Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
Local Favorites From All 50 States
There are 50 states in the USA—and 50 different cakes, pies, and other sweet delights for your sweet tooth. Many of these treats are well known; however, I'll admit a few of them were made up (by me) based on state-favorite foods and regional classics. To eliminate any perceived bias or favoritism, I'm listing them alphabetically. Let’s get started.
Alabamians love their pecans. This walnut-like tree nut (the only one native to North America) has been commercially produced there since the early 1900s. In 1982 the State Legislature designated the pecan as the official state nut. If you have read Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” you will, of course, remember Miss Maudie Atkinson’s Lane Cake. I can’t imagine a more fitting dessert to celebrate the State of Alabama than the Lane Cake, a moist confection of coconut, bourbon, and pecans. (You were expecting pecan pie?)
Of course, Maudie Atkinson was a fictional character—the real creator of the Lane Cake was Emma Rylander Lane who published a cookbook (and her amazing cake recipe) in 1898. Tori Avery's 4-layer masterpiece is as rich and boozy as Maudie's famous cake.
Baked Alaska (originally named Alaska, Florida) was created in 1867 by Charles Ranhofer, the pastry chef of the New York Delmonico to celebrate the purchase of the Alaska Territory. But Ranhofer did not develop the technique of enrobing cake and ice cream with fluffy meringue and then torching it to a stunning golden brown. Credit for discovering that meringue makes an excellent insulator goes to the American physicist Sir Benjamin Thompson (who, by the way, also invented the sous vide method of cooking, the drip coffee maker, and thermal underwear). Today there are many versions of the cake/ice cream confection. This recipe by the bakers at Bon Apétit simplifies the process by helping you create individual baked Alaskas.
Just as Starbucks coffee is the iconic food of Washington, Navajo fry bread would have to be the unofficial food of Arizona. Yes, we can take this fatty, crispy dough, sprinkle on some powdered sugar and call it dessert. But what if that fry bread met puff pastry, they fell in love and had a baby? You’d have sopapillas—sweet, puffy, and totally decadently delicious.
Have you ever heard the expression "playing possum?" When cornered these cute little marsupials will play dead. Perhaps that is how this next dessert got its name. As the story goes, Possum Pie is so-named because it pretends to be what it is not. This deceptively simple pie with "mile-high" whipped cream hides layers of flavors beneath. Some legislators have tried to have this declared the "state pie" of Arkansas.
The United States is the second largest producer of pistachios in the world, and 99 percent of those are grown in California. No wonder pistachio has been named the State nut. The Golden State also grows 100 percent of our nation’s dried figs. Put them together and you have this amazing salted honey and pistachio fig tarte tatin. Tarte tatin sounds fancy (yes, it's French), but it's really nothing more than a caramelized fruit tart turned upside-down.
The long sunny days and cool nights of summer in Colorado provide ideal conditions for the Palisade peach. In 1882 John Harlow was one of the colonizers of the Western Slope. The soil was rich and fertile, but the scant rainfall made it nearly impossible for the white settlers to grow their favored crops. Harlow developed a canal project to divert water from the Colorado River. He planted fruit trees, notably peach trees. In the latter part of the 19th century, the community began an annual festival deemed “Peach Days.”
This caramel crumble peach pie is a perfect way to celebrate.
Connecticut is the "nutmeg state." These cinnamon nutmeg. oatmeal muffins are moist and tender with a crunchy top—and they will make your whole house smell delicious!
The state of Delaware made this one easy for me; they’ve declared the peach pie as their official dessert.
Did you know that Florida is the second-largest producer of citrus in the world? And they are the largest producer of 100-percent orange juice in the United States. This upside down orange cake is super moist with a tender crumb and packs a big dose of orange flavor.
Georgia is known as the peach state (there’s even a peach on the license plates) because Georgia growers have a reputation for producing fruits of the highest quality. We've already found two great peach pie recipes. Let's get creative with these fresh peach crumb bars with a buttery crust.
