by Charles W. Bryant
Since humans started eating food, they've craved sweet things. Early on, it was all berries and honey, but with the introduction of refined sugar, the dessert was born. The name dessert comes from the French word "desservir" which means "to clear away" -- in this case, the dinner table. Depending on where you are in the world, you'll get a wide variety of the post-meal sweet treats. In China, it might contain red beans or dates. In Mexico, the custard-like flan could be on the menu. The French are known for their pastries, and Greece and the Middle East serve up plenty of baklava. A sushi meal in Japan might be followed by wagashi, and if you're in Latin America, some dulce de leche may be in your future.
In the United States, the sweeter the dessert is, the better. Most American desserts originated in other countries. But Americans have certainly put their own spin on a wide variety of foreign classics -- so much so that some of the most popular desserts have become synonymous with the United States. Just the words "apple pie" conjure up visions of white picket fences and baseball. So join us here at HowStuffWorks for a lip-smacking tour of the most popular desserts the United States has to offer.
No, New Yorkers didn't invent it -- but you can tell them that. There's some speculation, but most people trace the first cheesecakes back to Ancient Greece. In fact, athletes at the first Olympic Games were served small versions of this dessert in 776 B.C. [source: whatscookingamerica.net]. In A.D. 1000, the cheesecake made its way to the United Kingdom and Europe by way of the Roman Army. From there, it eventually found the United States.
Recipes vary, but the key ingredient to this dessert is, not surprisingly, cheese. The most common cheeses in the modern version of cheesecake are cream cheese, cottage cheese, ricotta and Neufchatel. The New York version that's become so famous uses cream cheese along with eggs, cream, sugar and usually a graham cracker crust. While there are a seemingly unlimited number of variations on this classic, New York style cheesecake is served plain with no other ingredients or toppings. Other variations pack in or are topped with fruits, cookies, peanut butter and pretty much any other decadent ingredient you can think of.
You can find cheesecakes on most dessert menus in restaurants around the United States, but sales of frozen cheesecakes are where the big bucks are. Dessert maker Sara Lee is the leading seller of frozen cheesecake, with sales in 2004 topping $80 million [source: aibonline.org].