America's baking history is both diverse and delicious. Any favorites list (especially if based on editorial curiosity rather than hard data) is sure to spark debate, and we expect this one will be no different. After all, Americans are fiercely protective and passionate about beloved foods and recipes, and most of our fine fare is already rife with cloudy history and convoluted origin.
And the fact that you can put your own twist on most baked goods makes a favorites list even more difficult. Most baking recipes are particularly easy to modify, whether deliberately or by accident -- all it takes is a different shape of pan, a pinch of spice here or an "oops!" there. Countless numbers of these recipe variations are documented, thanks to America's love of cookbooks, so anyone can try his or her own personal take on a classic.
Keep reading to see how America's rich history continues to be shaped by innovation, pop culture and good taste.
History traces the twisted scraps of baked dough from Italy to Austria, Germany to the United States. Though it's likely pretzels landed stateside on the Mayflower, the waves of Dutch immigrants heading to Pennsylvania in the 1800s cemented the state's reputation as America's pretzel capital, and the Amish have gained a reputation for baking the best around.
Auntie Anne's, one of the largest purveyors of soft pretzels, is of Amish origin: Its founder, Anne Beiler, grew up in an Amish household and got her pretzel-twisting start in a farmer's market [source: Kovalchik]. The chain's grown to 1050 locations since 1987, tempting shopping mall patrons across the globe with a sweet, buttery aroma.
Pretzels remain such a part of Pennsylvania culture that an episode of "The Office" revolved around an annual free pretzel day. According to food personality Alton Brown, the average American eats 2 pounds (0.91 kilograms) of pretzels a year; in Philadelphia, that number swells to 20 (9.1 kilogrames). Brown's a huge fan of pretzels and believes the interesting textures of the warm, soft version hold tremendous advantages over the hard-baked option. The bready elasticity is thanks to the generous amounts of yeast, which explains why the pretzel is such a good companion for beer. This might account for the pretzel's popularity in sports stadiums -- it's essentially a tasty sponge to soak up brew.
Variations on banana bread have been around forever, or so it seems. What food historians know, but can't explain, is that traditional banana bread enjoyed a sudden surge of popularity in the 1960s, despite a plethora of newly available cake and bread mixes. Its practicality (enabling conscious consumers to use up nearly rotting fruit), simple recipe and comforting aroma are all important factors, but they nevertheless fail to really account for banana bread's rising star.
The favoritism may come down to something as simple and undefinable as taste. Like most sweet, cakey things, banana bread's really easy to personalize -- just add more sweets. The 1962 edition of "The Good Housekeeping Cook Book" included recipes that added apricots and prunes in addition to the more common date and nut variations. Newer recipes include peanut butter or chocolate chips to capitalize on the kid-friendly appeal of such flavor combinations.
Red Velvet Cake
The first red velvet cakes were a result of better living through chemistry: When buttermilk and baking soda meet, they cause a reaction that results in a reddish tinge. The first known published recipe is dated 1962; before artificial dyes and digital editing tweaked our visual expectations, the offbeat but natural hue was enough to spark imagination.
Now, most chefs enhance the color's saturation to satisfy the masses. Purists prefer a version tinted with beets. When that doesn't cut it, food coloring is enlisted to make the red tint more crimson. Unfortunately, tricky bakers sometimes use the unnatural color to overwhelm your senses and disguise a bland cake.
For all the chatter about red velvet cake's color, little is said of the flavor. It should be rich with a subtle kiss of cocoa (though the actual chocolate content varies wildly in recipes), and it's traditionally topped and layered with white or cream cheese frosting to emphasize its most striking feature and contrast with the chocolate notes.
Nothing adds to a food's appeal like a good mystery; once the color was explained, the question of red velvet cake's origin remained. It's reputed to be Southern in origin (supported by its prominence on the rosters of Southern restaurants and bakeries all over the country), though foodie urban myths abound that give credit to New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
Here we have another concoction that can be traced to the mid-Atlantic. Few dispute the treat's Pennsylvania Dutch roots -- the state even boasts an annual whoopie pie eating contest held, of course, at the Whoopie Pie Festival. Throughout Maine and the rest of New England, though, whoopie pies are particularly celebrated.
