United States of sugar: The richest regional desserts in America

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St. Louis, Nashville and Chicago are among key U.S. pitstops for dessert fanatics

Going beyond the usual apple pies and brownies, these places have their own sugary specialties

The St. Louis gooey butter cake is every bit as unhealthy and delicious as it sounds

CNN  — 

October 14 is National Dessert Day, and that begs the question: What beats the usual warm brownie wedge or apple pie a la mode fallback in the world’s most sugar-butter-eggs-and-flour-addicted melting pot?

America may have started off as a pretty unexciting place for dessert back in the early cornmeal mush and hasty pudding days.

One fat growth spurt and several billion extra forks later, it appears this country has found its diversified stride in every delectable corner.

Savoring some of the top regional desserts of the USA may require you to travel to the following five hungry towns – but how rich (sweet, gooey, warm, drizzly and impossibly moist) the reward.

Gooey butter cake in St. Louis

The origins of gooey butter cake – a flat, dense, super-rich coffee cake loaded with more butter and powdered sugar than the most permissive Midwestern cardiologist would ever advise – go back to 1930s St. Louis.

As the story goes, a local baker messed up the ingredients and proportions for a more traditional cake and decided the end result was still worth gobbling up.

Eighty years later, gooey butter cake remains one of the happiest mistakes under The Arch.

Especially at St. Louis institution McArthur’s Bakery Cafe, where the aptly named cake has been a customer favorite for at least half a century.

“It has a sweet dough crust with a generous dusting of powdered sugar, and the ‘filling’ – which has a consistency of raw dough – is delectably sweet and gooey,” says Ben Abel, a manager partner at McArthur’s.

The cafe now boxes up the cake for grocery and specialty shops and has broadened the gooey butter cake palette with chocolate chip, cherry and brownie variations.

“We commonly get orders for gooey butter wedding cakes, too,” adds Abel.

Versions of gooey butter cake have since surfaced (often without the name “gooey butter cake” on the box) in other cities. But purists know its gooey heart beats strongest in St. Louis.

McArthur’s Bakery: 3055 Lemay Ferry Road, St. Louis, MO 63125; +1 314 894 0900

Banana pudding in Nashville

Arnold's banana pudding is a sold-out item every day.

In the late 19th century, when the advent of refrigerated freight cars led to America’s first banana boom, Fulton, Kentucky – aka the former Banana Capital of the World – was the major inland rail hub where the once-exotic tropical fruit was shipped and re-iced.

In that historical context, nearby Nashville, Tennessee, isn’t quite as unlikely a place to have fostered the world’s keenest appreciation for banana pudding.

Ask any local where to get some and they’ll usually point to any number of cafeteria-style “meat and three” food stops for which the city is also famous (the “three” being your choice of hearty side dishes).

Top of that food chain is Arnold’s Country Kitchen, a tray-line shrine and James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award holder known for a banana pudding that’s nearly as popular as the roast beef. And that’s saying something.

“There’s a right way and a wrong way to do banana pudding, and the wrong way is to do it from a pudding mix,” says Kahlil Arnold, a second-generation chef at the family restaurant.

“We make homemade vanilla custard sauce, layer it with vanilla wafers and fresh, ripe bananas sliced thin, before topping it with a meringue and baking it for twenty minutes to thicken the pudding and really bring out the banana flavor.”

A signature dessert on the Arnold’s menu since the place opened in 1982, banana pudding never gets old here.

“We make it fresh every day, and sell out of it every day,” says Arnold.

Arnold’s Country Kitchen: 605 8th Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37203; +1 615 256 4455

Wild huckleberry slump in Seattle

Northwesterners are proud of their regional fruits. Especially wild huckleberries, a blueberry lookalike found all over the Cascade and Olympic Mountain ranges which, ask any Seattleite, is not a blueberry.

Smaller and more intensely flavorful than their better known cousins, huckleberries are even tastier when baked in a wild huckleberry slump – not to be confused with a crisp or a cobbler.

“A slump is made of a softer dough that ‘slumps’ when you cook it,” notes executive chef Pat Donahue of Anthony’s Restaurants, which serves the seasonal dessert (and several huckleberry-featured cocktails) at several Northwest locations – including Anthony’s Pier 66 on the downtown Seattle waterfront.

“Anthony’s slump is made of sugar, flour and heavy cream – versus a traditional crisp or cobbler topping that is more like pie dough and made with butter,” says Donahue.

Served warm in a ramekin with vanilla ice cream, the early fall favorite often reappears on Anthony’s dessert menus during a sweet four-to-six-week window between January and March, depending on availability.

Anthony’s Pier 66 & Bell Street Diner: 2201 Alaskan Way, Seattle, WA 98121; +1 206 448 6688

Tres leches cake in Houston

Secret sauce: Tres leches cake.

This sumptuously moist Latin American specialty (originally from Nicaragua) is now big all over the American South and Southwest. But its hub is Houston, where tres leches cake is the city’s pride and joy dessert.

The secret, as they say, is in the sauce – a thick “three milk” combo of heavy cream, sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk (some versions use dulce de leche) that bathes the cake, which soaks it up like a sponge.

“People love the texture of this cake – which is very moist and releases the liquid when it is cut, while absorbing it all without becoming soggy,” says pastry chef Silvia Antunez of Houston’s Ibiza Food and Wine Bar, which serves one of the more refined versions of tres leches in town – topped with browned Italian meringue and accented with fresh-cut strawberries.

“The strawberry cuts the sweetness of the cake and adds a nice bit of acidity,” explains Antunez.

Ibiza: 2450 Louisiana St Ste 300, Houston, TX 77006-2381; +1 713 524 0004

Bread pudding souffle in New Orleans

Back in the day, bread pudding was unceremoniously spooned into bowls not so much as a rich and fancy dessert, but rather a poor and easy meal-of-sorts comprised of the three basics: eggs, milk and a leftover loaf.

Today, its most exciting, French-meringued spin-off is bread pudding souffle – a Creole classic whipped up by the late, great Paul Prudhomme while executive chef at Commander’s Palace.

“It’s one of the few items that is still served here year-round and always on our menu,” says Commander’s Palace chef Tory McPhail.

“Paul Prudhomme developed it in honor of the restaurant’s 100th anniversary in 1980 – though we have recently learned we actually opened in 1893, not 1880.”

Decades later, who’s really counting anything except the extra 20 minutes it takes for the most popular dessert at the city’s most time-honored restaurant to reach the table?

A light and fluffy but deceptively rich combo of day-old French bread, cinnamon, nutmeg and egg whites baked in a ramekin, the dessert wouldn’t be complete with its sine qua non – warm whiskey cream – drizzled right in front of you.

Commander’s Palace: 1403 Washington Ave, New Orleans, LA 70130; + 1 504 899 8221

Los Angeles-based Jordan Rane is a Lowell Thomas Award recipient from the Society of American Travel Writers. His work on travel and the outdoors has appeared in over 50 publications.

This article was first published in September 2016 and updated in October 2018.