The Most Iconic Desserts Across the U.S.
As Americans, we are serious about our sweets. Whether desserts are chocolatey or fruity, simple or decadent, our country loves sugar in almost any form. But what are the most iconic desserts the United States has to offer?
We looked into American history to find out which desserts truly make up the United States' culinary story (spoiler alert: many of them are Southern). Here are a few of the iconic sweets that are popular across the land, from sea to shining sea. Just don't be surprised if you have a hankering for a baked treat after reading this scrumptious list.
Now, see the 42 most iconic desserts in the United States!
Chocolate Chip Cookies
No cookie is more American than a chocolate chip cookie. With very little variety, this recipe has remained basically the same since the 1930s. The chocolate chip cookie's origin is a little unclear; some believe a baker came up with the recipe by accident, while others dispute that claim. But one thing is certain: You have Ruth Wakefield to thank for the simple, delicious treat.
Wakefield and her husband, Kenneth, ran a Massachusetts restaurant called the Toll House Inn, The New York Times reported. As legend has it, while making a batch of cookies for her guests one day, Wakefield found that she had used up all of her baker's chocolate. A quick substitution was made with some Nestlé's semi-sweet chocolate that she had on hand in her kitchen. She expected it to mix into the dough, but instead, it stayed suspended in the sweet batter.
After locals and guests sampled the "Toll House Chocolate Crunch Cookie," it grew in reputation. Her recipe was published in a Boston newspaper, and Nestlé's chocolate morsels began to sell in record amounts. In return for a lifetime of free chocolate, the Nestlé company was allowed to print the Toll House Cookie recipe on its package.
Nothing smells quite like an apple pie, with its buttery crust baking in the oven and fruit juices bubbling out the sides. Stuffed with apples, this dessert can be served hot and topped with creamy, cold vanilla ice cream. It's especially good for breakfast straight out of the refrigerator the next morning after it's baked, but what isn't?
The expression "as American as apple pie" actually originated in an early 1900s newspaper advertisement for suits, according to Smithsonian magazine. The perception that apple pie was solely American was fueled by soldiers in World War II, who told everyone that they were fighting battles for "mom and apple pie," the magazine explains.
But was apple pie really an American dessert? The first pies in the United States came to the country with the early settlers, and those were savory British concoctions filled with meat and spices. And as Smithsonian pointed out, the oldest-known apple pie recipe comes from 14th-century England, too. The United States has adopted the treat as its own, though, and it's a holiday staple for Americans.
A mix of sweet, soft cream cheese, sugar, and flavorings, cheesecake has become the official dessert of New York, with other areas of the country claiming it as well. Junior's Restaurant in Brooklyn and Eileen's Special Cheesecake in downtown Manhattan hold down the fort as some of the most famous cheesecake purveyors, both in New York City and in the United States.
Cheesecake's crust is either a cookie crumb mix, pastry, or a buttery graham cracker bed. Dense or fluffy, it can be topped with fruit, nuts, cookies, or syrups. Or, cheesecake can be flavored with chocolate, pumpkin, or liqueur—any combination that the chef (and diner) desires. If you want a traditional New York cheesecake slice, try a piece of cheesecake topped with strawberries or cherries.
To bake cheesecake at home, you can use a springform pan, which allows the treat to hold its shape while it sets in a water bath. Alternatively, there are also no-bake cheesecakes that are extra easy to make. Not sure where to start? Check out these cheesecake recipes for some easy ideas.
If you appreciate sugar and nuts, chances are you will like a pecan pie. The super-sweet, syrupy Southern treat traditionally appears on Thanksgiving tables, but if you want to, you can bake this pie anytime to get a sugar rush all year round.
Georgia is the biggest producer of pecans in the United States, and the plentiful supply led cooks to include it in baking. The recipe became a staple in the South, especially in Atlanta's Magnolia Room in Rich's Department Store, according to James McWilliams, author of The Pecan: A History of America's Native Nut.
As McWilliams explains, Callie Williams worked six days a week, baking pies at the Magnolia Room. Over the course of 1948, Williams baked a whopping 28,960 pies for the restaurant's guests.
