America's Best Regional Desserts
The Brown Derby Grapefruit Cake
The heyday of Hollywood's Brown Derby restaurant may be over, but its signature Grapefruit Cake has been revived by the terrific Los Angeles bakery Valerie Confections in Silver Lake. Owner Valerie Gordon frosts layers of citrus-scented cake with cream cheese buttercream perfumed with grapefruit zest and tops it with fresh grapefruit segments and pieces of candied grapefruit. valerieconfections.com
A specialty of Hawaii, shave ice is shaved from blocks of ice and topped with Day Glo syrups and Asian toppings, like sweet red adzuki beans and chewy mochi balls made from rice flour. In Lahaina, Ululani’s shave ice is so fine that it recalls a sorbet; toppings range from fresh fruit to tapioca pearls in coconut milk. ululanisshaveice.com
From the soft drink's hometown of Atlanta comes this unique dessert—a layer cake that gets its extra-light texture (and caramel color) from the effervescent soda added to the batter. At the popular all-day spot West Egg Café, Coca-Cola cupcakes and cakes are served with Coke-flavored frosting and topped with bottle-shaped gummies. westeggcafe.com
Whether prepackaged at a bodega or freshly baked, the cakey, oversize cookie—covered with white fondant on one half and chocolate on the other—is sold throughout NYC. The origins have been linked to glazed Amerikaner cookies in Germany and Halfmoon cookies topped with chocolate frosting and vanilla buttercream at Hemstrought's Bakery in Utica, NY (available only by phone order). In New York City, a great stop for black-and-whites is William Greenberg Desserts, which has been baking the cookies on the Upper East Side since 1946.
Frozen custard is available in pockets throughout the country (including Shake Shack locations along the East Coast), but Milwaukee joints like Kopp’s made the egg-enriched soft-serve ice cream famous. In addition to classic vanilla and chocolate, the sleek fast food spot’s bow-tied staff pump specialty flavors like chocolate chip cookie dough and peach melba, and they also make indulgent sundaes, such as a tiramisu version with espresso custard, hot fudge and bits of ladyfingers. kopps.com
Boston Cream Pie
Massachusetts's official state dessert isn't a pie at all. It traditionally features layers of sponge cake and vanilla custard, all covered in chocolate ganache. At Flour Bakery in Boston's South End, star pastry chef Joanne Chang updates the classic by brushing each cake layer with robust coffee syrup before adding an ethereal pastry cream. flourbakery.com
Fluffy pączki doughnuts are made with a rich yeast dough and contain more eggs, butter, and sugar than American doughnuts. They’re found in Polish neighborhoods like the Detroit suburb of Hamtramck, which hosts a pre-Lent Pączki Day each year. Coinciding with Fat Tuesday, the celebrations result in lines at pączki-makers like New Martha Washington Bakery, where the doughnuts are filled with custard or fruit jams like raspberry and apricot.
North Dakota’s large German community still enjoys kuchen, which translates to “cake” in German but has morphed into a pie-like dessert, often filled with local apples and berries. At Kroll’s Diner in Fargo, the crust is topped with thick custard and whipped cream.
New Orleans’s iconic dessert of bananas flambéed in cinnamon, sugar, banana liqueur and rum is still best at Brennan’s, the place where it originated 60 years ago. The fiery ceremonial preparation is as famous as the dish itself: Waiters ignite the alcohol-covered bananas tableside and top the gooey result with vanilla ice cream. brennansneworleans.com
Moravian Sugar Cake
Moravians emigrating from what is now the Czech Republic settled in Old Salem, NC, over 250 years ago. They brought this streusel sugar cake—which is often served in North Carolina for dessert, especially around Christmas—with them. The version sold at Winkler’s is a dense, dimply cinnamon-yeast cake baked with a crunchy brown-sugar topping. Winkler’s, 527 S. Main St.; 336-721-7302.
Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie
Created by Indiana’s Quaker community, Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie combines a traditional crust with a firm, custardy filling made with heavy cream, vanilla and flour. At Nick’s Kitchen, a black-and-red diner in Huntington, the pie is sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar so the top becomes beautifully caramelized. nickskitchen.net
Far-removed from any European torte, this low-country, meringue-like cake with apples, walnuts and lots of sugar is popular in South Carolina, where it first turned up in print via the local Junior League cookbook Charleston Receipts. According to the New York Times, the creator named the supersweet concoction after a restaurant where she worked (not after the Huguenots, who were French Protestants). At Middleton Place Restaurant in Charleston, each serving is topped with a mound of fresh whipped cream. middletonplace.org
Maine residents and the Pennsylvania Dutch both claim to have invented the whoopie pie—a chocolate cake sandwich filled with vanilla frosting—but only Maine named it the “official state treat” in 2011. What sets Maine’s whoopies apart is their immense, often knife-and-fork-worthy size. At Labadie’s Bakery, founded in 1925, the whoopies feature a thick, shortening-based filling and come in sizes ranging from five to 16 inches in diameter. The no-frills shop opens on weekdays only, from 6 a.m. to noon. labadiesbakery.com
Key Lime Pie
his south Florida classic is made from exceedingly tart and aromatic key limes, condensed milk and egg yolks, with a graham-cracker crust. Key West Key Lime Pie Co. coats the entire pie in soft meringue; the recipe beat Bobby Flay’s attempt in an episode of Food Network’s Throwdown. keywestkeylimepieco.com
The Pennsylvania Dutch created gooey shoofly pie with a sweet egg-and-molasses filling that's topped with brown-sugar-and-butter crumbs. The name supposedly arose from the way this sticky-sweet dessert is prone to attract flies. Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market has a beloved Amish bakery counter called Beiler's that sells exceptional shoofly pies. Beiler’s, Reading Terminal Market; 215-351-0735.
Located on two acres in downtown Atlanta, the Varsity is the world’s largest drive-in and a preeminent pusher of fried pie, an addictive hand-held dessert popular in the South. Pockets of dough are filled with peaches or apples, deep-fried and stuffed into paper sleeves. The resulting half-moon has a crunchy, golden exterior and gooey fruit inside. thevarsity.com