled with dried fruit (traditionally raisins) soaked in whiskey or bourbon, which keeps it moist even days after it comes out of the oven. In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, young Scout eats one so boozy that she feels the effects.
Also known as Eskimo ice cream, akutaq calls for reindeer fat, seal oil, berries, and snow—all whipped by hand until it becomes airy. In Yupik, akutaq (“ah-GOO-duck”) means “mix them together.” It’s traditionally made after the first seal catch of the year, though it can be enjoyed at any time with vegetable shortening and sugar in place of the animal fat and oil.
You might call these desert gumdrops. They’re made by combining the bright pink juice of the prickly pear cactus and simple syrup. The mixture is then cooked, cooled, and coated with sugar. The flavor lands somewhere between lemon and watermelon.
Depending on your culinary touchstones, these pastries look like flat croissants or fried burritos. The buttery dough is stuffed with cocoa powder and sugar before being rolled into gooey sticks up to a foot long. Searcy County, in northern Arkansas, is the self-proclaimed “chocolate roll capital of the world” and hosts the annual Chocolate Roll Festival.
In Massachusetts, where it was invented in the 1970s, frozen yogurt went by the ungainly nickname frogurt. The Valley girls of SoCal helped rebrand it “froyo” and transformed this low-cal, low-fat, high-sugar frozen dessert into a lifestyle. Today, California is the corporate home to many of the big chains, including Menchie’s, Pinkberry, Tutti Frutti, and Yogurtland.
Root beer float
In 1893, Frank Wisner gazed at snowcapped Cow Mountain against a dark summer sky. It looked like a scoop of vanilla ice cream floating in dark soda. The next day, he made the float at his brewery in Cripple Creek. The black cow, as he called it, was born.
These are sugar-and-spice cookies, and this being the Nutmeg State, the spice in question is obviously ... cinnamon. Flat and chewy, this is the rare cookie that doesn’t use vanilla. As for the name, it might come from the German Schneckennudel (“snail noodle”)—or it might be made up.
Strawberry pretzel salad
Don’t let the name fool you—no lettuce (or anything green) allowed here. This tricolor “salad” comes with three layers: a crust of crushed pretzels mixed with butter and sugar, a middle layer of cream cheese and Cool Whip (and more sugar), and a top layer of strawberry Jell-O that is usually studded with real strawberries, Delaware’s state fruit.
Key lime pie
In 1965, state representative Bernie Papy Jr. proposed a $100 fine against anyone selling a version of this dessert that wasn’t made with the tart-sweet limes famously grown in the Keys. His bill didn’t pass, but Floridians are still protective of their signature dish, despite a rumor that it was actually invented in New York City.
When the biscuity top layer starts to sink into the juicy peaches below, this inverted pie looks a bit like cobblestones. At the Georgia Peach Festival each year, volunteers make one that is 11 feet by 5 feet and six inches deep.
This pudding (pronounced “HOW-pee-ah”) is as thick as lava. Made with coconut milk and ground pia (a member of the yam family), haupia thickens when it’s heated and thickens more when it cools. In fact, you can cut it into blocks and eat it with your hands, which is how it’s typically served at luaus (though it’s also a popular wedding cake topper).
Idahoans are happy to share slices of huckleberry pie, which is made from their native wild blueberry-like fruit mixed with nutmeg and cinnamon. What they won’t share is where they harvest the berries. “People here in Idaho are protective of their huckleberry spots,” says Taste of Home Community Cook Cindy Ruark-Worth.
At a gourmet store in Chicago in the 1960s, Lorraine Lorusso had a crazy-delicious idea. She took some fresh strawberries from the produce section and dipped them in melted chocolate from the store’s bakery. She let the chocolate coating harden before offering the jazzed-up berries to customers, who themselves were pretty jazzed. Pro tip: If you want to make them at home, make sure the berries are completely dry or the chocolate won’t stick to them.
Eggs were scarce in the 1800s, when Hoosier pie was invented, so this is the rare dessert without any. Its creamy filling is thickened with flour or cornstarch and poured directly into a pie crust. The flavor comes from vanilla extract and lots of sugar, hence its nickname: sugar cream pie.
The Des Moines Register calls these “Rice Krispies Treats on steroids,” which means you start with Rice Krispies Treats and then layer on peanut butter, melted chocolate, and butterscotch. “These chewy bars are as Iowan as you can get!” says Taste of Home Community Cook Anna Miller.
The name is German for “pepper nuts,” but these bite-sized spice cookies often contain neither. “Pepper” refers to spice in general, and pfeffernuesse usually are made with star anise. The “nut” has to do with their size: The Mennonites who brought them to Kansas in the 1870s used their sewing thimbles to cut out the dough.