Most pecan pie recipes today are based on the Karo Syrup version printed on the bottle.
A descendant of British carrot pudding, the modern day carrot cake is a dense, moist cake flavored with allspice and topped with a rich icing of cream cheese, vanilla, and sugar. Still, the official origin of carrot cake is unknown. Stella Parks, author of BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, suggested to Vice that carrot cake may have been created accidentally after someone misread a currant cake recipe. However it came about, though, it's a recognizable part of any cake spread.
Bakers and tasters have strong opinions about carrot cake add-ins, like coconut, ginger, or nuts. And while some people could be turned off by the thought of carrots in their dessert, the recipe has no overwhelming flavor of vegetables. Instead, carrot cake brings more caramel and spice comfort to the palate. And if you love carrot cake, you're in good company. George Washington reportedly ate carrot cake at Fraunces Tavern in downtown Manhattan on British Evacuation Day in 1783.
Buffalo milk, flour, and camphor made up the ingredients of the first ice-cream-like dessert in China during the Tang Dynasty, which started in 618 CE. Versions of the cold treat have been prevalent throughout food history and were eaten by kings, explorers, and emperors, though they are much different from the creamy versions of today. By the end of the 19th century, the United States was involved in the mass production of ice cream, allowing the rise of American soda shops and the invention of the ice cream sundae.
Modern versions of this sweet frozen food can use dairy products, soy, coconut, cashew, or almond milk combined with sugar or other sweeteners and flavors. Ready to get your cone on? Check out the best ice cream shops in every state.
Boston Cream Pie
Combining light vanilla cake, vanilla custard, and chocolate ganache, Boston cream pie is a gem of a dessert. The first Boston cream pie was made in the restaurant of the Parker House Hotel, which is now the Omni Parker House in Boston.
The first version of Boston cream pie used sponge cake filled with custard and drizzled with chocolate icing. As with many other iconic American desserts, Betty Crocker published a Boston cream pie recipe on their boxed mix and expanded its popularity. If you're interested in the original version, the Omni Parker House delivers Boston cream pie across the country.
Banana pudding is a quintessential Southern treat, but it's also one of the most popular desserts in the United States. Home cooking at its best, the creamy vanilla pudding, whipped meringue, and bananas are layered with sweet Nilla wafers.
Banana pudding isn't the easiest dessert to create, and cooks can be tempted to cut corners. But to truly appreciate the depth of flavor and texture, using the original banana pudding recipe is best. After it sits for a day, the wafers meld into the custard while still providing a complement to the smooth pudding.
A Baked Alaska features cool ice cream on top of a sponge cake, completely covered with meringue, and baked quickly in the oven to brown. As legend has it, Thomas Jefferson served an ice cream and meringue dish very similar to today's version of Baked Alaska in the White House in 1802.
The final recipe, meanwhile, is said to have been created and named by French Chef Charles Ranhofer at Delmonico's in New York to celebrate the purchase of Alaska in 1867. The classic Baked Alaska is still on the Delmonico's dessert menu today.
The Ohio legislature adopted the Ohio Buckeye as their state tree in 1953. Around the same time, the Ohio State football team adopted the nickname "Buckeyes," with Brutus Buckeye serving as its mascot. Residents of Ohio referred to themselves as Buckeyes as early as the 1840s.
Basically, the nut from this tree resembles a deer's eye, with a brown covering revealing a light brown center. A married couple of Ohio football fans, Gail and Steve Lucas, received a gift of some chocolate-covered peanut butter balls for Christmas. Gail recreated the recipe, but she didn't cover the peanut butter entirely. The visible portion of peanut butter looked like the nut from a buckeye tree. And from that day forward, Gail made the candy for tailgating crowds. It became a tradition for Ohio State's most devoted fans.
Indiana Sugar Cream Pie
The unofficial state pie of Indiana, Indiana Sugar Cream Pie is also called "Hoosier Pie." It is a rich custard in a buttery pie crust, dusted thickly with powdered nutmeg.
