The United States is a wonderland for anyone with a sweet tooth. From pumpkin pie to chocolate chip cookies, there are enough ambrosial desserts to satisfy Willa Wonka.
Many sugary treats are ubiquitous throughout this country, but dig deeper, and you’ll find mouth-watering desserts that are a specialty of a specific state or city. Thanks to the magic of mail order, many now ship right to your door.
From Maine to Alaska, we’ve rounded up 10 tasty regional cakes, pies and confections that reflect a sense of place and are guaranteed to shift your glucose cravings into overdrive.
Wisconsin’s official state pastry, the Kringle, has been a specialty of Racine County ever since Danish immigrants brought the recipe with them in the mid-19th century. Made of 32 feathery layers of pastry, butter and flour are repeatedly folded together to produce a luscious dough with a flaky texture. The dough is refrigerated before being shaped into an oval and filled with nuts such as pecans or walnuts or fruit like raspberries or cherries. A drizzle of sweet icing over top offers even more sweetness. O & H Danish Bakery boasts a robust mail order business, and its products are often available at Trader Joe’s for a bargain price.
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This crunchy confection has been a Buffalo staple since the mid-1900s. Caramelized sugar is spun into an airy honeycomb and showered with melted chocolate. Locals love their hometown candy so much, there’s even a National Sponge Candy Day celebrated on September 21. Numerous Western New York State confectionary shops make it, so a Sponge Candy crawl isn’t out of the question. If you prefer to nosh at home, you can get these confections shipped straight to your door.
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Gooey butter cake is an unassuming yellow cake created in St. Louis. According to locals, it was the result of a happy accident when a baker mixed up the amount of sugar and flour to add to the cake. It’s a study in textures: crusty as a brownie at the corners, creamy as pudding in the slightly under-baked center and as buttery as a pound cake throughout. While it may not be the most sophisticated dessert of all time, this humble treat is as cozy as your favorite pair of pajamas. It’s blissfully simple, adorned with a shower of powdered sugar. Family-owned Russell’s Café and Bakery makes a version with a salted shortbread crust, and it ships fresh every Wednesday.
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Moravian sugar cake is a yeast-raised coffee cake. Once the batter has risen, the baker uses a finger to poke dimples in the dough. These wells act as reservoirs to collect a rich topping of melted butter, brown sugar and cinnamon that caramelizes as it bakes. Folklore holds that the best Moravian bakers had the biggest fingers, as larger holes in the dough meant more of the topping would make it into the nooks and crannies of the cake. This cake has long been an Easter morning tradition for members of the Moravian Church who settled in the Winston-Salem area more than two centuries ago. The cakes are sold and shipped at Winkler Bakery where the oven is still heated with wood just as it was when the bakery opened in 1807.
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Sugar cream pie is a velvety, single-crust pie that dates back to frontier days. Sometimes known as Hoosier pie or desperation pie, it was initially popular in the winter months when fruit was scarce in the Midwest but milk, sugar and flour were accessible. Today, it’s served in Indiana bakeries, restaurants and homes year-round. Local favorite Wick’s Pies ships nationwide.
Prepared with sugar, butter and milk, thickened with either a few spoons of flour or cornstarch and perfumed with a hint of vanilla and grated nutmeg, it’s a balanced interplay of pantry ingredients that drives home the point that the simplest of recipes can yield delicious results.
Everything’s bigger in Texas, including sheet cake. A Texas sheet cake is an oversized chocolate sheet cake slathered with fudgy chocolate frosting and generously sprinkled with chopped pecans. This chocoholic’s dream is easy to make in a jellyroll pan and is very portable; it’s often brought to potluck suppers, church bake sales and funerals. Bake it at home in a jiffy with a mix from H-E-B, the Lone Star State’s favorite supermarket.
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Spanish for “little biscuits,” these crunchy, shortbread-like Mexican-American cookies feature a robust dose of anise and cinnamon, explaining the fragrant aroma. Packed with zesty flavor, purists insist on using lard, which helps to explain the melt-on-your-tongue texture. Biscochitos are the official state cookie and a staple during the holiday season. Celina’s Biscochitos in Albuquerque masterfully bakes these tender beauties, even offering a monthly subscription box.
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Benne is the West African Bambara people’s name for sesame seed. During the North American slave trade, enslaved West Africans brought these seeds with them to South Carolina’s Sea Islands, home to Gullah heritage and culture. The seed was pounded and dried to form flour and found its way into a variety of dishes, including delicate wafers. Benne wafers are bite-size cookies that are slightly sweet, crunchy, nutty and buttery. They are sold at Olde Colony Bakery and numerous Lowcountry bakeries.
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Needhams are a soft, moist blend of mashed potatoes, shredded coconut, sugar and vanilla dipped in melted chocolate. Maine was once the country’s largest producer of potatoes, and Needhams were originally created as a way to utilize the state’s bumper crop of spuds. These square confections taste something like a homemade version of a classic Mounds candy bar. They’re a specialty at Robin’s Confections in Biddeford, Maine, where candy-makers hand-dip each one.
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Akutaq is an indigenous Alaskan dessert similar to ice cream. Made with whipped animal fat, plump tundra berries and freshly fallen snow, it doesn’t have the creamy consistency of more familiar frozen desserts. The animal fat used is dependent upon the region; Northern and interior parts of the state use caribou or moose fat while areas closer to the sea use whale or seal fat. Over time, Crisco has become a popular substitute. You’ll probably need to visit Alaska to sample this frosty snack.