It’s well known that you’re supposed to save the best for last, and that’s why humans invented dessert, of course. Many chefs would argue that no meal is complete without a sweet and sugary ending. There is a wide array of confections, ranging from the creamy to the ooey-gooey to the cakey, crusty and crumbly. With so many types of desserts to choose from — cookies, cakes, pies, tarts, puddings, ice cream, to name a few — it’s no surprise that dessert names are just as plentiful, diverse and peculiar. Is a “chess pie” only supposed to be eaten while playing chess? Did Baked Alaska get its start in the 49th state?
Read on to find out more about how some famous dessert names came to be. (Just try not to get too hungry.)
The Story of Scrumptious, Deliciously Delectable Dessert Names
Donut — Everyone knows the humble donut (see also “doughnut”), the cake or yeast-risen ring fried in fat, glazed with a sweet syrup and enjoyed with a steaming hot cup of coffee. But where does the “nut” part come from? It turns out that what we today call “donut holes” might have been the original “donuts” centuries ago, with writer Washington Irving referring to “balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called dough-nuts” in his 1809 History of New York, using “nuts” to describe small, ball-shaped dough or cakes. They’re thought to have descended from the olykoek (“oily cake”) brought over from the Dutch settlers in the 17th century to New Amsterdam, which eventually became what we know as New York today.
Graham cracker — This crumb-shedding cracker is a campfire classic that’s been serving as the bread-like bookend on the s’more for centuries. The wafers are also used popularly as pie crust, and they’re named after the Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham, a major leader in the early 1800s American health movement who believed in and preached strict fiber-focused vegetarianism as a part of a righteous and holy lifestyle. Graham crackers are made from graham flour, or unsifted wheat flour, which Graham saw as a much healthier alternative to refined white flour (though many are made with that exact ingredient today).
Baked Alaska — This dessert, which you might recognize in its ignited form, is made of ice cream inside cake or pastry crust that’s topped with meringue, which is quickly browned and caramelized with intense heat that firms up the outer layer but leaves the ice cream unmelted inside (this often happens in an oven, but you can flambé the dish, too). It goes by a lot of other names, including glace au four, omelette norvégienne, omelette sibérienne or omelette surprise, and no one’s exactly sure where the name “Baked Alaska” came from; one story claims that a New Orleans chef first crafted and named the dish at the time of the United States’ purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, though variations of it appeared in cookbooks throughout the early 1800s. In the 1890s, a French chef at Delmonico’s called it an “Alaska, Florida” for its contrasting cold and hot ingredients.
Chess pie — This confectionary delicacy, a specialty of the American South, is made of eggs, butter, sugar and a bit of flour, and it actually has nothing to do with the centuries-old strategy game played around the world. “Chess pie” is one of those dessert names that has a few origin stories of varying likelihood — one, that it used to be called “chest” pie because it became a staple of many households’ pie chests (another version says that the pie didn’t need to be chilled but could sit in the chest because it had so much sugar); two, that it was a mispronunciation of “cheese pie” because it was very similar to an English curd pie or cheesecake (which chess pie essentially is, minus the cheese curds, of course); and three, that a southern plantation cook was asked what smelled so good, and she replied with a southern twang, “Just pie.”
Tiramisu — This is one of those dessert names that sounds like it could be from a language completely different from its actual original tongue; if you thought it was Japanese, think again! It actually comes from the Italian tiramisù, which means “pick me up” or “cheer me up,” and the name started appearing in Italian cookbooks in the 1960s. It’s a coffee-flavored spongy dessert made of ladyfingers soaked in espresso and layered with whipped cream and mascarpone.
Snickerdoodle — It’s thought that the name of this cookie, enjoyed crunchy or soft, coated in cinnamon sugar and made of butter or oil, (usually) cream of tartar, flour and sugar, comes from a corruption of the German Schnenkenknödel, or “snail dumpling.” Snickerdoodles are considered to have originated in Germany or the Netherlands, where they were rolled into the shape of a snail before being baked (another etymology story attributes their name to the Dutch word snekrad, which is also a word for “snail”).
Bananas Foster — This New Orleans-originating dish was named after Richard Foster, the chairman of the city’s crime commission and a buddy of the owner of Brennan’s, the restaurant where the dish was created in the 1950s. It usually consists of bananas — which were a major import of New Orleans from Central and South America at the time — on top of vanilla ice cream and a special sauce of butter, brown sugar, banana liqueur and a dark rum that is set alight as the dish is being served, just like a Baked Alaska (which is also said to hail from the culinarily-rich Big Easy).