The original recipe was influenced by the easy availability of cream and sugar, and the lack of fresh fruit and nuts in the area for working families, explains the Indianapolis Star. The filling is whisked together, occasionally cooked on the stovetop, and added to the crust to bake. Stirring while the pie is baking keeps it from rising and results in a thick, creamy interior. Another name for the pie is "Desperation Pie," a dessert born from economic hard times and ingenuity.
Nothing adds more to a campfire than s'mores, a gooey roasted marshmallow squished with a chocolate bar between layers of graham cracker. The creation seems to have its roots in camping, with a recipe for "Some Mores" appearing in a 1927 Girl Scout guide to making campfires.
Everyone has their own favorite way of roasting marshmallows. But whether you lightly turn and brown the sweet meringue or catch it on fire, it tastes wonderful with its chocolate and graham cracker sandwich.
Lane Cake has won prizes, it's been used by renowned chefs, and it was mentioned in To Kill A Mockingbird. According to legend, Lane Cake was invented by Emma Rylander Lane, who published her lane cake recipe in 1898.
Lane Cake is made up of a rich butter cake frosted with a sweet syrup of pecans, raisins, coconut, vanilla, bourbon, sugar, and butter. The rich ingredient list results in a special and different type of cake creation.
In the 1950s, Paul Bland at Brennan's in New Orleans created a dessert to highlight the recent influx of bananas to the local ports. He named the recipe Bananas Foster, after a local civic and business leader who was friends with the owner of Brennan's.
Half dessert and half experience, Bananas Foster features flaming banana liqueur or rum. The process is a dramatic spectacle, and it creates a smoky sauce that is poured over vanilla ice cream. Brennan's now uses around 35,000 pounds of bananas each year making Bananas Foster for diners.
Black and White Cookies
The melting pot of cultures in our country has given us amazing recipes and foods, and black and white cookies are no exception. The treat was created by Glaser's Bake Shop, which unfortunately closed permanently in 2018, after 116 years in business.
German immigrants created the cookie, which is actually more like a cake. The batter has extra flour added to make it firm, and then it lands on a baking sheet in a cookie-like shape. After baking, the cookies are topped with one side of vanilla icing and one side of chocolate icing.
This confection is also called a jelly roll or, in finer establishments, a roulade. Swiss roll is made of a light sponge cake rolled around jam, whipped cream, or icing.
The popularity of rolled cakes took off in America in the 1800s. Swiss rolls roots are European, but not necessarily Swiss, but the title has lived on.
When cut into slices, the dessert has a gorgeous spiral pattern. Swiss rolls are one of the most popular pre-packaged desserts in the United States, made by the Little Debbie company since 1960.
Straight from the American paradise of Hawaii, shave ice—and no, it's not called "shaved ice"—came to the shores courtesy of Japanese immigrants. Shave ice is based on a dish called Kakigori, which was originally made for the royal family of Japan.
At Matsumoto's Shave Ice, one of Hawaii's premier shave ice purveyors, the fluffy ice is served with the classic rainbow of vanilla, strawberry, and banana and flavors like papaya, ume, pickled mango, and mizore. And while they may look similar, shave ice is much different from a snowcone. A snow cone has harder pieces of ice, while shave ice is more delicate, like snow.
Mamoru Matsumoto immigrated to Hawaii with his brother from Hiroshima. He soon met his wife, Helen Momoyo Ogi, through mutual friends, and the two opened several businesses to make ends meet. They decided to open the shave ice business to help support their family, which had grown to include three children. Tourists and locals alike came to enjoy the treat. Eventually, the youngest child, Stanley, took over his parent's business. Matsumoto's makes about 1,000 shave ice per day.
The South loves its Coke. In fact, the word is used to describe any carbonated beverage, as in, "I'm going to get a coke." Cooks have added it to the most unexpected places—in stews, over hams, and even in Coca-Cola cake.
The chocolate batter looks like a run-of-the-mill chocolate cake, but once the Coke is added (full sugar version only) along with marshmallows and it's baked, it transforms into a dense, brownie-like cake. Rich chocolate icing is poured over the top, filling in the cracks and crevices.
Coca-Cola cake has graced tables in the United States since the 1950s, and it's still popular today.
