50 Vintage Desserts Worth Trying Today
From custards and puddings to jiggling mid-century confections, these classic desserts have one thing in common: they're delicious, and we should be eating them today.
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When my grandma served this shortcake, she usually topped it with homemade vanilla ice cream. —Angela Lively, Conroe, Texas
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A staple in European kitchens, marzipan is a delicious almond paste used in pies, tarts and pastries. Here we pair it with a nice sharp jelly and a tender pastry crust. The petite treats evoke old-world cafes, but aren’t too hard for real cooks to make.
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OK, officially creme brulee often appears on the dessert menu at restaurants. Consider making it at home, as it’s satisfying to melt sugar into a hard caramel cap for your creamy custard.
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An English transplant, chess pie is now most associated with the American South. A recipe for the pie appeared in Martha Washington’s 1700’s “Booke of Cookery.”
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Layers of airy meringue and creamy custard float above the cake plate, slivered almonds adding flavor and crunch. Towering meringue cakes were popular in the 1970’s, but similar European cakes date back much farther.
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Known as “floating islands,” this exotic dessert sends a fluffy meringue sailing across a sea of custard. Our version of the recipe is over 100 years old, an heirloom handed down from a reader’s Russian great-grandmother.
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Hearken back to the 50’s and 60’s, when gelatin and sugar-stuffed molds were considered “salad.” Carry this quivering orange mold into the dining room and watch guests’ jaws drop. It’s delicious served alongside meat (really), or as a dessert, perhaps with some cool whipped topping.
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Though historical, with roots in an 1830’s dessert called Omelette Norwegge, baked Alaska nevertheless feels like the height of 1950’s kitsch. It’s also delicious. Meringue, ice cream, sauce…what’s not to like?
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Flies will bother you if you make this pie. It’s filled with ooey molasses and topped with delicious crumble topping. It was invented around the 1880’s by the Pennsylvania Dutch, who ate the pie for breakfast alongside strong coffee. Our recipe borrows the flavor of the classic pie and turns it into that 2000’s favorite: the cupcake.
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Vintage recipes often called for ingredients that modern cooks might throw away. Here, green tomatoes transform into a sweet-tart dessert pie that’ll have guests guessing what exotic fruit you used.
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Charlottes are elegant and old. They’re thought to be named for Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III of England, who ruled in the late 18th century. They’re not very common any more, possibly because they appear quite fiddly. Really, they rely on careful construction more than baking prowess. Our modern version is a refreshing ice cream charlotte with some very anachronistic ingredients, including marshmallow creme.
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Meringue meets nougat in this classic dessert, which dates back to the early 20th century. One of its five ingredients is corn syrup, and historians believe the candy was invented by Karo to promote its brand-new product.
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Icebox cakes and pies go back to the 1920’s, when home refrigeration was just becoming mainstream. Recipes were often printed on the backs of pudding and cake mix packages.
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Don’t let the homey, almost unappetizing name “slump” fool you. Easier than pie, these baked summer fruit desserts are topped with tasty biscuits.
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Carols sing of figgy pudding, a British steamed dessert stuffed with raisins and currants (but not figs), doused with brandy, and set on fire. That’s all fine and dandy, but modern times call for a more relaxed dessert. This figgy tart pairs fruit with cheese, adhering to the old tradition of blending savory ingredients into desserts.
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For frugal cooks of yore, even bread crumbs were saved and used in savory and sweet dishes. This recipe is an old-fashioned dessert: fruit baked under a layer of crumble topping. Modern crumb toppings often use flour in place of bread crumbs, but if you’ve got a few slices of stale old bread, blitz them in the blender. Toss with butter and sugar, and enjoy the extra crunch.
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Easy to make and (relatively) healthy, baked apples should be a go-to dessert for busy families today. They’re almost certainly ancient, as all you really need to make them are apples and fire. In the 18th century, baked fruits were typically stuffed with meat and eaten savory rather than sweet.
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Roly-poly is a cozy English dessert as fun to say as it is to eat. Biscuit dough tucked around fresh fruit and topped with a quick caramel sauce, it’s a fun alternative to pie.
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Puddings date back to the 1300’s, though back then they were more often savory, even including meats. This tasty pudding is a traditional American dessert perfect for late summer.
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Soft, creamy, and mildly flavored, rice pudding is a delicious vehicle for most fruits, jams and sauces. It’s also incredibly cozy and warming in winter months. We won’t tell anyone if you reheat leftovers and eat them for breakfast.
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A traditional German Christmas cookie, lebkuchen means “life bread,” presumably because they keep so long, and even improve with age. Originally baked in monasteries, the cakes appear all over Germany around the holidays. The dough is heavily spiced with molasses, ginger, anise, allspice, cardamom, cloves, and brightened with citrus peels and dried fruits. Think of it as gingerbread’s sassy grandmother.