The pineapple did not originate in Hawaii (it comes from the island of Guadalupe), but ever since Captain James Cook introduced them to the Hawaiian Islands, the two have been culturally entwined. Hawaii is the only U.S. producer of pineapple, producing about 430 million pounds per year. Pineapples that are to be eaten fresh are harvested by hand; those designated for canning are harvested mechanically.
What's better, sweeter, and yummier than pineapple? What about pineapple crisp with a crumbly, oaty, brown sugar topping, warm from the oven (and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top)?
There's more than a bit of history in huckleberries, the state fruit of Idaho. Lewis and Clark (yes, that Lewis and Clark) mentioned the berries in their 1805 journals. The volcanic (acid) soil of the area near Coeur d'Alene produces some of the largest, sweetest, juiciest huckleberries. Huckleberries grow only in the wild--despite numerous attempts, they have never been successfully domesticated. I'm happy to report that I have them in my backyard. Here's my favorite huckleberry pie recipe.
In January 2015 state Representative Keith Sommer sponsored a proposal to make “Pumpkin Pie” the state pie of Illinois. His effort, according to his staff “was a tribute to how much pumpkin is produced in Illinois.” Believe it or not, the 25th largest state produces about 85 percent of the pumpkin consumed in our nation.
If you have been reading my articles for a while, it should be no surprise to you that I would go to Kenji for the ultimate pumpkin pie recipe. The food lab at SeriousEats deconstructs every recipe to understand the science behind food ingredients and how they work together. They never disappoint. And their recipe for a traditional baked pumpkin pie is absolutely the best!
Since at least the 1830s (and perhaps even earlier) Indiana has been known as the Hoosier (HOO-zhee-er) state and its inhabitants as Hoosiers. Please don't ask me why. There are many theories, and all of them range from slightly odd to absolutely ridiculous and we are in danger of losing sight of the purpose of this article. We're doing desserts here, and the obvious choice for Indiana is, of course, the Hoosier Pie.
The state of Iowa is No. 1 in the production of corn but almost all of it is "field corn," used to feed livestock and processed into cornmeal, starch, oil, and syrup. One percent is called "sweet corn," the stuff we slather with butter in the summer, and purchase canned or frozen throughout the year. Since corn is such an important agricultural product in Iowa, I selected this sweet corn pudding as their dessert.
Finding the perfect dessert to capture the heart of Kansas was not an easy task. The Sunflower State is better known for barbecue, bierocks, and burnt ends. But then, I came upon the tale of Joseph Stayman, an American horticulturalist. During his career, he developed numerous grape, strawberry, and apple varieties. His namesake, the Stayman apple, was cultivated in 1866. The fruit is juicy and crisp and described as both tart and spicy—that makes it the perfect choice for this Stayman Apple Crisp.
Blackberries (also known as bramble berries) are a native plant of Kentucky and in 2004 were designated as the State fruit. They’re great for making jam, pie, and cobbler but this no-bake blackberry cheesecake really showcases the taste and texture of the fresh berries.
Strawberries are a big deal in the state of Louisiana. According to the LSU AgCenter, the industry last year had “a gross farm value of $8.4 million.” (Heather Kirk-Ballard, contributing writer to The Advocate, Nov 1, 2021). No wonder the Louisiana state fruit is the strawberry. Rumor has it this is the very best strawberry shortcake recipe in the world.
Wild blueberries, also known as lowbush blueberries, grow wild in Maine. These sweet little orbs are smaller than their highbush cousins, but they thrive in the harsh seasons of Maine and perhaps it’s that challenge that makes them even sweeter and juicier than their counterparts. Mainers have made the blueberry pie their state dessert.
In 2008 the state legislature named the “Smith Island Cake” the official dessert of Maryland. What sets this cake apart from any other is the distinctive thin layers (at least eight). Tradition calls for moist yellow cake sandwiched with chocolate fudge frosting.