Rice Krispies Treats
Rice Krispies treats are squares of cereal coated with a delicious mixture of marshmallows and butter and allowed to set until they're able to be sliced. Mildred Day, a 20th-century Iowa resident, is responsible for the delicious, chewy treat. Day worked at Kellogg's, and she and a coworker created the recipe in the company's test kitchen. The desserts went national when Day suggested the Camp Fire Girls sell the treats as a fundraiser. The recipe was officially added to the cereal boxes in 1941.
Thanksgiving just isn't the same without pumpkin pie. This dessert is well-known in the United States and Canada, but you'd be hard-pressed to find it anywhere else in the world.
As the story goes, the early American settlers made pumpkin pies at the first Thanksgiving celebration, though their version didn't have a crust. Native Americans brought pumpkins as gifts to the first residents of the European settlement to help prevent scurvy.
Today, pumpkin pie traditionally starts with a pastry shell filled with a pumpkin custard flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger and sweetened with brown sugar or molasses.
Red Velvet Cake
There seem to be some differences of opinion on the beginnings of red velvet cake. The Adams Extract Company and the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York both claim to have invented the cake. Regardless, red velvet cake rose in prominence during the mid-1900s in the United States.
Using cocoa in the cake seemed to soften the product, which gave rise to the term "velvet." The cake itself is airy and smooth, with the cocoa adding to the batter without overpowering it. It's topped with buttery and rich cream cheese icing. The addition of the red food color makes sense from Adams Extract, at least: Popular red cakes would sell more red food coloring. Without the red dye, the cake is a lighter shade of chocolate and just as tasty, though it might just be termed "velvet."
Ever go to the fair and notice the smell of sweet vanilla fried bread in the air? People rush past, carrying plates of squiggly fried dough, dusted with a coating of powdered sugar. In no time, you'll find yourself in line, anxious to sample the airy confection. This is the magic of the irresistible funnel cake, one of the best desserts in the United States hands-down.
Legend has it that German immigrants called the Pennsylvania Dutch brought funnel cake to the United States. It's most often eaten with Nutella, jam, or powdered sugar on top, but the topping possibilities are endless!
Lady Baltimore Cake
Lady Baltimore Cake is a favorite choice for weddings. Its white layers are topped with what's called "seven-minute frosting," a type of boiled frosting made from egg whites and corn syrup. The additions to the icing, nuts, and dried or candied fruits make Lady Baltimore Cake unique.
The exact origins of the Lady Baltimore Cake are unknown, but theories suggest that it could have been inspired by a popular romance novel by Owen Wister set in Charleston or created in a tea room in Charleston called Lady Baltimore's. Either way, its roots are decidedly Southern.
Brown sugar butter and cream with pecans come together to make this burnt sugar candy. Created in France, the Southern praline is a confection that was brought to New Orleans, Louisiana, by French Ursuline nuns.
The nuns gave instruction in cooking and other domestic arts, and their students married and moved all over the state, spreading the praline recipe. With the ready supply of pecans in Georgia, Texas, and Louisiana, the nut was switched for the almonds in the original recipe. Cream was also added as part of the cooking process, and the praline that we know and love in the United States today was born.
Careful of your praline pronunciation, though. Purists in New Orleans pronounce this candy "prah-lean" not "pray-lean."
Lemon squares, or bars, are made of a tangy, sweet lemon custard or curd on a cookie shortbread crust. The top is dusted with confectioners sugar. Recipes use real lemon juice and lemon zest, and they seem to be inspired by lemon meringue pie.
The first official printed version of a lemon bar recipe appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1962, but it was probably developed earlier, as bars and cookies began to rise in popularity before the mid-1950s.
Peach trees grow well in the Southern United States, thanks to its seasons with just the right mix of cool and hot temperatures to bring out the ultimate harvest of fruit. This dessert served its sugary purpose well as a way to use up the plentiful peaches and find a purpose for the leftover biscuit dough from breakfast.
Traditionally cooked in cast iron, peach cobbler features peaches that are dumped in the bottom of the dish with sugar and spices. And biscuit dough, usually sweetened, is "dropped" on the top of the fruit. Serve the peach cobbler with ice cream, and you've got the perfect summer dessert.
