A Brief History of Desserts

-By Jamila Cassim


 When I think of “desserts” I picture huge mountains of rich, creamy ice-creams in vanilla, lime and chocolate, luxuriously drizzled with honey, nuts, caramel and syrup, with a huge flake or wafer dipped into the centre. For others with a sweet tooth, the word “dessert” may conjure up images of sticky baklava, cream-filled pastries, pudding and tiramisu, making them salivate instantaneously.

The word “dessert” has its origins in the French word “desservir”, meaning “to clean the table” ¹. Whilst western cultures use the term dessert for the last course of a meal, Eastern cultures refer to it as “sweets, afters or informally, as pudding”¹.

Desserts have evolved throughout the ages. Ancient civilizations used honeycombs, nuts and fruits as a form of dessert (honey was used as a method of candying the fruit). Desserts as we know it today became popular through the evolution of technology and culinary experimentation². Just as food represents certain ethnic cultures and regions, so too do desserts. For instance, tiramisu is uniquely Italian, whilst bread and butter represent the English.

As is common knowledge, the most important ingredient in desserts is sugar. This commodity was first used as a “spice” in food. It was originally manufactured in the middle-ages and because of its expensiveness, only the wealthy could indulge in it on special occasions.

Ice cream in particular, dates back to the 4th Century. It was invented in China, discovered by Marco Polo and expanded as a technique in Europe by his travels. By the 1800’s recipes on how to make ice cream was very popular and the ingredient Vanilla played an important role as a flavour enhancer. Of interest, the first apple pie recipe was printed in 1381 and in 1740 the first cupcake recipe was recorded¹.

According to author Michael Kendl in his book titled The History of Desserts, 16th Century Italian chefs used eel in Marzipan whilst a Parisian Chef used frogs in macaroon batter, however elegantly served. There were no differences as such between savoury and sweet. In fact, they were often served together. It was only in the 20th Century that the two dishes were served apart³.

In the Middle-ages the rich and affluent ate desserts like preserved fruit, jelly and wafers made from fresh batter. Rich pudding was thought to be medicinal, good for the digestive system right up until the 19th Century. Interesting to note, for many centuries, puddings were meat-based. It was only in the 19th Century, that it took on a sweet form by the Victorians⁴.

Rich Italian desserts are known throughout the world. They rank on top alongside the French creations. They are oftentimes decadent, flavourful and classic. Their key ingredients are cheese and cream. Famous Italian desserts such as tiramisu, is made with fresh cream and biscuit. The Panforte, which is a traditional dessert, has a spicy flavour and contains fruits and nuts. This recipe originated in Tuscany and was used as a tax payment for monks. The panettone is sweet bread while biscotti are considered a gourmet dessert. The most interesting fact about Italians, who are the originators of these well-known desserts, is that they only ever indulge in them on special occasions. They normally conclude their meals with fresh fruit and cheese⁵.

What may be of interest is the origin of the French creation, the croissant. It was created to mark the expulsion of the Ottoman rule; the crescent shape mimics the crescent of the ottoman flag⁶. France is known for its delectable foods, and desserts are no exception. The French have created many notable sweet treats and confections, known to be savoured slowly. The famous macaroon is a light confection made of whipped egg whites, sugar and ground almonds. Simple French desserts would be a selection of fresh fruit, savoury cheeses coupled with bread, crackers and chocolate. The “tarte tatin” is an upside down apple tart that is sweet, flaky and delicate. The apples are caramelized with butter and sugar and then baked. The French are also inventors of the much loved crepe- moist pancakes, folded over and filled with fruit or chocolate-hazelnut spread, topped with whipped cream or powdered sugar. The French are also famous for their mousses, soufflés and crème brulee’s⁶.

When the English say “what’s for pudding?” they actually mean “What’s for dessert?” There are hundreds of variations of sweet puddings in England and many involve fresh fruit, custard, cream and cake. Traditional puddings include apple or rhubarb crumble, bread and butter pudding as well as trifle. The traditional accompaniment is custard. Other puddings include Semolina Pudding, Poly Poly, English crumpets, mince pies, treacle pudding and jelly and ice cream. Trifle is so famous that it is served in homes and restaurants worldwide.  The basic ingredients of a trifle are always the same: sponge, covered with raspberry jam, then an egg-custard topped with cream⁷.

Indian sweets and desserts have made Indian food famous throughout history. They are served in “fancy” restaurants throughout England, France, USA and Spain. The Rasgullah is the most popular relished sweetmeat in India, originating from the Eastern part of the country. This dish is produced by boiling small pops of casein in sugar syrup. Kheer is famous too and is served at most wedding ceremonies in the Southern regions of India.

Western India is known for its Shirkhand. This is a creamy dessert made up of strained yoghurt from which all water is drained off, leaving the thick yoghurt cream behind. Exotic fruits such as mangoes only enhance its taste. Other important sweets include Gulab Jamun (a popular dessert made of fried milk balls in sweet syrup), Mysore Paak (made from ghee, sugar and chick pea flour). Halwa, Kulfi (Indian ice cream) and Jalebi⁸.

“To have or not to have?”. This is the debate that rages in the minds of most people. Desserts by nature, is deemed to be “fattening” and high in saturated fats, but if consumed tends to leave one with a feeling of pleasure and fulfilment. One has to admit that without desserts, the culinary world would be devoid of colour. It is a synonym of all things joyous, beautiful, appetizing and mouth-watering.











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