In 1825, a 20-year-old youth named Harvey Parker from the small town of Paris, Maine, moved to Boston, Massachusetts. He had no family or friends, no job, and only $1 in his pocket. But Harvey had a head full of ideas and a heart full of ambition; he quickly landed his first job as a caretaker for a cow and a horse. Several more menial jobs followed, but then he was employed as a coachman for a wealthy Boston socialite, a position that changed his life.
Harvey often enjoyed his midday meal in a basement tavern. Despite the fact that he had no experience, he was inspired to improve the food and atmosphere and bought the tavern for $432. He renamed it Parker’s Restaurant, serving an updated menu and employing professional waitstaff. The former dingy hole-in-the-wall became the go-to place for Boston’s elite. By 1847, Parker’s was one of the most popular dining destinations in the city.
Seven years later, Parker, with an investment partner, purchased a boarding house that had once been a grand mansion. The aging structure was razed and in its place arose an Italianate-style five-story brick-and-stone hotel with marble steps, an elegant foyer, crystal chandeliers, burnished bronze fixtures, golden oak paneling, and plush wool carpets. Instead of the traditional boarding house meals at established times, Parker’s had a new concept—an elegant dining room, a menu, and upscale meals which could be purchased at any time. Today, Parker's is regarded as the oldest of Boston’s elegant inns and the longest continuously operating hotel in the United States. A century and one-half ago, the creative kitchen staff developed several dishes which are still known today. One of those is the Boston cream pie.
Did you know that the cherry capital of the world is Michigan? Three-fourths of the tart cherries sold in the United States are grown there. Grab a map of Lake Michigan; focus on the northeast corner and there you will find Traverse City, the place where every July a week-long celebration of “all things cherry” happens. Over 300,000 people come from near and far to take in parades, the air show, crafts, music, and (of course) cherry-studded foods. Let’s celebrate with cherry pie crumb bars.
The official state fruit of Minnesota is the Honeycrisp apple and, as the name implies, it is both sweet as honey and deliciously crisp and juicy. It's the perfect apple for baking, such as in this Honeycrisp apple pandowdy. (A pandowdy is simply a pie baked in a pan with only a top crust.)
The obvious choice for the dessert of Mississippi is the black bottom pie. The "black bottom" is a dark, rich layer of chocolate representing the muddy bottom of the Mississippi River.
Here’s a totally different type of dessert. In 1904 visitors to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis were introduced to a new confection—ice cream. The purveyors of this frozen delight folded waffles into a cone shape, filled the waffle with ice cream, and called it an ice cream cornucopia. In 2008 the ice cream cone became Missouri’s official state dessert.
The perfect climate, rich, fertile soils, and pure waters of Flathead Lake are what make Flathead cherries so sweet, juicy, and delightfully delicious. Flathead is not a breed of cherry, but rather is the catch-all name for all cherries grown in the area. The use of buckwheat in these Flathead Lake cherry bars gives them a nutty taste without the use of nuts and also makes them gluten-free.
Defining a truly Nebraskan dessert was not an easy task. Known as the birthplace of the Reuben sandwich, Cliff Notes, and frozen TV dinners, the cornhusker state didn't give me much to work with. But then, I discovered that Kool-Aid, that neon-colored instant drink mix was invented by Edwin Perkins in 1927. Perkins was an entrepreneur, manufacturing products and directly selling them to customers with his homemade labels. Eventually, he set up his own mail-order business (long before Amazon). One of the many items he sold was a sweet fruity beverage he named Fruit Smack. The product was in high demand, but packaging and safely shipping the glass bottles proved to be a problem, so he removed the water from the drink and sold the resulting powder in envelopes. Kool-Ade (later Kool-Aid) sold for 10 cents per packet and came in strawberry, orange, raspberry, cherry, lemon-lime, and grape flavors. Today there are 22 flavors—you can use any of them to make this Kool-Aid 4-ingredient no-bake dessert.