Mississippi Mud Cake
Straight from the verdant Mississippi Delta region, this cake has parts to satisfy every sweet tooth. With layers of chocolate cake, miniature marshmallows, and pecans, this cake is a sugar lover's delight.
As if the cake itself weren't sweet enough, Mississippi Mud Cake also features homemade chocolate icing, which melts the marshmallow layer just enough. Alternately, the marshmallows will top the cake with the nuts, still becoming a melted delight from the heat of the icing.
Nabisco has printed a recipe known as "The Famous Icebox Cake" on the back of their chocolate wafer boxes since the 1940s. The cake became popular for its simplicity and beauty, and it's not hard to see why.
The sleeves of chocolate wafers are sandwiched with fluffy sweetened and vanilla-flavored whipped cream. After setting in the refrigerator, or icebox if you prefer, the cake can be sliced to show the gorgeous layers. The dessert comes together quickly, and there's no need to use the oven. Alternate versions have been created over the years using other cookie and flavor combinations, but you can't go wrong with a classic icebox cake recipe.
Donuts' roots in the United States came from Dutch settlers in New York. The treat gained widespread popularity when doughboys, U.S. servicemen serving in the trenches in Europe in World War I, were served the pastry by volunteers. Coming back from the war, they craved the doughnuts. And in response to demand, Russian baker Adolph Levitt created the doughnut machine and assembly line to amp up their production.
In the late 1930s, Krispy Kreme also started its march across the Southern parts of the country. Krispy Kreme's offerings were so popular that by the 1950s, the brand was selling fried dough in single stores at the rate of 75 dozen doughnuts an hour, according to Smithsonian magazine. They became a cult classic, getting marketing boosts from crazy recipes like the Dog Days Doughnut Burger, a cheeseburger between two Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
Gooey Butter Cake
Gooey butter cake is sweet, incredibly sweet. With a yellow cake bottom and a cream cheese butter layer on top, the different textures of firm cake and velvety cheesy sweetness complement each other nicely, at times sticky and chewy and creamy.
Traditionally, gooey butter cake is served as a coffee cake, rather than as a dessert. While several families have explored their history in the original creation of the cake, legend has it that a German baker in St. Louis made a coffee cake with the wrong proportion of butter. The interior ended up, well, gooey. The cake was delicious, and he quickly explored the recipe, going into production in his bakery. However it originated, this is one delicious treat.
Just like with some of the other famous American desserts, mistakes sometimes bring about the best results. Fudge is supposedly another of the culinary errors that resulted in something delicious. As the story goes, a botched batch of caramel led to fudge's creation, though it ended up being a pretty tasty mistake.
To create fudge, sweetened condensed milk, chocolate chips, or other flavors and salt are melted in a saucepan. After the original ingredients have melted, additions like nuts or vanilla can be added. The fudge is then spread into a baking dish. It typically sets in about two hours and can be cut into squares for sharing. Fudge is usually found in chocolate varieties, but there are also fudge flavors like peanut butter or vanilla.
A giant statue of a banana split sits at Tassel Pharmacy in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, complete with banana slices nestled in a dish with scoops of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream. The statue shows the sundae topped with pineapple, chocolate and strawberry sauces, whipped cream, nuts, and a cherry, just like the original version invented by David Strickler, a 23-year-old pharmacy apprentice.
Strickler didn't know how famous his invention would be, but it's become a beloved American treat. Latrobe also hosts the Great American Banana Split Celebration in August.
Jell-O was invented in the late 1800s, but it really took off around 1900. There were a few factors for its growth in popularity. Strategic advertising in magazines like Ladies Home Journal and colored illustrations by notable artists like Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell featuring Jell-O brought it to the attention of home cooks.
The company began sampling and sharing recipes for the jeweled tone gelatin, and it's clearly only grown from there.
Chess pie may seem old-fashioned, but it has consistently been a choice Southern dessert ever since it was made by a cook whose accent was misunderstood. The legend of the name "chess pie" says that when asked what she had baked, a cook answered "just pie," which was misheard as "chess pie." While it is uncomplicated, using only sugar, eggs, butter, and a tiny bit of flour baked in a pie crust, chess pie proves that the best desserts don't have to be complex.