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“Chiffon” conjures an antique southern afternoon. This high, airy cake is as elegant as a lady’s hat, but far more delicious.
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Another molded gelatin dessert! Bavarians emphasize creaminess and smoothness. Gelatin lightly sets the custard, so it’s moldable. Whipped cream is folded into the custard, creating a light and airy texture. Piled with fruit, the dessert makes a stunning centerpiece.
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A staple in Great Britain, shortbread is largely out-muscled in the US by sugar cookies. Big mistake. Shortbread is the ultimate fan letter to butter. Butter, flour, and a bit of sugar combine to form tender, melt-in-the-mouth cookies.
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Bread pudding used to be a household staple, serving the practical purpose of using up stale bread. The dry husks of bread transform into a rich, rib-sticking pudding flavored with warming spices. You might want to let some bread go stale for this.
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This tower of fried dough makes a surprisingly lovely centerpiece for a holiday table. Frying up a simple batter used to be a go-to way to make dessert from minimal ingredients. Many cultures have recipes for fried dough confections, from Native American fry bread to bunuelos, elephant ears to beignets.
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Can’t have icebox cookies without an icebox. These cookies were invented around the time fridges went mainstream in the 1920’s and 30’s. Chilling dough allows the flour and ingredients to become fully hydrated before baking, yielding extra flavor and richness.
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On Good Friday, people around the world eat hot cross buns: sweet yeasted rolls flavored with spices and fruits. Baking lore says that a monk introduced the icing cross on the top in the 12th century. Baking the buns at home lets you enjoy them fresh from the oven, a real Easter treat.
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Mincemeat’s lack of popularity is no surprise. Its name evokes chopped raw meat…not exactly tempting. (In mediaeval times, mincemeat did indeed contain meat and fruit.) Today’s mincemeat is chopped up dried raisins, dates and other fruits, laced with a heady pour of booze. Ready to start baking now?
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Like fried dough, dumplings are an old, old food with cultural variations found around the world. They’re quite versatile little lumps of dough. They can be steamed, baked or boiled; stuffed with filling or not; sweet or savory; served alone, in a soup, or with a sauce. Our modern recipe makes large dumplings stuffed with apples and butter and topped with caramel sauce.
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A classic Italian recipe, Easter pie is made with ricotta cheese, citrus peels, and pastry crust. Many traditional versions also call for wheat berries, since wheat is a symbol for spring’s rebirth.
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Named for the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, this dessert is an airy meringue topped with fruits. Its simple elegance showcases the best summer fruits.
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Channel a southern grandmother with this banana pudding recipe. It’s homey comfort food at its finest.
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Classic European desserts, tortes are similar to cakes but made with much less flour. They usually boast a showy finish, as in this apple recipe, in which a golden brown pastry bowl surrounds a filling of apples and sliced almonds. In the afternoon, enjoy a slice with coffee and feel very continental.
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This dessert combines two vintage classics. Mulled wine is an old European beverage of wine steeped in spices and served warm, often around holidays. Jelly candies are usually bought for children at candy shops, but give them a try at home. This recipe simply boils ingredients together and lets them set overnight.
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A delicious east coast treat, maple sugar is a granular sugar made from (and tasting of) maple syrup. Its history is a political one: in the 18th century, it was marketed to northerners as an ethical alternative to cane sugar, which was harvested by slaves.
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Classic Easter breads were sweet doughs shaped into elaborate coils or braids. This simplified recipe makes a delicious, soft loaf, studded with fruit.
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Fool recipes date back to the 1600’s, though the origins of the name are still mysterious. One bite of this creamy dessert, and you won’t care what it’s called. Tender stewed fruit (you can use whatever’s in season) mixed with whipped cream? Absolutely scrummy picnic fare that’s pretty enough to serve to guests.
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Souffles have a reputation for fussiness. Breathe too loudly, and they’ll collapse! Really they’re quite stable if you have a good recipe (like this one). Stick it in the oven after dinner; within a half hour you’ll have a glorious domed dessert to carry proudly to the table.
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Kugel is a traditional Jewish dish that turns egg noodles into a cozy sweet dessert that you’ll crave on cold nights. Our recipe adds a bit of cheese, sour cream, milk, and eggs, which form a custard around the noodles. Apples and spice add flavor. Perfect food for sharing, kugels are often baked in large trays and serve a crowd.
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A relatively modern dessert, sticky toffee pudding was a popular British dessert in the 1970’s. Our version bakes a full cake instead of individual “puddings,” but preserves the best part: the heavy soak of butterscotch sauce.
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A layer of siren-red jelly floats atop a crunchy bed of pretzels in this retro dessert. Traditionally, it’s called a “salad.” We’re not sure why, but it’s a good excuse to eat an extra portion.
Originally Published: February 12, 2019