Texture is key to the whoopie pie. The outer sections are dry, cakelike cookies cemented together with a thick layer of dense, heavy filling. Old recipes of Amish origin feature a filling composed mainly of sugar-saturated vegetable shortening, which leaves a greasy aftertaste.
Traditionally, the outers are a devil's-food-like chocolate, while the middle is a super-sweet vanilla flavor. Like most of the treats on our list, though, the formula just begs for tinkering. Common variations include pumpkin, maple or red velvet cookies with cream cheese frosting, or the ever-popular chocolate and peanut butter combo.
Though the word "muffin" can be traced back to 18th century Germany ("muffe" meaning, loosely, "small cake"), it's become an American breakfast basic. After the muffin crossed the Atlantic, it quickly gained recognition for its portability and versatility, since a wide variety of local fruits, veggies, nuts and spices could easily be added to the flexible recipes [source: North American Blueberry Council].
The native blueberry became a fast favorite in American muffin recipes, thanks to its sweetness, wide availability (it often could be found dried and preserved, even out of season), and the cheerful, unique violet color spread throughout each morsel. When scientists began to study nutrition and discovered the anti-aging powers of antioxidants, the indulgence became easier to justify -- blending low-calorie, notably nutrient-rich blueberries into each muffin diminishes the fluffy treat's guilt factor.
Blueberries' healthy hype is for real, even if the muffins have a lot to answer for. That might be why, according to the North American Blueberry Council, blueberry is the most popular muffin flavor in the country. Whether you're looking to offset your muffin's heft or simply enjoying one of America's favorite homegrown crops, blueberries let America pretend that even the most sugary, butter-laden breakfast can be vindicated by a generous handful of fruit.
Cornbread is truly American, in both origin and in tradition. Thanks to the widespread availability and convenience of corn, Native Americans depended on a diet of baked cornmeal concoctions long before Europeans stepped ashore. Today, cornbread serves the noble purpose of reviving rivalry between the North and South (though we think it's fairly good-natured).
Standard cornbread, which follows a quick bread formula, is great for a traditional Thanksgiving meal. But while Northerners are generally content with a simple version from a cake pan (or in muffin form, for the sake of convenience), such complacency earns scorn south of the Mason-Dixon. Southerners are known to get particularly feisty, according to food author Regina Charboneau: "Cornbread in the South is as controversial as gumbo. Everyone has a recipe and everyone has an opinion."
The first debate: sweet or savory? Sweet cornbread, flavored with sugar, molasses or maple, is best topped with honey butter. Savory bread can get as hot as you like it. Try onions or jalapeno peppers for a kick, or grease the pan with bacon drippings for a smoky flavor.
Then, the cook must decide: cake or bread? For a cakelike texture, create a batter and use a cake pan. Often, though, cornbread connoisseurs will insist on serving straight from a cast iron skillet, the contents of which can be baked, steamed or fried.
Assuming it's not Turkey Day, cornbread can be served alone, topped with butter, or alongside a hearty bowl of chili. It can be crumbled into a stuffing for a poultry or seafood entree, or you can just grab a handful and go.
Woe unto the soul who tells steadfast Midwesterners that their beloved, century-old tradition is a fad. Over the past several years, though, the indulgent combination of a crunchy shell and fluffy filling inspired food consultants and restaurateurs to predict a gourmet version of the cream puff would become the next upscale dessert [source: Dougherty]. In 2004, two Japanese chains started several stateside franchises, starting in Manhattan and expanding outward. The franchise cream puff is marketed as a luxury experience, but whether the concept can stand the test of time remains to be seen.
All of this matters little to Wisconsinites, who have held the basic, no-frills cream puff in a position of reverence for more than 150 years [source: MSNBC]. The denizens of the Badger State gather at the annual Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis to watch as large pastry shells are piled high with filling, available in one flavor: whipped cream. These fat- and calorie-laden treats are consumed by the truckload in homage to the agricultural industry, using locally sourced milk, cream and eggs. Bakers work around the clock to satisfy demand, and according to the Wisconsin Bakers Association, 345,000 puffs were devoured at 2009's fair.