Sour Cream Pound Cake
The first pound cakes kept it simple. Americans weren't always literate, and a recipe that called for a pound of each ingredient—butter, sugar, flour, and eggs—was easy to remember. The problem was that the cake was huge in these quantities, so techniques began to change.
Adding sour cream helped the cake stay moist and have a lighter grain, a fact that Southern cooks have embraced.
Key Lime Pie
About the only fact Floridians know for sure is that Key West is where Key Lime Pie was invented. However, as reported by the Miami Herald by way of Food & Wine, author Stella Parks has made claims in her book BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts that the Borden company created the key lime pie recipe to sell more sweetened condensed milk around 1931 in their New York test kitchen.
Though Parks' claim has been anecdotally refuted by some Key West residents, proof of an earlier Florida recipe hasn't been found. This debate has yet to be decided on the origins of lime-infused pie with the graham cracker crust. The best versions are, for sure, found in Key West restaurants and bakeries, like the version at Blue Heaven with its towering pile of meringue.
The perfectly patriotic red pie is cherry pie, at times both tart and sweet and waiting to be topped with ice cream. The cherry filling is poured into the pie crust, and it's baked until bubbly.
Michigan is the country's top producer of cherries, accounting for about 75% of the tart variety produced in the United States. If you want an extra fresh slice of cherry pie, the state might be a good place to start.
Seven Layer Bars
Seven layer bars have—you guessed it—seven layers. These layers are full of goodness, with graham crackers, nuts, chocolate chips, white chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, coconut, and sweetened condensed milk. Baked together, the results are a moist, sweet bar that is soft with a crunch and a taste explosion of different chips. Seven Layer Bars are also called Magic Bars because they use such simple ingredients but taste so wonderful, almost like magic.
The Southern part of the country certainly seems to have mastered the art of the dessert. Coconut cake is a delicious example of this, with layers of moist coconut-flavored cake, buttery frosting, and scatters of coconut flakes or shredded, sweetened coconut across the top.
If you don't feel like making it, trust the food critics from Condé Nast, The New York Times, and Food & Wine and visit the Peninsula Grill in Charleston, South Carolina. Clocking in at an amazing 12 layers and weighing 12 pounds, the restaurant's impressive cake even caught the eye of Bobby Flay for his Food Network program "Throwdown with Bobby Flay."
Coconut cake hasn't just been popular in modern times, either. Poet Emily Dickinson had her own coconut cake recipe, too.
The first brownie was made by an unnamed chef at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago. Invented for someone needing a portable dessert for the 1893 World's Fair, the final product ends up a gooey, decadent treat. Now, Hilton Hotels owns the Palmer House, but the famous landmark still makes the original brownie recipe with nuts and apricot glaze.
Brownies are celebrated on December 8, which is National Brownie Day, but you can enjoy them all year round with this fudgy brownie recipe.
With the taste of the sweet molasses of brown sugar and the richness of butterscotch, blondies are cookie bars similar to brownies. They are almost opposites, though, as blondies don't contain any chocolate flavor. Chewy and moist, these bars can have toffee, coconut, nuts, or white chocolate chips, in addition to the traditional butterscotch blondie variety. A version of the ice cream sundae has a blondie, vanilla ice cream, and caramel sauce.
A comfort food of epic proportions, whoopie pies are also known as "gobs" in western Pennsylvania. They are a sandwich made from two cookies filled with icing and are usually large—think the size of a hamburger.
The whoopie pie's roots are Amish. Legend has it that the cookies, made from leftover cake batter, were made with icing and put in children's lunches. When they saw that they had the sweet treat, the children would shout, "Whoopie."
Strasburg, Pennsylvania, hosts a Whoopie Pie Festival every September, complete with a cookie eating contest and a crowned queen.
Whatever dessert hits your sweet tooth just right, there's no denying that America has plenty of sweets to offer. These 42 desserts have stood the test of time across the country. So it's no wonder they're the most iconic desserts in the United States. The only question now is which one you'll want to eat first.