Many temptations line the streets of New York, and sugary treats are no exception
In the early 17th century, before New York was New York, the Dutch colonials named the city New Amsterdam. While they tried to hold onto their newfound land, eventually they unfortunately lost out to the Brits. Fortunately, the Netherlanders did leave something behind for which we should all be thankful: dessert.
The earliest Dutch trading settlers baked traditional Appeltaart (apple pie) and seduced the world with their Oliekoeken, which are now known in a slightly different form, doughnuts. But the Dutch weren’t the only settlers with a sweet tooth. New York saw wave after wave of immigration (Russian, German, Italian, etc.), and they all brought offerings to the sweets table. The influx of indulgences that they created ran the gamut from cakey to doughy and nut-filled to creamy. Some confections were exact replicas of ones found in their homeland, while others got mixed up in the melting pot that converged on the Lower East Side. And despite the recent 21st century domination of mini-cupcakes and macarons, black-and-white cookies, cheesecake, cannoli and rugelach all continue to define New York dessert. And despite the recent 21st century domination of mini-cupcakes and macarons, black-and-white cookies, cheesecake, cannoli and rugelach all continue to define New York dessert.
How did the black-and-white become a New York icon? Michael Krondl, author of Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert, speculates that iterations of the iced cookie were once common in Germany and Russia. “There is an idea there of taking a cookie and icing it as a tea snack,” Krondl says. “Of course, in New York, what happens? They get bigger.” If you want to stretch the hypothesis even further, you could say cupcakes are a not-too-distant cousin to the black-and-white. But the cupcake phenomenon is a much more recent one then the more-than-a-century-old two-toned icon.
"Of course, in New York, what happens? They get bigger." - Krondl
Most of us hadn’t had a cupcake since inhaling them at school bake sales, but that all changed with the opening of Magnolia Bakery in 1996. And it wasn’t until 2000 when the handheld cakes were featured in the hands of Sex and the City’s own Carrie Bradshaw that all of a sudden it became common for grown-ups to devour the traditionally kid-friendly snack. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a bakery window from here to Paris that does not feature the sweet sensation.
While New Yorkers can’t lay claim to the invention of the cupcake, we can take credit for its popularization. “If you look at the succession of dessert trends, something like Italian tiramisu would’ve just died if New Yorkers didn’t pick it up,” Krondl explains. Same holds true for crème brulee. “It was dormant [here] until Le Cirque repopularized it,” Krondl says. It shouldn’t come as a shock that New York sets trends in food as well as fashion, but Krondl emphasizes that New York plays the role of trendsetter, not innovator. No matter, New Yorkers are going to take the credit regardless, according to New York Cookbook: From Pelham Bay to Park Avenue, Firehouses to Four-Star Restaurants author Molly O’Neill. "Historic detail has never stopped New Yorkers,” O’Neill says. “They say cheesecake wasn't really cheesecake until it was cheesecake in New York.”
It shouldn't come as a shock that New York sets trends in food as well as fashion, but Krondl emphasizes that New York plays the role of trendsetter, not innovator.
These days, the pastry pendulum seemingly has swung from monster-sized sweets to miniature. At Starbucks, miniature cake pops are de rigueur, a likely direct result of New York dessert denizens who finally OD’d on standard-sized sweets. Bite-sized cupcakes are the standard fare at Baked By Melissa, where you can choose from the numerous Ben & Jerry-esque flavors like s’mores, cookie dough and cookies and cream. Mini cannolis are the only size served at the Stuffed Artisan Cannoli pop-up stand, which makes its way most days to Madison Square Park. It’s hard to say which came first, but once macarons, those light-as-air almond meringue sandwiches in a variety of colors, arrived by way of Paris, it seemed petite pastries were what we hungered for. The newest diminutive import to take flight? Caneles, the French delicacy with a crisp, caramelized exterior and a distinct custardy interior. While it can often seem like “out with the old, in with the new” in this town, one thing is for sure: New York is sweet on itself for good reason.