The bagel is instantly recognizable, ubiquitous in our breakfast-obsessed culture, undisputedly Jewish in origin, but hardly the first round-shaped bread. The first rolls-with-a-hole, found in the Mediterranean, were unlike the bagels we know and love; they weren't boiled before they were baked. Bakers in Poland are credited with developing the method that develops a definitive, glossy crust. This hard outer layer drastically increased the bread's shelf life [source: Nathan].
This made bagels a practical choice to pack for a transatlantic cruise. Soon, more bagels were sighted on American shores, and their popularity grew. Eastern European immigrants arriving in U.S. cities were comforted by the sight of a familiar food. Jewish bakers modified their recipes to comply with kosher laws, catering to a key demographic while further increasing the unique bread's prevalence. The International Beigel Bakers' Union was created in 1907 in New York City, cementing its reputation as America's bagel capital.
Over a century later, sales are still increasing as Americans grab more breakfast on the fly. According to breakfast sales data from 2008, bagels (13.3 percent of sales) trailed doughnuts and muffins (34.3 and 20 percent, respectively). However, overall bagel sales had increased more than 10 percent from a nearly identical time frame in 2007, even though they usually cost more than doughnuts and muffins.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
The exact year of the first chocolate chip cookie is up for debate. Different sources date its genesis to 1930, 1933 and 1937. Regardless, it's earned its rightful place as America's favorite cookie, and like many awesome innovations, it arrived somewhat by accident. According to dessert lore, Ruth Wakefield, proprietor of the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts, was baking a batch of "Butter Drop Do" cookies and decided to blend in a chopped chocolate bar, expecting it to melt and flavor the whole batch of dough.
Instead, the bits stayed solid. Mrs. Wakefield liked the haphazard marriage of texture and flavor, and the method quickly earned space in the pages of a Boston newspaper and heavy rotation in recipe repertoires across New England. Nestle, whose semi-sweet chocolate bars were featured in the Toll House Cookie (and who later negotiated with Mrs. Wakefield for the rights to the Toll House name), saw a spike in sales in areas where the recipe had been published, prompting the company to create the product we came to know as the chocolate chip.
Now, the beloved chocolate chip cookie is available nearly everywhere in America. The dough can be enhanced with cocoa, coffee, melted chocolate, peanut butter, oatmeal or canned pumpkin; the chips can be dark or white and coupled with nuts, butterscotch or candy-coated varieties; they can be baked chewy or crisp. Often, the dough is eaten raw before it even makes it to the oven. Faced with these distractions, it's easy to forget that you can enjoy a chocolate chip cookie in pure form, home-baked and fresh off the sheet, falling apart as it's dipped in a glass of milk.
You might have noticed that many of the classics we've chosen have European origins, which is something that's inevitable. Not to disappoint you, but the beloved apple pie, born in Great Britain, is no exception. No worries, though, since we've thoroughly and wholeheartedly embraced it as our own. What's not to love? It's sweet, tart, reasonably easy to make and extremely rewarding. The recipe can be as complicated as the chef, but even the simplest method can yield intricate results by experimenting with the variety of apple. And in the United States, we have apple choices aplenty, all over the country.
Once you've mastered the basics -- the apples, filling and pastry -- why stop there? By now, it's pretty clear that a creative chef can yield to intuition. Nearly anything stirred into a legacy recipe gets reasonably tasty results. Apple pie's no exception. The top crust can be vented or latticed, or, as they do in Pennsylvania, removed in favor of crumb. The filling can be highlighted with nuts, raisins or liquor. In Vermont, a slice of pie (sweetened with a dash of maple, if you're lucky) is accompanied by a slice of sharp cheddar.
Few things have so strongly captured our national collective imagination, despite the British pedigree, so it's only fitting we turn to the Cambridge Dictionary of Idioms for an explanation of the ubiquitous catchphrase, "As American as apple pie." They say, simply, it means, "To be typically American."
You crack open the fortune cookie at the end of your meal and ... well, it may not exactly tell your future, but who doesn't secretly hope it promises something fabulous?
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