12/15/2010

30+ Categories of Sweet Desserts


According to scientists, our tongues can distinguish five types of tastes: pungent (acrid), sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.  In honor of the holidays, which is all about sweet foods, following is a list of some of my favorite go-to treats - a useful list in case you're trying to figure out what to prepare for dessert!
  1. Brownies.  Nothing wrong with a basic chocolate brownie, though these days the fashion seems to be "fancying" them up by adding caramel, nuts, or flavored chips (mint, raspberry)
  2. Butterscotch.   Like caramel, butterscotch can be fashioned into a delicious buttery candy or used as an ingredient in candy bars, cakes, or pies.
  3. Cakes: So many delicious choices, I've devoted a whole blog entry to them!
  4. Candies-chocolate.   Turns out pretty much anything tastes delicious if you coat it in chocolate! This category includes everything from m&ms to bon bons and truffles.
  5. Candies-hard. Includes lollipops, lemon drops, peppermints, rock candy, ribbon candy, and candy canes
  6. Caramel.  Available as a candy, but more commonly encountered as an ingredient in other sweets.  Without caramel there would be no toffees, no flans, no caramel chocolate bars, no caramel sauce for ice cream or caramel glaze for cakes; no caramel apples; and (say it isn't so) no caramel corn! 
  7. Cheesecake. Top your basic cheesecake with fruit; or, add ingredients to the batter (chocolate, pumpkin, berries, lemon/lime, mocha, peanut butter) to create different varieties
  8. Chewing Gum.   Includes regular chewing gums and bubble gum
  9. Chocolate: dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate ... need I say more?
  10. Cookies: Includes American cookies, English biscuits, wafers, animal crackers, biscotti, macaroons, gingerbread, and shortbreads.
  11. Cotton candy.  Airy, flossy, sugary goodness!
  12. Drinks - novelty.  Since the beginning of time people have been creating sweet novelty drinks, often by combining sugar, alcohol, and other ingredients into concoctions such as mulled wine, eggnog, or mead; today, we tend to call them "cocktails." Other sugary novelty drinks include flavored milk, lemonade, and artificial "fruit" drinks like cool-aid.
  13. Drinks - soda.  Sodas deserve their own category, if only because they are such a dominant source of sugar in our everyday diets!  Today we have Coke and Pepsi but even during the civil war people enjoyed sarsaparilla.
  14. Frostings/glazes.  Though one tends to think of your basic royal icing or fondant when talking about frosting, delicious sweet toppings can also be crafted out of cream cheese, marshmallow, caramel, and a variety of fruits.
  15. Frozen treats:  Includes popsicles, snow cones, gelato, and sherbet
  16. Frozen Milk treats: Includes ice cream in all its forms: bars, cones, pints, cakes, and milkshakes
  17. Fruits:  Nature's original dessert!  This category includes raw fruits, poached fruits, dried/candied fruits, fruit smoothies, jellies, jams, and fruit juices.
  18. Fudge. Like brownies, fudge is delicious plain but is also available in dozens of flavors.
  19. Gelatin.  Includes gelatins like jello; also licorice and gelatin-based "gummy" candies (gummy bears, jellybeans)
  20. Honey: Honey-based treats include challah, baklava, and candy corn; also, by the way, it can also be fermented to create a yummy alcohol generally called mead!
  21. Liquors.  Given that alcohol is nothing more than fermented plant sugar, the wide array of sweet liquors available shouldn't be surprising.  Some of these include: Amareto, Kahlua, creme de cacao, Frangelico, and Grand Marnier
  22. Marshmallow.  An essential ingredient in rice crispy squares, s'mores, and peeps.
  23. Marzipan.  Marzipan, a dough made from almond flour (or sometimes other sweetmeat flour), can be shaped into cookies or works as a filling for chocolate candies.
  24. Meringue. Meringue, a confection created by whipping egg whites until they turn into a froth, are great alone or topped with fruit.
  25. Milk Products (lactose): Turns out adding sugar to milk products = fabulous!  Sweet butters and creams are the foundation of any number of delicious treats.
  26. Molasses: Used in some spice cookies; also adds the "sweet" to many barbeque sauces and baked bean recipes. 
  27. Nectar. One word: honeysuckle!  It may not be a major ingredient in anything, but if summer had a taste, it would be honeysuckle.
  28. Pastries.  Includes doughnuts, beignets, napoleons, strudels, baklavas, croissants, fritters, eclairs, danishes, and turnovers
  29. Pies/Cobblers/tarts: Includes pies, cobblers, and tarts.
  30. Puddings/mousses/custards:  Includes American puddings (vanilla, chocolate, tapioca); thicker British puddings (plum pudding, etc.); mousses (basically, frothy puddings); and custards like crème Brule, blancmange, and flange
  31. Relishes/chutneys/salsas.  Though we typically think of relishes as salty, delicious fruit relishes and chutneys are excellent spread on bread or served with meats.
  32. Sauces/syrups. Sauces (ex: chocolate sauce, raspberry sauce) and syrups (corn, maple, blueberry) typically aren't served alone but add plenty of sweet when poured over breads, puddings, or ice cream.
  33. Sweet Breads: In this category I'm including breads as well as breads with yummy things rolled into them: sweet rolls, cinnamon rolls, panettone, funnel cake, muffins, rugelach, and jellyrolls/yule logs all fit into this category
  34. Sweetmeats: "Sweetmeats" is an old term for nuts: walnuts, pecans, peanuts, pistachios, poppy seeds, etc.  Eat them raw as snacks or use them as ingredients with other sweetables like cakes, pies, brittles, or candies
  35. Taffies/nougats.  A category of extremely chewy treats - delicious but hard on the teeth!
  36. Truffles.  A delicious combination of cake, pudding, and fruit - often with a sauce or topping thrown in!
  37. Wines.  Several varieties of wine are known for their sweetness, including Rieslings, gewurtstrameners, and sauternes.

