The Dessert Dictionary Project

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cajeta Mexico

See dulce de leche (below).

canelé France

coming soon... In the meantime, look at Paula Wolfert’s take on the pastry.

cannoli Italy

A Sicilian speciality, consisting of a fried cylinder filled with a sweet-ricotta cream.  The dessert probably descends from an medieval Arab recipe. c

charlotte France

Two, quite distinct recipes share the same name.  In the more rustic version, thin slices of buttered bread are used to line a mold, the center is filled with stewed fruit (most commonly apples) before being baked.  It is best served warm.  The invention of the charlotte russe (originally named charlotte parisienne) is attributed to Antonin Carême.  It too is made in a mold, though in this case the vessel is lined with lady fingers and filled with bavaroise (Bavarian cream) and served cold.

chebbakia, mkharka Morocco

A sesame-encrusted flower-shaped fritter traditional for Ramadan.  The pastry is generously flavored with saffron and other spices and coated in honey and sesame seeds after frying.  See recipe.

cherries jubilee US, cerises jubilé France

Pitted cherries, either fresh or preserved, are flamed with kirsch as they are being served.  Though the recipe is originally French it had a great vogue in the United States in the post WWI era and through the 50s.  Americans typically served the flaming cherries over ice cream.  The recipe may originate at the Grand Hotel Monte Carlo; an early recipe attributes it to the hostelry.  See The St. James's Cookery Book (1894), p. 154.

chimaki  Japan

A jelly of kudzu starch wrapped in bamboo grass.

choux à la crème France, profiterole, cream puff US, UK

coming soon...

ciambella, giambella Italy

In Italy, ciambella is a term for all sorts of ring-shaped cakes or sweet breads. Some are as large as a bundt cake, others more the size of a doughnut.  These days, the word is even used for American-style doughnuts. In one recipe that goes back hundreds of years (Messisbugo refers to them as  brazzatelle) a  yeast-leavened, lightly sweet-ened, anise-scented, dough is formed into rings and then boiled before baking (much  like bagel). These are now usually called ciambelle scottolate to differentiate them form all those other kinds

clafouti France

A dense, crusty custard (or baked pancake) studded with fresh black cherries (classically unpitted) traditional to Limousin.

colomba Italy

A northern Italian specialty traditional for Easter.  Made of a rich yeast-leavened dough the cake/bread is made to resemble a dove (colomba in Italian).

cookie United States, biscuit United Kingdom, France, biscotto Italy

Just about every dessert-loving culture has some sort of small cakes that are eaten by hand.  Sweet cookies called biscotti existed in Italy at least as early as the 16th century and various small cakes were popular throughout pre-Revolutionary France as a snack to go with newly popular beverages like hot chocolate, coffee and tea.  In the eighteen-hundreds the British pioneered techniques of mass producing “biscuits.” Manufacturers in France, Germany and the United States soon followed suit.  The American term “cookie” comes from the Dutch koekje, or “little cake” which is just what the early Dutch colonial treats resembled.  In the United States, most cookies resembled rolled sugar cookies until the late 1800s.  Drop cookies came into their own around the turn of the twentieth century eventually morphing into such American classics as oatmeal cookies, peanut butter cookies and chocolate chip cookies.  (For more on drop cookies see my blog.)

cornes de gazelle  Morocco

Crescent-shaped cookies filled with ground almonds and scented with orange flower water and other flavorings.  See recipe.

crème brûlée  France, burnt cream UK

A rich custard is topped with a thin layer of sugar that is caramelized just before serving, creating a hard crisp layer that contrasts with the creamy custard beneath.  There is some controversy about who first came up with the idea;  some writers posit an English origin (I’m skeptical) or an Iberian birthplace (which seems more likely given the Portuguese and Spanish obsession with custard).  The first recipe that we know of, however, is in a late seventeenth French cookbook written by François Massialot. (See Le Cuisinier royal et bourgeois, p. 219). If cookbooks are any indication of popularity, the following century saw quite a vogue for crème brûlée in both France and England--where it was known under its literal translation: “burnt cream.”  The 1980s saw a huge crème brûlée renaissance in fancy restaurants in the United States and elsewhere.

crisp US, crumble UK

coming soon...

cupcake  United States

Small frosted cakes usually baked in a muffin tin.  The “cup” in the name originally referred to the measurement of the ingredients that went into the batter—a cup of butter, two cups sugar, three cups flour, and so on. While in the United States, the current cupcake craze can probably be attributed to the refusal of baby boomers and their offspring to grow up, internationally the culprit is more likely worldwide reruns of “Sex and the City.”b

cuzzupa, cucolo  Italy

A sweet, egg-enriched bread/cake typical of Easter in Calabria.  It takes the form of a round braided circle (though other shapes--hearts, birds, fish--are also common) in which one or more eggs is typically embedded. 

daifuku  Japan

A soft round pillow of mochi (rice flour paste) filled with sweetened red or white bean paste. Ichigo daifuku is a whole strawberry wrapped in mochidaifuku

dan tat, dahn taht  China

Small custard tarts popular in Cantonese bakeries (tat comes from the English word “tart”).  Presumably these were originally adopted and adapted  from the similar Portuguese pastéis de nata most likely by way of Macao.

