The Ultimate Guide to Dessert

Speak the language of sweets
Published February 25, 2016

The world of desserts, sweets and baked goods has a language all its own. And if you learn the vocabulary, you’ll always get the kind of dessert you’re craving. Here’s your guide to all things sweet, from frozen treats to pies and puddings, we’ve mapped out what you need to know to decode any dessert menu or recipe.


4 Dessert Favorites

In North America, cakes, cookies, pies and puddings are the standard desserts or sweets. Here’s what you need to know about each delicious treat.

1. Cake

An extra-sweet quick bread—that is, a sugary batter leavened with baking powder, baking soda, and/or beaten egg whites baked in a mold. There are two basic varieties of cake in North America.

Layer cakes: usually round with frosting between the layers. Bundt cakes are a way to get the loft of a layer cake without baking more than one layer.

Sheet cakes: a single layer, can be high (if made in a 9 x 13-inch baking pan) or flat like brownies (if made in a lipped baking sheet). A coffee cake is an adaptation of a sheet cake.


2. Cookies

Basically, a batter with more fat, sugar, and other ingredients (like beaten egg white), than flour, with relatively little leavening so the baked batter doesn’t rise. Before baking, cookies can be dropped, rolled, shaped, or pressed (as in holiday spritz cookies). Afterwards, they can be “sandwiched” with a layer of frosting or jam spread between two cookies. Bar cookies are essentially a cookie adaptation of a sheet cake. Here are four specialty cookies you can always find at fancy bakeshops.

Macaroons: dense chewy cookies made from beaten egg whites with coconut and sometimes chocolate.

Macarons (mah-kuh-RONZ): light, delicate cookies made from beaten egg whites and almond flour, turned into sandwich cookies with buttercream or jam in the middle. Think the colorful confections you see sometime displayed in a rainbow-hued pyramid.

Biscotti: twice-baked, hard, Italian cookies, best for dunking.

Tuile (“tweel”): a paper-thin wafer cookie, sometimes rolled right after baking. Fortune cookies are a type of tuile.

RELATED: Cakes & Cookies? Sweet! 


3. Pie

A baked dessert with a layer of crust (or two crusts, one below and one above) and a layer of a creamy or fruit filling. Most pies are round—except for slab pies, which are often baked in a lipped sheet pan, like a sheet cake. In general, there are three types of pies.

Fruit pies: a cooked fruit filling sitting over a crust (or between crusts) with a crumble or crisp topping.

Cream pies: a thickened custard or pudding (banana, chocolate, butterscotch, etc.) spread over a prebaked crust. Cream pies are often topped with whipped cream. Or they can be turned into. . . .

Meringue pies: cream pies topped with a fluffy, beaten, cooked, egg-white mixture. While we’re at it, there are three types of meringue: French, Swiss and Italian meringue. 

RELATED: Sweet and Savory Pies 


4. Puddings

A thickened-then-chilled sweet custard, usually enriched with eggs and thickened with cornstarch (common in North America), flour, arrowroot or tapioca starch. Old-school puddings can be thickened without any of these at a very low heat and stirred up to an hour in a double boiler, until the eggs set with the sugar. Vegan puddings are often made with tofu.

Try this Double Chocolate Pudding recipe


Outside the Bakery Box...


Frozen desserts

A hot day, (or any day) calls for ice cream! Here’s a list of the basic types and how they’re made.

  1. Ice cream: a frozen mixture with sugar, milk and flavorings as the base, with a little added cream for richness. Ice cream is churned as it freezes to incorporate air for a smooth texture. The amount of air churned into an ice-cream base is known as its “overrun” (the volume amount that has overrun the original mixture’s volume amount, usually expressed as a percentage: 25% overrun. The more “premium” the ice cream, the lower the overrun.) There are two basic types:

    Philadelphia-style ice cream: sugar, milk, flavorings, then cream.