12/07/2010

25+ Great Cakes


As if this month wasn't busy enough, my family celebrates about 6 birthdays in December.  Which must explain why I'm thinking, not about how on earth I'm going to catch up on my Christmas shopping, but about cake. 

The following isn't meant as a comprehensive list of all cakes, but it is a comprehensive list of all the best cakes I've ever run across in my life.  (By the way, I'm not separating out cupcakes or bundt cakes, as these are shapes, not categories, as far as I'm concerned.)
  1. Chocolate Cake. It's delicious on its own, or add fruit (cherries, strawberries, raspberry, banana, coconut, pineapple, orange), candy (peppermint, caramel, chocolate chips), nuts (peanutbutter, pecans, walnuts, hazelnut), or booze/liquor (amaretto, khalua, rum) - or all of them! - to create endless variations. Variations include fudge cake, devil's food cake, chocolate volcano cake, death by chocolate cake, white chocolate cake.
  2. Black Forest Cake. I know - this properly belongs under the "chocolate cake" category, but this is my list and I think Black Forest Cake is sufficiently amazing to deserve its own category.
  3. Lemon Cake.  Especially good with poppy seeds or almonds. Variations include poppy seed cake, key lime cake, orange cake.
  4. Punch Cake/poke cake.  The idea is to bake a basic cake (yellow, chocolate, whatever), punch holes in it, and then fill the holes with a variety of good things. The result tends to be colorful and incredibly moist.  Variations include pineapple punch cake, peach punch cake, jello punch cake, lemon punch cake.
  5. Pineapple Upsidedown Cake.  With this you get not only cake and fruit, but also a delicious carmelized layer of brown sugar that adds the perfect amount of sweetness and gooiness.  Variations include banana upsidedown cake.
  6. Coconut Cake.   One of my all-time favorites.  One Easter, mom dyed the coconut green and scattered jellybeans over the top, so it looked like a lawn seeded with Easter eggs.  Variations include pina colada cake.
  7. Hawaiian Cake/Pig Pickin' Cake.  Includes mandarin oranges, pinapple, coconut and sometimes macademia nuts .... kind of like a cake version of what my grandmom used to call "fruit ambrosia".  I always called it Hawaiian cake, but I understand it is also known as a Pig Pickin' Cake.  I include this for reference and not because I ever intend to call it a Pig Pickin' Cake in public.  Ever again.
  8. Angel food cake.  Classic sponge cake paired with fresh fruit and cream - liquid or whipped.  It really does taste like a little slice of heaven.  Variations include strawberry shortcake, peach shortcake.
  9. Boston Cream Pie.  Vanilla cream inserted between two layers of yellow cake with chocolate on top ... what's not to love?  (TIP: This cake is delicious served cold to the point of frozen.)  Variations include twinkee cake.
  10. Spice Cake.  Variations include ginger cake (aka gingerbread), clove cake.
  11. Carrot Cake.  Suppose I could list this as a variation of your basic spice cake, but the carrots add a heartiness and moistness that plain spice cake lacks.  Variations include pumpkin cake, sweet potato cake, zucchini cake.
  12. Pecan Cake. ... by which I mean a cake prepared using pecan flour and then covered in a pecan/caramel frosting. Yellow cake works well as a base; spice cake works even better! Variations include hazelnut cake, almond cake, walnut cake, pistachio cake.
