American Desserts, American Women

Back in 1979 when I started Sweet Street, women were streaming into the workforce and out of the kitchen. America began eating out, and with a sudden shortage of chefs, the country needed prepared foods. Talk about “being in the right place at the right time.” In reincarnating myself from photojournalist to baker I found surprising acceptance in this male-dominated industry of food. It was somehow more okay for an entrepreneurial woman like me to bake my way to success (like Mom!) than try my hand at savory foods. It still makes me chuckle to think that 35 years later I’ve achieved international leadership in an industry I entered through the back door.

It’s been an amazing journey, and there have been times I felt as if I were navigating an uncharted course, unwittingly begun with my dog-eared copy of Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking. I launched this blog in part to ground me in my own history, but the process is opening up much bigger stories about the web of relationships that make what I do possible. As I looked into the history of American desserts, I discovered a beautiful story of women who channeled their prodigious energy and talents into making sweet, welcoming treats for people to enjoy. I’m proud to be part of their tradition.  xo~Sandy

American desserts bear the stamp of influences unique to this nation – a mostly rural lifestyle, where people ate what they grew on the vast and fertile land, and where literate women in the kitchen by necessity made simple meals.

Amelia-Simmons1With no pasticceria down the block, Mom made apple pie, and this homey tradition continues to set American desserts apart from their fine and fancy European counterparts.

As the 19th century came to a close, American ingenuity was about to change this terrain. Cross country rail and industrialization made convenience products like flour, sugar and baking powder, readily available to the home cook – think automated flour milling from inventor Oliver Evans, and affordable refined sugar, thanks to monopolist Henry Havermayer. Creativity bloomed in an increasingly urbanized culture enriched by the tastes and techniques of immigrants from every corner of the earth – including the Ghirardelli family, whose San Francisco factory, launched 160 years ago, makes them America’s oldest continuously operating chocolate makers.


At Food Truck Nation, Sweet Street Desserts will offer Expo visitors a delectable, true-blue sampling of desserts with a quintessentially American blending of tradition and innovation– plus a certain something of my own. Let’s take a look at four iconic examples.

The Brownie

Legend has it that, on the eve of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Bertha Palmer – wife of Palmer hotel owner Potter Palmer and president of the Ladies Board for Managers for the Fair – was tasked with creating a dessert appropriate for the boxed lunches served at the Women’s Pavilion. The brownie-like result, though not called a “brownie,” stands alongside other Columbian Exposition firsts including Cracker Jack, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Blue Ribbon and the Ferris Wheel.

The first printed chocolate brownie recipe appeared in the 1906 edition of the Boston Cooking School Cook Book, by Fannie Merritt Farmer. According to Michael Krondl in Sweet Invention, Boston-Cooking-School-Cook-Book2the powerhouse known as “the mother of level measurement” recognized that “the scientific approach is best suited to dessert making, for it is in baking that the domestic scientist most closely resembles the chemist.”

Ms. Farmer might recognize Sweet Street’s Peruvian Chocolate Brownie as a distant heir to her original creation, but I’m sure she would be astonished by its chewy, fudgy sophistication, and the faintly bitter edge to its deep, dark, intensely fruity taste. Chemistry and innovation never tasted so good.

New York Cheesecake

The 1st century Roman historian Cato wrote about a honeyed ricotta cake made to honor household spirits, but 21st century New Yorkers know that only New York Cheesecake – made with pure cream cheese, cream, eggs, and sugar – is the genuine article. The first requirement Big-Cheese-Brulee4is not ricotta, Neufchatel or cottage cheese, but cream cheese, which was invented in 1872 by New York dairyman William Lawrence. “Philadelphia” became its brand name, after the city considered at that time to be the center of top quality food.

It was Arnold Reuben who history credits with inventing the first cheesecake made with Philadelphia cream cheese, not to mention the Reuben sandwich. (I can’t help but wonder about Mrs. Reuben’s influence.) In 1929, Reuben served the cheesecake at his legendary Turf Restaurant at 49th and Broadway in New York City, and the rest is delicious.

In my kitchen, we don’t argue with history. We innovate.

We mix cream cheese, eggs and cream; slow-bake it to perfection in a graham crust; and then (here’s the magic) we hand-fire the top, creating a thin, dazzling crust, like on a crème brulee, whose unique flavor depth comes not from the showy sugar topping but from scorching the cream. Voila! Sweet Street’s Big Cheese Brulee.

Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies

Toll-House4America’s most popular cookie was invented in 1937 by Ruth Graves Wakefield, a dietician and home economics teacher who, with her husband, Kenneth, ran the Toll House Restaurant south of Boston. Some accounts describe the cookie as an accident, bits of chocolate having fallen into the mixer by mistake – or that she ran out of baking chocolate and substituted semi-sweet, thinking it would disburse. But Ruth was a meticulous chef, famed for her desserts and well-schooled in the ways of chocolate, and such carelessness is unlikely. History couldn’t possibly have minimized the contributions of a woman, could it?

In any event, Ms. Wakefield broke up a candy bar of Nestlé’s semi-sweet chocolate (chips wouldn’t be invented until 1941) and called her creation “Toll House Crunch Cookies” – the crunchy bits were walnuts. As the popularity of the cookie soared, so did sales of Nestlé’s chocolate. She and Andrew Nestle agreed: Nestle would print the Toll House Cookie recipe on its package, and Wakefield got a lifetime supply of Nestle chocolate.

Invention didn’t stop at the Toll House, or with chocolate chips. We Americans mix all kinds of things in our cookie dough! Sandy’s Amazing Chocolate Chunk is bursting with chocolate morsels and topped with coarse pretzel salt, jaunty chocolate coins, and chunks of bitter-sweet, semi-sweet and creamy milk chocolate. And my Salted Caramel Cookie combines sweet and salty in an all-butter caramelized cookie mixed milky white chocolate, crisp pretzel bites, and crunchy Heath® toffee pieces.

Marshmallow Rice Krispies Treat

In 1939, two more lady food scientists – Mildred Day and Malitta Jensen – invented the Rice Krispie Treat in the Kellogg test kitchen by adding melted marshmallows and butter to the company’s brand new breakfast cereal. A request by the Camp Fire Girls for ideas for a fundraiser prompted a market test, and Americans have been enjoying the crunchy, gooey treat ever since. My Gluten-Free Marshmallow Bar with brown butter and sea salt is, shall we say, a more sophisticated version, and every bit as fun.

Here’s to ladies in the kitchen!

Stay Amazed,

Sandy Solmon