    Custard-style ice cream: sugar, milk, eggs and flavorings, then cream.
  2. Gelato: a frozen, churned dessert made of eggs (particularly yolks) sugar, flavorings and whole milk. Italian milk has a higher fat content than North American, so a little cream is often added to gelato in to give it an Italian feel.
  3. Frozen custard: a frozen churned dessert of eggs, sugar, flavorings,  cream (and maybe a little milk). In other words, custard-style ice cream with more cream than milk.
  4. Sherbet: traditionally, a frozen, churned mixture made from a fruit puree, sugar and sometimes milk. Corn syrup is often substituted for sugar to get a rich, “creamy” texture.
  5. Sorbet: a frozen, churned mixture made from fruit puree and sugar. However, chefs make “buttermilk sorbet” and other dairy-laced sorbets, and use the word “sorbet” to indicate a fruitier or more sour flavor.
  6. Semi-freddo: Ice cream in a loaf shape made with a zabaglione (a cooked egg-custard sauce) Swiss meringue and whipped cream.

RELATED: Pick Your Perfect (High-Protein) Pint


The fried bunch

Now we turn to bakeshop fare, less often made at home (because of the work).

  1. Donuts: fried dough “O’s” (or sometimes, squares) that are left plain or topped with a dusting of sugar or a glaze. There are two types, cake and raised:

    Cake: a flour-heavy, cake-like crumb from a thick batter that’s sometimes leavened with baking powder or soda or yeast.

    Raised: a yeast-raised dough, shaped (and sometimes given a second rise) before frying. Most filled donuts (jelly, cream, etc.) are raised donuts.
  2. Fritters: large, flat, mal-formed, fried pastries, heavily leavened and stocked with chopped fruit (like apples) and nuts.
  3. Beignets and Zeppole: fried balls (the first, French; the second, Italian) made with a batter that contains lots of eggs, so they’re richer than, say, donuts.
  4. Churros: made with an egg dough like beignets, but squeezed from a pastry bag straight into hot oil, usually made in the shape of a log (often, a star-shaped log), then coated in cinnamon sugar while hot.


Filled desserts

In general, these desserts begin with choux (“shoo”) paste, a cooked and dried concoction of flour, fat, and eggs that puffs when baked. These are by definition classic French desserts. (Filled desserts can also be made with puff pastry.)

  1. Cream puffs: small, round puffed balls of baked choux. Usually filled with a custard or whipped cream, although sometimes with a curd (an acidic fruit juice cooked with butter and sugar until thickened).
  2. Éclairs: choux paste piped into long pastries that look like unsplit hot-dog buns, also usually filled with a custard.
  3. Profiteroles: small cream puffs split open and filled with ice cream.


Specialty fruit desserts 

These desserts are America staples, although the definitions are tricky because of regional differences. One person’s cobbler is another’s slump.

  1. Cobbler: a fruit filling baked under a biscuit topping.
  2. Crisp: a fruit filling baked under a crunchy, crumble topping, usually made with rolled oats.
  3. Slump: a fruit filling simmered on the stove and covered with a biscuit topping.
  4. Grunt: a fruit filling under a biscuit topping, simmered stovetop in an open skillet.
  5. Pan-Dowdy: a fruit filling, topped with a pie or pastry crust, baked, the crust then cracked partially down into the filling as the fruit bakes.
  6. Sonker: most often, a buttery fruit filling baked under a pastry crust. The filling is usually juicy and runs up and over the sides of the crust.


Bakery Buzz Word Glossary


These will help you understand some of the terms used in bakeries, on menus and even in recipes.

Buttercream: a rich frosting. Either American-style (butter and confectioner’s sugar beaten together) and French (a cooked concoction of butter, eggs and a hot sugar syrup).

Frosting: a very thick, sweetened buttery (or shortening) mixture, most often used for cakes.

Fudge: a cooked, chewy candy made from butter, cream and usually chocolate. However, “fudge” has become a buzz word to mean intensely chocolate.

Ganache: a thick paste of chocolate melted into cream (with—more rarely—added flavors).

Gianduja: a chocolate and hazelnut mixture.

Glazed: a thin dry sugary coating over baked or fried desserts.

Icing: a thinner, stirred or beaten coating, usually made with confectioners’ sugar, butter, milk and used for cakes or cookies. Royal icing is usually made from egg whites, confectioners’ sugar—it will set hard (and can be used on sugar cookies or gingerbread houses).

Marshmallow: gelatin beaten with a molten sugar syrup (there are no eggs in marshmallow).

Marzipan: a sweetened almond paste that can be rolled to cover a cake or colored and shaped.

Mousse: a light, airy mixture of chocolate or a fruit puree, usually held in suspension with a meringue and whipped cream.

Nougat: a chewy, hard candy or cake filling made with beaten egg whites and boiled sugar syrup, traditionally flavored with honey and almonds.

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