  13. Cinnamon Coffee Cake. I've seen all kinds of things added to the recipe - berries, apple, pecans, etc.  It's all good.  For special occassions mom used to bake a version she got from the side panel of a box of bisquik.  It was so buttery, it would have made even Paula Dean swoon.  Variations include streussel cake.
  14. Mousse cake.  Basically, any cake with layers of mousse and topped with a mousse frosting. It's two desserts in one!  Variations include chocolate mousse cake, raspberry mousse cake.
  15. Caramel cake.  You swirl the caramel into the batter, and then finish it off with a caramel/nut frosting.  Genius.  Variations include butterscotch cake, candy cakes.
  16. Apple Cake.  These are especially good with a nutty caramel frosting, and are perfect for fall.  Variations include pear cake, banana cake, cranberry cake, blueberry cake, apricot cake, blueberry cake, raspberry cake.
  17. Sour Cream Pound Cake.  Your basic pound cake recipe but with sour cream substituted for some of the oil and water.  Adds a great richness to the flavor.  Variations include cream cheese cake, applesauce cake, yogurt cake, pudding cake.
  18. Whiskey cake. My grandmom used to make this one.  She swore the whiskey evaporated during baking but my sister and I used to pretend to be tipsy after imbibing a piece.  Variations include rum cake, marguerita cake, bourbon cake, beer cake, wine cake, champagne cake, sherry cake.
  19. Apricot brandy cake.  I should probably expand this category to include all cakes that combine fruit with booze (though apricot and brandy are the best combo I've ever run across).  As anyone whose favorite part of a mixed drink is the fruit at the bottom of the glass knows, fruit and booze make a great combo. 
  20. Marble cake.  The trick with marble cake is to swirl together two kinds of cake batter.  The result is delicious and colorful.  Variations include chess cake, rainbow cake.
  21. Red Velvet cake. This is basically a devil's food cake with red food coloring added to the batter, but it gets its own category because it's always been one of my favorites.  The contrast of the red cake and the white frosting makes my mouth water!
  22. Mocha Cake.  Variations include Black Russian cake, cappucino cake, tiramisu cake.
  23. Amaretto Cake.  My wedding cake contained a whole bottle of amaretto.  Not sure if the guests realized, but I can tell you that in all my life I've never seen a wedding cake consumed so quickly!  Variations include khalua cake, creme de menthe cake, eggnog cake, irish cream cake.
  24. Dump Cake.  Presumably called this because the idea is to take a basic cake mix and then "dump" stuff into the batter - chips, nuts, pieces of candy, crushed cookies, fruit, raisins, etc.  Variations include chocolate chip cake, cookies & cream cake.
  25. Ice cream cake.  Like mousse cake, it's two desserts in one.  My mom was making them long before you could pick one up at the Baskin Robbins on your way home.  Variations include baked alaska.
I've also encountered some cakes that never should have been invented.  Tomato soup cake? Soda pop cake? Cantelope cake? Rhubarb cake?  Ricotta cake? Yikes! It's almost enough to make me swear off of pot luck buffets.


