This may come as no surprise, but the concept of dessert as we know it – as a sweet food eaten at the end of a meal, or even as a sinful snack – is a recent phenomenon, in terms of our greater history. The history of dessert, in terms of the idea of “sweets,” goes back to when people reclined. Exactly- this was a long-ago era, when only the very wealthy ate sugar-sweetened foods. Why? Because it was super-expensive to refined sugar before it became the big industry it is now.
There’s a great little interview that NPR’s Robert Smith did recently on the history of dessert, based on the publication of Michael Krondl’s book, Sweet Invention. So what are some of the oldest desserts? One is biscotti. It was developed in Italy in the mid-1500s, out of need to make sweet food that could be durable and transportable, as in travel by boat. Initially they were bread that was baked, and then baked again so it would become stiff and travel-ready; that evolved into cake that was twice-baked…flour, butter, sugar, and some nuts, typically sliced almonds.
The Middle East also factors heavily into the history of dessert, particularly the Ottoman Empire, during which the great dessert baklava originated. Since then it has been proudly claimed by many countries, including Iran, Turkey, Cyprus, and Afghanistan. It’s a pistachio-based, flaky pastry that has sticky, syrupy interior.
Refined sugar’s oldest origins, meanwhile, date back to India of 2000 or more years ago (possibly even 2500). In order to preserve desserts, the Indians evolved a process in which refined sugar was combined with milk and then boiled down, condensing the dessert and providing it with a longer life.
The history of refined sugar desserts
A couple of the better examples of ancient Indian desserts are barfi (aka burfi), and a donut-like ball called gulab jamun. Barfi is a super-sweet block of dessert that’s fudge-like in consistency, made from a mixture of sugar, milk, butter and one other ingredient, such as pistachios or coconut.
Gulab jamun is a very old version of the modern donut, often a cake-like ball that’s fried in ghee, or clarified butter. As these sweet indulgences were, and are still, used as offerings to the gods, we can think of them as the true holy donut.