“Count on Derby pie at any Derby party worth its salt,” says Taste of Home reader Deb Sexton. “It pairs perfectly with a Kentucky bourbon.” The buttery filling has chocolate chips and walnuts folded in to it. Some bakers even spike it with bourbon.
Would a doughnut by any other name taste as sweet? Absolutely. A New Orleans speciality, these French-inspired square puffs have no holes, but they do sport a generous dusting of powdered sugar.
Blueberries are one of the few fruits indigenous to North America, and they are all over Maine. The wild ones are smaller and sweeter than the cultivated varieties, making for a pie so scrumptious, it’s the state’s official dessert.
Marylanders have been fighting a cookie war for almost 150 years. On one side are fans of the thick, chocolaty Berger cookies, brought to Baltimore from Germany in 1835. On the other are those who prefer the thin, crisp cookies made by Otterbein’s, which arrived from the motherland in 1881. Which is better? Marylanders, you tell us.
Boston cream pie
Perhaps the most famous slice of false advertising in the history of desserts, this “cream pie” is really a custard-filled layer cake topped with a chocolate glaze. When JFK was president, his mother’s version was frequently featured at state dinners.
Michigan produces 75 percent of the nation’s tart cherries, and many of them end up in pies. Taste of Home reader Bethann Muzio says cherry pie is “great with ice cream during the summer months.”
You’ll find any number of treats tucked inside these Norwegian crepes: fruit spread, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and more. But the real surprise is that the dough is made from potatoes, which are riced and then “smothered in butter and sugar,” says Taste of Home Community Cook Julie Herrera-Lemer.
Mississippi mud pie
When it comes to chocolate desserts, this one takes the cake. A chocolate crust is filled with layers of chocolate mousse (or pudding) and then topped with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. A waitress who lost her home to a Mississippi River flood in 1927 is said to have coined the name, and it stuck (the way a bit of mud pie might stick to the roof of your mouth).
Gooey butter cake
Among the happiest of accidents, gooey butter cake was created when a baker in St. Louis reversed the quantities of flour and butter (usually a 3:1 ratio) in a traditional yellow cake. The concoction came out less than an inch high, but its buttery gooeyness was so popular that nearby bakeries went for it too.
Huckleberry ice cream
Huckleberry in all of its forms (syrup, jam, pie, vinaigrette, and even vodka) is popular throughout Montana. But in ice cream, the berry provides just the right amount of sweetness, not to mention a beautiful periwinkle hue.
Tin roof sundae
As a teenager, Harold Dean “Pinky” Thayer operated the soda fountain at his father’s pharmacy in Potter, Nebraska (population 328). One day in 1930, he scooped some vanilla and chocolate ice cream into a bowl and topped that with warm marshmallow cream, salted peanuts, and chocolate sauce. The shiny chocolate looked a bit like the pharmacy’s tin roof, and a new classic was born. The sundae is still served inside that same building in Potter today, but you’ll also find the flavor sold commercially around the country.
When settlers from the mountainous Basque region between France and Spain came here to mine for gold, they brought something golden with them too. The buttery, almond-flavored gâteau Basque features a thick layer of either pastry cream (typical of Spanish Basque cake) or black cherry jam (typical of the French version).
Apple cider doughnuts
Home to the oldest operating apple orchard in America, New Hampshire is known for its many apple recipes. You’ll find the fruit’s tangy, freshly squeezed juice in the state’s especially tender doughnuts (the acid in the juice makes them soft). They can be glazed or dusted with cinnamon sugar, but if you want to dunk them in your morning coffee, plain is the way to go.
“New Jersey is known for our amazing Italian bakeries,” says Taste of Home reader Nancy Gridley. Even with all of their hits—biscotti, pignolate, sfogliatelle—it’s hard to top cannoli. The fried tubular shells stuffed with creamy ricotta cheese can be studded with chocolate, ground pistachios, and more. This is the dessert people die for, at least in The Godfather. After they shoot a disloyal compatriot, one mobster says to another, “Leave the gun; take the cannoli.”
These crunchy rounds are a kind of spicy shortbread cookie flavored primarily with anise and sprinkled with cinnamon. New Mexicans love the biscochito so much that in 1989 they named it their state cookie, making it the country’s first officially designated state sweet.
In 1929, Arnold Reuben (of sandwich fame) was so enchanted with cheese pie that he played with the recipe until he created what is now credited as the original New York–style cheesecake. The key to turning an otherwise plain cake into a miracle of creamy smoothness? Extra egg yolks and cream cheese. (Fun fact: A New York dairy farmer invented cream cheese in 1872.) New Yorkers serve their cheesecake au naturel—no fruit or other toppings. You might have other ideas.
