Old-School Desserts Are Back: 8 Updated Classics

By Linnea Covington  |  February 3, 2014
Credit: Brent Herrig

Though you may think classic desserts like baked Alaska and coconut cream pie have gone the way of VHS players and Discmans, like record players, they are having a comeback. Today, chefs are taking these timeless sweets and giving them a new spin. From devil’s food cake and grasshopper pie to the iconic Jell-O mold, the time to delve into the past is now, one forkful at a time. 

  • Lemon Meringue

    The History: You may be surprised to learn this, but this bright-yellow, tart and sweet dessert was created in middle of the 19th century. America’s introduction to this dessert gets credited to Elizabeth Coane Goodfellow, who started making and serving it in her Philadelphia shop. Though it’s not clear whether this pie came out of meshing fluffy meringue and lemon pudding together in a happy accident or was the result of careful consideration, over the years it’s remained a delicious and popular dish. 

    Where to Try: Though Hill Country Chicken has been in Manhattan for a while, recently they opened up in Brooklyn and part of that debut involved Hill Country Pie Kitchen. Lucky for us, they serve a perfect example of a classic lemon meringue pie that’s all fluffy, sweet, tangy and completely satisfying. You can stop in for a slice of this special - just make sure to check whether they are making it that day.

    The Update: What better place to indulge in a new take on a classic dessert than at a newly opened eatery with an old-fashioned spirit? With that, we send you to the Presidio Social Club in San Francisco where their lemon meringue cake proves a real treat that combines the best of both worlds, pie and cake. It’s light, fresh, and for all intents and purposes, looks like a diner version of lemon meringue pie, but with a soft and airy cake as the base.

  • Devil’s Food

    The History: Thought of as the dark, sinful side of angel food cake, devil’s food came into popular baking culture in the early 1900s, about 20 years after its holy counterpart. Whereas angel food is airy and white, devil’s food has twice the amount of chocolate as a normal chocolate cake, making it a dark, rich dessert that became all the rage in 1913 after Anna Clair Vangalder's Modern Women of America cookbook included over 20 recipes for it.

    Where to Try: Decca Restaurant in Louisville serves a lavish and mostly classic version of this cake. This one comes with chocolate mousse layered inside and a scoop of coffee ice cream.

    The Update: Leave it to Beauty & Essex's pastry chef Jamie Sudberg to take an already decadent dessert and make it even more so. With this individual mini-cake, he takes luscious devil’s food and layers it with creamy vanilla mascarpone, and then covers the whole thing in chocolate ganache. Finally, with a perfect orb of milk ice cream, he completes his modern take on this classic.

  • Banana Split

    The History: Two sides to the creation of the banana split exist; one hailing from 1907 in Wilmington, Ohio, and the other coming from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where residents say this dessert came to being in 1904. This conundrum is a true split, and though it’s hard to prove who came up with the treat first, the most popular story comes from Latrobe. Here, 23-year-old David Strickler at the Tassell Pharmacy first made the dessert that summer by halving a fresh banana and covering it with three scoops of ice cream, marshmallow, crushed nuts, pineapple and maraschino cherries, and then drizzled syrups over the top. He even designed an oblong glass to display this sundae, which he had made specially by Westmoreland Glass Co.

    Where to Try: For a banana split that would make an old-school soda jerk proud, the newly opened Empire Diner in NYC has what you’re looking for. With three scoops of ice cream, brûléed bananas, walnuts, chocolate fudge, plenty of whipped cream and that iconic cherry, it's an updated classic take with high-quality ingredients.

    The Update: While the original banana split tended to be a two- or three-person dessert, chef Graham Elliot personalizes the treat by putting it in a mason jar at Graham Elliot Bistro in Chicago. Taking a housemade coffee-infused chocolate sauce, salted pretzels, brûléed bananas, vanilla bean gelato and candied hazelnuts, he layers these ingredients to create a virtually mess-free dessert.

  • Grasshopper Pie

    The History: In the early 1960s, around the time chiffon pies were popular, this minty version started making the scene. This green dessert is a deviation on an after-dinner cocktail thought to have been created at the famous restaurant-bar Tujague’s in New Orleans during the 1950s. The pie form is made with green crème de menthe, white crème de cacao and cream, causing the filling to come out a delicate green color. However, if you want to go for real, authentic grasshopper pie, look to an article from the New York Times, published March 27, 1904. Here it explains how the true dessert is found in the Philippines, a concoction of chocolate, sugar, colored candies and sun-dried grasshoppers.

    Where to Try: Naturally, you can find a classic take on this dish at an old-school restaurant like Continental Old City in Philadelphia. To make this treat, pastry chef Chris Buretta takes a fudge brownie, mint chocolate chip ice cream, whipped cream and chocolate sauce and puts it all together. It’s been on the menu about five years, and they have no plans to take it off.

    The Update: It’s not surprising the team at New York’s Momofuku Milk Bar has created a crazy version of this minty classic. You can thank chef Christina Tosi for the extravaganza of mint-flavored cheesecake filled with gooey brownies, all nestled into a graham cracker crust. Then this decadent pie gets topped with tiny marshmallows and chocolate chips.

