The History Behind Your Favorite Pastries & Desserts

assorted pastry and bakery items
History Behind Your Favorite Pastries & Desserts Sunphol Sorakul - Getty Images

From cookies and cakes to croissants, each dessert has an origin story worth telling. Many of the most popular treats and baked goods were created by mistake and happenstance to later gain popularity and evolve with the tide of the times, differing in recipe depending on the country it's being baked in. Let's go back a few centuries and learn how each of these pastries and deserts have traveled by era to now be a classic delight baked in your kitchen to share with family and friends.


In the 18th-century, the Dutch had what they call “olykoek” (oily cake) which originally was a pastry without the ring-shape and open-hole. In 1750-England, a recipe published for fried dough titled “nuts” was mistakenly labeled “dow nuts”, thus the treat was born. The most common doughnuts are ring-shaped or jelly-filled. Today, all doughnuts are not created equal…with so many different types and flavors and now, the oily cake has become an American staple.

close up of donuts in plate
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Buttery and flaky, savory or sweet. Its original name “kipferl” dates back to the 13th-century. Much later, in the 1800s, an Austrian officer opened a bakery in France, later inspiring French bakers to call the crescent-shaped delight “croissant".

delicious croissants for breakfast
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The origin story of the brownie began when Bertha Palmer, wife of a hotel owner, asked their pastry chef for a confection smaller than a piece of cake, but also suitable for ladies attending an event as a lunch-box treat. As a result, the chef came up with the ‘Palmer House Brownie’ a tasty concoction made of chocolate, walnuts, and apricot glaze. The word “brownie” first appeared in a cookbook in 1896 and has evolved ever since. This chocolate-y bite-sized treat is easy to bake and share as a snack for any event.

brownies in a baking tin
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Cake dates back to Ancient Egypt. The round, flat and unleavened breads were cooked over hot stone, and oftentimes made as a kind offering gesture to spirts and the Gods. The round-shape symbolizes both the circular moon or sun and is a celebration of life. To this day, we gather and sing with friends and family over all kinds of shaped cakes to celebrate birthdays, milestones, and holidays.

homemade eggs cake out of oven
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Coconut Macaroon

This comes from the Italian word “maccherone” meaning “paste”, the dessert is created from an either an almond or coconut paste. Traced back to an Italian monastery in the 8th century--the sweet treat later came to France by nuns who were asked to make this confection in exchange for housing. Today, we often see the mounds of coconut with the bottom dipped in chocolate.

coconut macaroon cookies
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Not to be confused with coconut macaroons, the French macaron is a meringue based cookie that originated in France during the Renaissance. In the beginning, they were sold flat without any filling, while the ones we know today are two almond meringue discs with a flavorful filling.

delicious sweet colorful macarons
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Originated in the Emirate of Sicily--the cannoli is a symbol of Italian heritage. Legend goes, the desert was created by nuns or concubines between 1827-and-1091. The cannoli is made for traditional celebrations and holidays. Today, the pastry is baked with all kinds of different flavor filling such as nuts, or chocolate.

single portion of fresh, crispy cannoli desert
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The first form of cheesecake was invented over 4000-years ago in ancient Greece. It was made by fresh cheese pounded until smooth with flour and honey and cooked on a griddle. Now, the creamy cake is made in many variations due to how the recipe recipe has traveled amongst different countries. Some of the most popular cheesecakes are New York cheesecake, and no-bake cheesecake.

cheesecake slice on a knife
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Apple Pie

Although it is now known as “America’s favorite dessert,” it was created in England in the 18th-century and brought to the colonies by European settlers. To be honest, not much of this dessert came from America at all. The pie, the dough, and even the apples were all brought to America from other origins.

apple pie with lattice crust on a rustic wooden crate
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Sweet Potato Pie

Sweet potato pie is a traditional African-American dessert originating from the Southern region of the United States. The filling is made up of mashed sweet potatoes, eggs, sugar, milk, and spices. The use of sweet potatoes in the South and African-American cuisine traces back to Native-American cuisine as well, and were used by slaves as an alternative to the lack of ingredients and resources they had in the 18th-century. Sweet potato pie is now popular during seasonal holidays and gatherings within the Black community.

