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Desserts are everyone’s favorite part of the meal. In most cultures, these delicious sweet dishes come at the very end of the main course, and can be served in all shapes and tastes – cakes, cookies, pies, even sweet soups, you name it!
Despite millions of dessert recipes available in recipe books, there are some which have absolutely conquered the world with their unique tastes, causing pure happiness and bliss when eaten. But how did desserts come about in the first place?
A Brief History of Desserts
- The English word “dessert” is derived from French desservir, which means “to clear the table”, referring to the custom of serving dessert only after the table has been cleared of other dishes.
- Historians normally agree that dried fruits and honey were the first sweeteners after put in other dishes to make them sweet. Ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia and India prepared sweets as their gifts to the gods.
- Nonetheless, the discovery and spread of sugarcane marks the most important moment in the history of desserts. The Indians grew it 2,500 years ago, but it was only in 500 AD that sugar was crystalized and traded to China.
- Sugar was brought to light to the Europeans even later, in the 12th century, during the Crusades (wars to spread Christianity). In 1381, the first apple pie recipe was published.
- High prices of sugar persisted until the Industrial Revolution, so desserts were mostly reserved for the wealthy.
Cheesecake, the U.S.
Modern cheesecake spread across the world as an American product. It was developed in 1872 by accident when William Lawrence was trying to recreate soft French cheese. Instead of cheese, he came up with heavier, creamy base that is now part and parcel of the cheesecake. Yet, it is speculated that ancient Greeks also made a form of cheesecake.
Some say that the athletes competing at the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C. ate cheesecakes for energy. Greek physicians Aegimus even wrote an entire book on the art of making cheesecakes in the 5th century. Nowadays, the bottom layer, or the crust, normally consists of crushed cookies, and is covered with the thickest cheesy layer, and topped with fruit.
Crème Brûlée, France
Also known as “burnt cream” or “cream catalana”, this dessert is unique for its rich custard base topped with a layer of hard caramel. This is one of the oldest known desserts in Europe, having appeared in Catalan cookbooks in the 14th century.
Under the name of crème brûlée, it first showed up in a 1691 cookbook with recipes for royals and bourgeoisie (the rich). Crème brûléeis always served in individual ceramic bowls.
Nowadays, it is popular to form the caramel directly on top of the custard. To complete this task, a butane torch is used to burn the sugar, causing a small flame, which makes the serving of the dessert very festive.
Baklava, Turkey and the Caucasus
The combination of filo pastry and chopped nuts held together with syrup or honey is known all over the world as baklava. Because baklava is the national dessert of several countries in Asia Minor and the Middle East, its etymology is inconclusive, having links to Mongolian, Persian and Turkish.
The 15th century origin of the current form of baklava is well-known – it was the Turkish sultan residing in Istanbul who sent baklava trays to his young soldiers during the month of Ramadan (the 9th month of the Islamic year, when Muslims do not eat or drink between dawn and sunset). Before that, ancient Romans ate a similar layered dough dessert they called placenta cake.
Nowadays, baklava can be bought on the streets of every major city in the region. It is sold per small piece, but buying more than one serving is simply irresistible.
Gulab Jamun, India
Everyone in Southeast Asia has heard of gulab jamun, a traditional Indian desert prepared since the medieval times. The word gulab comes from Persian for “flower and water”, while jamun in an Indian fruit which has a similar size and shape like this dessert.
Gulab jamun is created when milk solids are kneaded into a dough, shaped into small balls, deep-fried and soaked in sugary syrup flavored with rose water.
Being easy to make, yet delicious, this dessert is eaten at all major celebrations such as marriages and birthdays. Both Hindu and Muslim communities in India share the love for this dessert, so they traditionally make it for their religious holidays.