  • Credit: Brent Herrig

    Baked Alaska

    The History: As the name states, baked Alaska was meant to be homage to the state when the union first acquired it in 1867, and the dessert was created by Charles Ranhofer in 1876 for Delmonico's Restaurant in New York. In honor of Alaska’s freezing tundra, the delicacy is comprised of ice cream that gets placed in a dish lined with cake, usually sponge, topped with meringue. Then the real trick, the whole thing gets thrown into a super-hot oven and baked. The result: a hot-on-the-outside dessert with a cold center, a combination people still crave today.

    Where to Try: For a classic version of this hot ice cream dish, head to Bistronomic in Chicago. Though the result appears difficult, the ingredients prove simple: vanilla ice cream, toasted meringue and caramelized almonds.

    The Update: Though from the outside this version doesn’t appear to deviate greatly from the original recipe, on the inside it’s quite changed. That’s because chef Saul Bolton updates his baked Alaska by adding chocolate semifreddo, eye-opening coffee-caramel and punchy banana-rum cake. All this can be had by visiting the Brooklyn Museum, traipsing around the art and then grabbing a bite inside the institution at the new location of his restaurant Saul.

  • Mississippi Mud Pie

    The History: The funny thing about this dessert, unlike some of the others we delved into, is that there isn’t a lot of background on the Mississippi Mud Pie. However, as the name suggests, it’s widely accepted that this pie came from Mississippi and showed up in popular culture in the 1970s, namely thanks to the restaurant chain, The Chart House. While it’s been a staple chocolate dessert in the South, it never spread much beyond that, though this deviant pie does have a history of being a chocoholic’s favorite.

    Where to Try: Though this pie originated in the south, you can get a great version of it at Petsi Pies in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Mud may be in the name, but that only refers to the color of this pie, as it’s comprised of rich brown layers in the form of chocolate, cream, more chocolate and, in this case, even more of the stuff.

    The Update: Sarah Lange, pastry chef at The Hart and the Hunter in Los Angeles, has taken this Southern classic and turned it on his head. “I was looking for a good chocolate dessert, and Mississippi Mud Pie came to mind,” she said. “Mud Pie or Mud Cake comes in many variations, but the one that I found most often in old Civic Club cookbooks was store-bought coffee ice cream spread into a chocolate cookie crust and topped with caramel and toasted marshmallows.” With that in mind, Lange substituted the ice cream for a housemade coffee semifreddo using cold-brew coffee. Then, instead of a traditional crust, she used crumbled chocolate cookies and topped it off with chocolate-pecan toffee and marshmallow meringue, which they brûléed to order. For the kicker, they also serve it with chocolate fudge sauce.

  • Jell-O Mold

    The History: Though Bill Cosby didn’t come onto the scene until the 1990s, Jell-O was invented in 1897 in LeRoy, New York. According to the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, to help push the sales of this instant-gelatin dessert, Genesee Pure Food Company created a cookbook in 1902 to give housewives and cooks something to work with. Hence, the Jell-O mold was born, with proper instructions to have your local metalsmith create a special mold unique to your household. At the time and for decades to come, the aluminum molds used to make this dessert became collectors’ items. The popularity of Jell-O molds, whether you were using it to make a fancy salad or towering dessert, maintained until about the 1970s, when home cooks finally hung up their Jell-O molds to dry.

    Where to Try: Since they have been bringing back all sorts for 1970s classics, it’s not surprising you can get an old-school Jell-O mold for dessert at the Golden Cadillac in the East Village. Like the rest of the menu, this raspberry-tinged treat garners inspiration from Gourmet Magazine circa 1977, and it was developed by executive chef Miguel Trinidad. “I remember Jell-O was my favorite dessert and one that we were allowed to make, under supervision of course, as often as we wanted,” said Trinidad. If that’s not nostalgia for you, we don’t know what is. 

    The Update: How can you give a classic like the Jell-O mold a modern twist? Easy: add booze. No, we aren’t talking about your college-party vodka-fueled Jell-O shots, but instead, the gourmet-cocktail-in-gelatin-form assortment that you find at Bar Nineteen 12 in Beverly Hills. The varieties come and go, but past creations have included a pyramid-shaped blueberry martini, mojito slabs and bubblegum orbs.

  • Coconut Cream Pie

    The History: You can find recipes in cookbooks dating all the way back to 1895, including The Century Cook Book, by Mary Ronald. Though this dessert never had the fanfare of other diner-style pies, it has remained on many menus throughout the country. Overall it’s pretty simple - eggs, sugar, cream, sweetened coconut flakes and whipped cream all baked into a light and fluffy dessert with a hint of the tropics.

    Where to Try: In Seattle, you can find a classic coconut cream pie at the 3-year-old High 5 Pie shop. This vintage-style bakery dishes up hearty slices of the stuff and, if you are feeling funky, you can even get it liquefied into a coconut cream pie shake.

    The Update: Diners have nothing on chef Chris Johnson’s coconut cream cake, which he doles out to lucky customers at Haven Oakland in California. This unique take on the coconut cream pie utilizes traditional rum baba cake, which is soaked in a rum simple syrup, fresh mint and olive oil, making it a combo of a classic coconut cream pie and a coconut cake. “I like adding unexpected ingredients to desserts,” said Johnson. “The olive oil helps to moisten the cake, but also delivers a distinct bitter note, an interesting contrast to the cake's sweetness.” Plus, he added, “Olive oil has become a staple in California cuisine, so we use a very nice extra-virgin California olive oil."