Rumor has it that in Boulder City one can find a Dole Whip dessert that rivals anything made in Disneyland.
The state fruit of New Hampshire is the pumpkin (yes, technically it is a fruit). There are so many pumpkin pie recipes out there. Let's do something fun, different, and easy—pumpkin dump cake.
New Jersey is a state of so many “firsts.” The first baseball game was played there, it’s home to more diners than any other state, the first submarine ride was in the Passaic River; New Jersey has the tallest water tower in the world, it was the site of the very first drive-in movie, and New Jersey was the first state to sign the Bill of Rights.
What a surprise to learn that New Jersey is in fourth place in the production of cranberries in the United States. They aren’t number one, but 531 thousand barrels of cranberries is still a lot of cranberries. My pick is this moist cranberry upside down cake, sweetened with dark brown sugar and "kicked up" with orange zest.
For centuries the Hopi and Navajo people have been growing a variety of flint corn with a distinctive purple-blue color. This heirloom grain has 20 percent more protein than its yellow and white kernel cousins; its deep roots allow it to survive in drought conditions. With such a rich history, it deserves to be highlighted as a dessert for New Mexico—blue corn cupcakes.
There is only one answer—New York-style cheesecake.
Here’s a bit of trivia about North Carolina. They are the top producer of sweet potatoes in the United States—far ahead of the #2 producer (California). In 2019 the harvest was 1.5 billion pounds! No wonder their legislature has designated the sweet potato as the state vegetable. Since early colonial days, sweet potato pie has been a part of southern cuisine.
Did you know that one-half of the population of North Dakota has German-Russian roots? In the middle of the 18th century, Catherine the Great needed skilled laborers to help develop the Volga region into a productive agricultural area. At her invitation, more than 25,000 immigrated with the promise of religious freedom, exemption from military service, and protection of their unique culture and language. The Volga Deutsch established 100 colonies.
All was good for 90 years, but then Alexander II broke the promise and threatened all adult men with conscription into the Russian Army. As a result, by 1935 more than 115,000 German Russians immigrated to the United States. Many of them settled in North Dakota. German kuchen is a favorite sweet treat.
Ohio is nicknamed the Buckeye State, but do you know why? Buckeye trees are a member of the soapberry family (which also includes maples, horse chestnuts, and lychees). They are native to the area and cover the landscape. The nuts (seeds) of the tree resemble the eyes of a male deer, thus buckeyes. In 1953 the legislature declared that the state tree would be the Buckeye,
Though not really a dessert, it's hard to think of anything other than buckeye candy as the sweet representative for Ohio. Kristen Whirrett has created a decadent buckeye cake with all the flavors of buckeye candy.
If the person you learned it from didn't call it "pee can pie," you didn't get the right recipe.
Oklahoma doesn't merely have a state dessert, they have an entire meal (with 12 items). For dessert, save room for pecan pie.
Washington is apple country, but its neighbor to the south claims the pear as the official state fruit. I happen to know that the state nut (no, we're not talking politics) is the hazelnut (also known as filbert). Why not put the two of them together in a pear and roasted hazelnut tart?
There are about 13.1 million souls in the State of Pennsylvania; of those, only 340,000 (about 2.6 percent of the population) are Pennsylvania Dutch. Despite their small number, the PA Dutch have made significant contributions to the foods of the Keystone State. Perhaps the quirkiest (and tastiest) is the funny cake, a pie-cake hybrid.
You're going to have to trust me on this one—it's more than a bit bizarre (but it's really quite yummy). Coffee milk (said as one word). Yes, it's exactly what it sounds like. Chocolate milk is milk flavored with chocolate syrup; coffee milk is milk flavored with coffee syrup. Add vanilla ice cream and you've created the "Coffee Cabinet"—the Rhode Island expression for a shake or frappe. It doesn't get any more Rhode Island than this folks.