autumn pie
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Cinnamon Roll

This pastry developed in Sweden in the 17th-century. In Sweden, they are called “kanelbulle” and have their own national holiday on October 4th. It is a staple in Scandinavian culture and is also popular all around the world with different sizes and variations.

close up of cinnamon roll served in plate on table
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Scones are said to have originated from Scotland in the early-1500s and named after the medieval town of Scone. They originally were made using oats and the large-round the size of a plate, then cut into wedges. It has been made popular and often served with jams, butter, clotted creams, and tea.

cranberry scones
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Rainbow Cookies

The rainbow cookie is composed of layers of colorful almond-base, and sponge-cake. The original colors for each layer represent the Italian flag -- red, white, and green. It has marzipan or almond paste and apricot or raspberry jam in layers and a chocolate coating on the top and bottom. It is considered a “petit four” because of how they are made like a cake and cut into squares but are small enough to be called cookies. The cookie was first introduced by Italian-American bakeries in the 20th-century.

petit fours
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Pound Cake

Pound cake is said to be of European origin dating back to the 1700s. The original recipe contains a pound each of flour, sugar, butter, and eggs. With such a heavy and dense cake, it could easily feed and fill large groups of people. Over time, the recipe evolved and became much smaller, lighter and is now baked in bundt-pans or as loaves. It is a very popular dessert in southern states.

pound cake
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A hamantash or (hamantaschen) is a triangular filled pastry that is associated with the Jewish Holiday, Purim. “Haman” refers to the villain in the Purim story and the name Haman in Hebrew means “Haman’s ears”. Originally, the cookie was filled with poppy seed paste but has evolved with many different jams and flavored creams. Hamantaschen has been around since the 1800s.

jewish hamantaschen homemade biscuits or cookies with chocolate
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Baklava is known as one of the sweetest honey layered filo delights, having been a delicacy of the Ottoman Empire, which today is colloquially known as the Turkish Empire. The nutty and baked pastry originates from as early as the 2nd-century. Though, the word "baklava" became an English term in 1650. Today, baklava is most commonly made in large-rectangular-pans and is layered filo dough, honey, butter, and chopped nuts, that are cut into all types of shapes and sizes.

perfect baklava
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Creme Bruleé

There is a debate that creme bruleé originated from either France, Spain, or England, although the name is French for “burnt cream”. This dessert was first printed in 1691 in a French cookbook by Francois Massailot who called it “le cuisinier royal et bourgeois”. Originally, the 1st-recipe had a disc of burnt caramelized sugar placed on top, now it is more common to burn or torch the top-layer of the custard.

homemade classic creme brulee with burnt sugar berry topping, selective focus
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Mochi is a dessert made of rice that is steamed, pounded, and made into a paste before being molded into its desired shape. Although mochi is big in Japanese culture, it is said to have its roots in China. In Japanese culture, mochi is a symbol of good fortune. It is a traditional food eaten for the Japanese New Year as well as celebrations and festivals.

daifuku mochi with green tea
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This pastry is the most recently of invented pastries. The cronut was created by a French bakery owner named Dominique Ansel. He introduced the cronut in 2013 and sold the treat from his bakery in New York City, Dominique Ansel. The pastry croissant-like dough with flavored-cream, fried in grape-seed oil in the shape of a doughnut. The cronut sparked a trend of new “viral” sweets that are popular due to social media cult followings.

crazy for cronuts
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Ice Cream

In the late-1600s, Antonio Latini was the first person to write down the recipe for “sorbetto”, creating the first milk-based sorbet. The Italian version produced later was named “gelato” and by the 1700s it was introduced in America. The first ice cream parlor was opened in New York City.

three scoops of ice cream in a pewter dish
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Chocolate Chip Cookie

The popular cookie was invented in 1938 by Ruth Graves Wakefield, when she owned the Toll House Inn, in Whitman Massachusetts. She added chopped chocolate bits of a Nestle semi-sweet bar to a mix thinking that the chocolate chunks would melt, but instead made the first chocolate chip cookie. She is also the reason why Nestle began producing chocolate into smaller “morsels”.

chocolate chip cookies
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