Don't see your favorite here?  Let me know!  Hate to think that I might be missing out on something good.

12/01/2010

30+ Uniquely American Foods


It seems a very great hypocracy that the same countries that denegrate us for our food are often the ones that have lines stretching out the doors of the local McDonalds.  I think it's time to look at U.S. food realistically.  Sure, it's often appallingly unhealthy, but is it more unhealthy than Germany's staple, the ubiquitous wurst, or England's staple, fried fish?  I think it's time for Americans to stop being ashamed of our cuisine and to proudly celebrate its meaty, greasy, creamy greatness.

Following is my list of foods that, to me, represent signature U.S. food.  Some of these dishes, I realize, are not technically indiginous, but though they may have sprung in other soil, it is in the U.S. that they have taken firm root and flourished.

Let me know if I've missed any of your favorites!   

  1. Barbeque.  Okay, so the art of preserving meat by adding vinegar or salt and/or smoking is ancient ... but it was here in the US that we figured out how to use slow cooking and molasses to turn what was basically dried meat jerky into a succulent, juicy, "fall off the bones" treat.
  2. Hamburger.  Do we eat so many hamburgers because we raise so many cows, or do we raise so many cows because we eat so many hamburgers?
  3. Fried Chicken.  Just like us Americans to take a healthy food and figure out how to make it more fattening.
  4. Chicken Wings.  Another American gift: figuring out a way to rebrand something no one wants to make it desirable. 
  5. Meatloaf.  For folks who really want a hamburger but can't afford the bun.
  6. Turkey.  One of the best reasons to be an American: Thanksgiving.
  7. Corn.  Indiginous to North and South America, the U.S. has made corn "ours" by virtue of grits, succotash, cornbread, johnnycakes, popcorn, and corn on the cob dripping with butter. 
  8. Peanuts/Peanut Butter.  It isn't a ballgame without peanuts, and it isn't a bag lunch with a peanut butter & jelly sandwich.  Second greatest food pairing of all times (after PB&J): PB and chocolate. 
  9. Pecans.  Pecans are another sweetmeat indiginous to the U.S.  God bless whoever figured out how to transform them into praline candy and pecan pie.
  10. Ice Cream.  Give me a good old fashioned scoop of vanilla over gelato any day.  Other American contributions to the world (you can thank us later): ice cream cones, milk shakes, and root beer floats.
  11. American Pizza.  We all know pizza is Italian, but much like how reindeer evolved to elk when they hit North America, what we call pizza here is far removed from its ancestral origin.  (Food Darwinism - cool!)  So bring on the deep dish crust, smothered in tomato sauce, topped with pounds of cheese, and smelling faintly of steamed cardboard!
  12. Soul Food.  The origin of soul food is slavery, which is makes this cuisine uniquely, though disturbingly, American.  Slaves and other indigent people in the South found ways to turn neglected crops - like black eyed peas, kale, and collard greens - with the neglected bits of butchered animals - chitlins, ham hocks, etc. - to create food that tastes a lot better than it sounds.
  13. Breads.  Of course we didn't invent bread.  But we did invent pancakes for breakfast, hushpuppies, and bisquits drenched in sausage gravy.
  14. Jello.  Other countries have geletin, but we're the ones that figured out how to turn it all colors of the rainbow, suspend foreign objects in it, and mold it into mysterious shapes. 
  15. Potatoes.  Given the number of Americans who can trace their ancestry back to Germany or Ireland, no wonder the U.S. has a love affair with potatoes. Our lasting contributions to the potato genre: french fries, potato chips, and potato skins.
  16. Pies & Cobblers.  We didn't invent pie, but I would argue we've have done more than any other country to expand the pie and cobbler art form to embrace not only timeless classics like apple pie, but also indiginous favorites to include huckleberry, blueberry, and pecan pie.
  17. Macaroni & Cheese.  The ultimate comfort food, although most Europeans are still trying to figure out why American cheese is orange.
  18. Bagels.  Many thanks to our Jewish neighbors in New York for this American classic!
  19. Casseroles (aka "hot dishes" aka "covered dishes").  I'm not talking about Julia Child's casoulets - I'm talking about good ol' American casseroles, the ones that use condensed soup as a base and are inevitably covered with cheese.   Undoubtedly there's a reason no other country is clammoring to claim this unique but dubious American classic.
  20. Cookies.  Especially chocolate chip cookies.  Ours our nothing like what they call "bicuits" in other countries, thank goodness.
  21. Creole Food.  Another food arising from America's polyglut past, creole food blends traditions from the Caribbean, French cuisine and Southern cooking to give birth to uniquely American dishes such as jambalaya, gumbo, and etouffe. 
  22. Condiments.  The world has us to thank (or not) for mayonaisse, catsup, and maple syrup. 
  23. Soda/Pop.  Thank you, Coca Cola, for Santa Claus!  And thanks also for that 70s anthem "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," Super Big Gulps, and our current epidemic of overweight teens.  Root beer is particularly American: I have a European friend who adores root beer and says you can't get it anywhere else.
  24. Iced Tea.  I have it on good authority that many Europeans find absolutely appalling our habit of adding ice to perfect good tea.  I'm betting they live in places where temperatures  don't reach 100 degrees during the summer.
  25. Sandwiches.  Lots of countries lay claim to having invented the sandwich, but Americans have brought more inventiveness to the task than most.  Case in point: hoagies/dagwoods/subs, philly cheesesteak, reubens, and muffulettas.
  26. Hot Dogs.  I'm sure American hot dogs can trace their ancestory to English sausage or German wurst, but our version - plopped in a bun and topped with condiments - is uniquely American.
  27. Chili.  Okay, so we stole the spices and tomato base from Mexico, but it was our idea to add weird stuff like buffalo, pasta, and cinnamon. 
  28. Salads.  America's penchant for eating raw vegetables is looked at with askance by many folks from around the world, as well as most toddlers.  However, we have found ways to make raw veggies more palatable by burying them beneath dressing (see Condiments-Mayonaisse), meat & cheese (cobb salad), fruit (waldorf salad) and fish paste (caesar salad) 
  29. Cheese-Based Snack Foods.  I wince at having to claim this as a uniquely American food, but there's a reason so much of the rest of the world holds us in disdain, and I suspect this may have something to do with it.