Dampfnudel  Austria/Bavaria

Large steamed dumplings today typically served with a custard sauce. 

devil’s food cake US

coming soon...


doberge cake  US

The doberge cake is a New Orleans specialty apparently created by Beulah Ledner in the 1930s.  The cake is based on the Dobostorte–thus the name–but is made by layering American-style yellow cake with either chocolate or lemon pudding, resulting in a cake than can easily top 6 inches (15 cm) in height.  The outside it typically frosted with buttercream.  For more on its invention see Carolyn Kolb, “Sweet Story,” New Orleans Magazine (June 2008).

Dobostorte  Austria, Hungary

The Dobostorte is made by layering five or more ultra-thin sheets of sponge cake with chocolate buttercream, the whole finished with a mirror-like finish of caramel.  The cake is named after Lajos Dobos who created his multistoried extravaganza in the 1880s, presumably basing his cake on the somewhat earlier gâteau moka.

doce de leite da sogra  Brazil

Literally,  “mother-in-law’s doce de leite,” this is a starch-thickened pudding rather than the caramelized confection familiar to most Latin Americans.

dorayaki  Japan

Two small wheat flour pancakes sandwich a filling of red bean paste.  dorayaki

doughnuts United States, beignets France, Louisiana (US), Krapfen Krapfel, Austria/Germany koblihy Czech Republic, paczki Poland, frittele, bignè, bomboloni Italy

Doughnuts are probably as old as frying. The ancient Greeks had their doughnuts, as did the Indians and
medieval Arabs. Spanish speakers in both the Old World and the New eat several kinds of churros.  In Central Europe, filled doughnuts are popular.  They have long been associated with Carnival due to the large amount of lard (forbidden during Lent) that used to be needed to fry them properly.  Early German recipes for Krapfen date to at least the Middle Ages.  Loosely speaking there are three ways to make a ball of fried dough.  One of the oldest (there is a recipe for this in the ancient Roman cookbook attributed to Apicius) is to mix hot water and flour and occasionally eggs resulting in a sort of cream-puff dough.  Spanish churros and Italian zeppole are made this way.  More widespread is the use of a yeast dough.  In North America doughnuts are also often made with a chemically leavened dough.  This is how the cider doughnut, typical of New England, is made as
well as many of the varieties on offer at Dunkin’ Donuts.  In America there is some evidence that yeast-leavened doughnuts were brought over to New England by settlers from Herfordshire though the Dutch and Germans certainly brough over their traditions too. The first mention of the typical doughnut shape dates to the Civil War though it may have been around for decades before that.  Today, both yeast-leavened and baking-powder- or soda-leavened doughnuts are popular across the United States, some filled with jelly or custard, others in the now-traditional life-saver shape.

“dragon‘s beard”  China

A candy more than a dessert, this is made of super-thin threads of sugar (thus the dragon’s “beard” or “hair”) wrapped around a filling of peanuts and coconut.  Think very dense and chewy cotton candy with a crunchy center.  See the recipe on

duff US, UK, Canada (mostly 19th century)

I quote Sandra Oliver, Saltwater Foodways (1995): “This famous sailor's dish is another whose name comes from northern England. The word comes from 'dough,’ pronounced to rhyme with ‘enough,’ meaning  a flour pudding or dumpling." ...Depending on the ratio of flour to water, and length of time it was boiled, a duff could range from soft and pudding-like to almost cake-like inside. It...was served with mollasses as sauce. "Plum duff' had raisins in it, which added to the sweetness, but at sea dried apples were used more often than raisins.... The average duff recipe called for flour, shortening, saleratus, raisins or dried fruit (apples), and water. It was boiled in a cloth bag.”

dulce de leche Latin America, doce de leite Brazil

Dulce de leche is made by  cooking down sweetened milk resulting in a thick syrupy consistency with a rich caramelized flavor.  It is popular throughout Latin America where it is used as a spread, sauce or flavoring for other desserts.  While most dulce de leche is made of cow’s milk, the Mexican variation, called cajeta, is more commonly made of goat’s milk.