Sweet potato pie
Considering that a sweet potato is a vegetable, it’s not surprising that sweet potato pie wasn’t originally considered a dessert. But in North Carolina, where more than half the nation’s sweet potatoes are grown, the blend of sugar and spice (and sweetened condensed milk) has been perfected to the point where sweet potato pie has pushed pumpkin pie off the Thanksgiving menu for many families.
Not to be confused with cinnamon buns or sticky rolls, caramel (pronounced “CAR-mull” here) rolls are baked sitting in a sauce of butter and brown sugar. Some even add vanilla ice cream to the mix. Once out of the oven, the rolls are flipped over so that the hot, gooey sauce runs down the sides and pools as a thick cream underneath.
In 1964, Gail Tabor of Columbus set out to make an ordinary batch of chocolate-covered peanut butter balls. She put the peanut butter on a toothpick to dip it, which meant that there was a spot on the ball that didn’t get covered with chocolate. In fact, the circle of beige surrounded by the ring of brown looked a lot like the seed from a buckeye tree, which happens to be the mascot of football-crazed Ohio State. Today, no tailgate would be complete without them.
This single-serving dessert that you can hold in your hand is like an empanada. It can be filled with fruit (apple, cherry) or cream, which can be traditional (lemon cream) or decadent (peanut butter chocolate cream).
The Marionberry (a blackberry/raspberry hybrid) was developed by the Oregon State University Agriculture Department in 1948. Now “these berries are everywhere,” says Taste of Home Community Cook Darlene Brenden. That includes in cobbler, where a bed of the purple berries is capped with a fluffy biscuit served warm and topped with vanilla ice cream.
This “pie” is really a molasses crumb cake baked in a pie crust, which makes it easier to hold while eating, according to Taste of Home Community Cook Susan Bickta. It comes in two versions: dry-bottom (which is baked fully) and wet-bottom (which is baked until it is just set, to give it a gooier, more syrupy texture). Both were created by the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Del’s Frozen Lemonade
Franco DeLucia came to Cranston, Rhode Island, in the early 20th century and turned his father’s lemonade recipe from Naples, Italy, into a slushie empire. The two newest flavors: coconut and blood orange.
These crisp, crunchy cookies taste both sweet and nutty because they are topped with toasted sesame seeds—benne means “sesame” in Bantu, a group of languages spoken in sub-Saharan Africa. Sesame seeds were brought to the southern United States by African slaves, who believed eating them would bring good luck.
The German word for cake, kuchen is typically made with a sweet dough and a fruit filling: peaches, apples, plums, figs, or berries will work. You can top it with custard, too—or not. The German immigrants who brought kuchen to the Dakotas in the 1880s used whatever was on hand, hence all the different variations.
The dessert equivalent of lasagna, banana pudding is actually vanilla pudding layered with banana slices and vanilla wafers and then topped with meringue or whipped cream. Beloved throughout the South, in Tennessee it’s honored with an annual festival.
Pecan is the state tree and the state pie of Texas, so the pie “shows up at every holiday,” says Taste of Home Community Cook Joan Hallford. One secret to always having enough nuts on hand: “Keep your pecans in the freezer!” says Hallford. Fun fact: Pecan trees are alternate bearing, meaning they produce their fruit every other year.
In the 1980s, Jell-O executives started targeting their advertisements to young families. It worked especially well in Utah, which was then the state with the highest birth rate and is now the state with the highest per capita consumption of Jell-O. Senator Mike Lee even hosted a weekly “Jell-O with the Senator” event in his DC office before the pandemic.
This is a combination of Vermont’s culinary signatures: a maple syrup flavored dairy treat that’s frozen to the consistency of soft-serve ice cream. Vermonters insist the creemee is creamier.
The name comes from, well, no one is certain anymore. Some claim that chestnut flour was an original ingredient. Others think it’s a misinterpretation of “just pie” said in a southern accent. It really is “just” butter, flour, sugar, and eggs—sometimes flavored with vanilla extract or lemon juice.
Named for James Harvey Logan, who was the first to cross a blackberry with a raspberry, loganberries have a short shelf life. They thrive on Whidbey
Island near Seattle, where whatever berries the people can’t consume right away get put to good use in pie.
Many West Virginians relied on molasses until refined sugar became readily available after World War II. But these cookies, also flavored with cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg, are yummy enough to have stood the test of time.
This dessert, which arrived with Danish immigrants in the 1800s, is like coffee cake, only flakier and filled with nuts, fruit, or cream cheese or some combination of the three. It is sometimes topped with chocolate. Want to try it? Kringle is a bestseller at Trader Joe’s stores around the country during the holidays.
These jacked-up chocolate chip cookies are made with lots of butter and with rolled oats, pecans, and coconut added to the dough. They supposedly packed lasting energy for long days out in the Old West. More recently, Laura Bush’s cowboy cookie recipe beat Tipper Gore’s gingersnaps in the 2000 Family Circle Presidential Cookie Bakeoff.