Quest For The Holy Doughnut, And The First Dessert

Originally published on October 9, 2011 6:39 pm

OK, forget the vegetables. It's time for dessert.

And not just any dessert ... the oldest dessert in New York City. No, not those rock-hard doughnuts from the corner coffee cart. We're talking about the kinds of sweets people would have been eating 500, 1,000, even 2,000 years ago.

Veniero's Italian pastry shop is a good place to start. It's got pignoli cookies, cannoli, and most importantly, biscotti. "Now, biscotti were not invented in Seattle to go along with Starbucks," author Michael Krondl tells Robert Smith, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered.

Krondl is the author of a new book, Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert. He says biscotti are descended from ship's biscuits, those twice-baked bits of bread designed not to mold on a long sea voyage.

"The first real recipes for what you could identify as biscotti come from about 1550 or so," he says.

Those historical cookies weren't strictly what we would call a dessert. Back then, people hadn't yet decided to put the sweets at the end of the meal — that's a more recent invention.

But people through the centuries did love their sweets whenever and wherever they could get them — especially if they had the money for expensive refined sugar.

"Sugar was something exceptional, something that only the very, very wealthy could afford," Krondl says. "They had the best stuff, and the best stuff was sweet." In fact, he adds, the most common seasoning in the Middle Ages was a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar, which showed up in everything from fish to soup.

Sweeteners like dates and honey have been around since prehistory, but refined sugar first appeared in ancient India, about 2,000 years ago.

Fittingly, Indian sweets are some of the sweetest out there — fudge-like concoctions of milk and sugar and clarified butter, or fried cakes soaked in sugar syrup.

Sweets in India, even now, are often literally the food of the gods, offered to the many Indian deities.

"There's definitely fried desserts going as far back as oh, let's say 1,000 years ago," Krondl says. "One of the ancient holy liquids was ghee, that is clarified butter. So, how do you make something holier? Well, you fry it in one of the holy substances."

Not a doughnut hole, but a holy doughnut. Sounds delicious!

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ROBERT SMITH, host: It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith.

I know the show isn't over, but I do think it is time for a little dessert and time to leave the studio for a few minutes. Destination Manhattan.

I'm here on the streets of the East Village, where there is no shortage of dessert options. In fact, I can look around here on this corner of 11th Street and First Avenue and see desserts as far as the eye can see. But we are not here to eat just any dessert. We are here to answer a question. Where did dessert come from? And I'm standing with?

MICHAEL KRONDL: Michael Krondl.

SMITH: Michael Krondl is a food historian and the author of a new book...

KRONDL: "Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert."

SMITH: I presented a challenge to Michael Krondl, find me the oldest dessert in New York City. And I'm not talking about the rock-hard doughnuts on the coffee cart on the corner, but the kind of dessert they might have eaten 500, 1,000, 2,000 years ago.

We started our quest at Veniero's, an Italian pastry shop, to see what they might have been eating in the middle ages.

KRONDL: Let's get some Pignoli cookies. Let's also get some ladyfingers.

SMITH: OK, ladyfingers. What are those? (Unintelligible) right there?

KRONDL: Then the biscotti, the (unintelligible) ones.

SMITH: We made two more stops for even older treats. And we brought our sugary haul back here to the studio. But before we eat, what exactly do we mean by the concept of dessert?

KRONDL: Well, the whole idea of dessert as something at the end of the meal is a pretty recent invention. But the idea of sweet snacks, something that is primarily sweet that you might have in the middle of a meal or you might have outside of a meal or you might have at the end of the meal goes back, well, to the days when we started to sit down or perhaps recline and to the days when sugar was something exceptional, something that only the very, very wealthy could afford. And as a result, they had the best stuff and the best stuff was sweet.

SMITH: All right, let's open up the box here. They put it in a nice box tied with twine. Oh, and they've wrapped everything up individually. I'm feeling something hard here.

KRONDL: Oh, what you have there is biscotti. Now, biscotti were not invented in Seattle to go along with Starbucks, believe it or not.

SMITH: These are these little hard cookie-like slices of bread usually sweet with often nuts in them.

KRONDL: Yup, yup, yup. And those - well, originally, we used to go sailing, right? Everything would rot on the ship. You need it to last a long time. And so, they made something called biscotto, which was bread that you bake and then you cut it up and you'd bake it one more time. Eventually, what they started to do was they started to make a cake, cut it up and bake it one more time. Biscotto means literally twice baked.

And that, well, it's a little hard to know how far back that goes because there are some reference to fine biscotti from about the 13th century. But we don't really know what that means. So the real recipe - the first real recipes for what you could identify as biscotti come from about 1550 or so. And there you got more or less what you have in your hand, which is a mixture of flour, sugar and nuts.

SMITH: And hear it crackle as I break it in half. Nice little almond biscotti. I feel like I tasted the best that Italy had to offer, the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. But in order to go back farther than that, I have to go back to?

KRONDL: The Middle East.

SMITH: To the Middle East. We went to a little cafe, and I'm going to let you say the name of this because it's Turkish.

KRONDL: And I'm going to mispronounce horribly, but I'll take a stab at it. It is Gulluoglu. That's my best guess.


SMITH: We had someone say it at the actual cafe.


SMITH: Gulluoglu.


SMITH: And I am opening the box here. This Turkish cafe we stopped at specializes in baklava. And we have at least five different kinds here.

KRONDL: This particular company, Gulluoglu, comes from a part of Turkey where they're really well known for their pistachios. And when you taste it, you'll notice that these pistachios have this complex interesting flavor.

SMITH: Oh, it's excellent. It's - you can taste - you can sort of - as your teeth move through all the little flaky layers, you can taste each and every one of them. It's great. I'm going to have to wipe my fingers off here, because anyone knows who has tried baklava, they are sticky.

Now, we are eating Turkish baklava, but I know this is controversial because baklava was spread by the Ottoman Empire around the Mediterranean into Central Asia really, and every country claims it as their own.

KRONDL: Well, one of the interesting things about doing this sort of archeology, you know, the archeology where you dig through layers of baklava instead of layers of dirt is that you discover that civilization have a half life. And you can find that half life, well, in the form of baklava, for example. So you can pretty well find the traces of an empire that cease to exist, what, almost 100 years ago by going to all the countries that have baklava.

And of course now everybody says it's their own. Greeks claim that baklava is their own, Georgians have baklava. You find baklava in Iran. All these places have baklava. And I'm not someone who's going to say who invented it because I don't want to get into trouble. But it's all connected through this one particular political unit that existed once upon a time.

SMITH: I'm speaking with Author Michael Krondl who has written a new book, "Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert."

Well, now that we've moved through the layers of baklava, we need to dig deeper in this archeological tour of desserts. We need to find the place whence sugar came from, because they didn't invent it in the Middle East, did they?

KRONDL: They certainly didn't. Where sugar - well, sugar wasn't invented, it was grown, right? But where they invented the idea of refining sugar was definitely India. Everyone pretty well agrees about that.

SMITH: So India, we're talking, they were eating sugary desserts how long ago?

KRONDL: India maybe 2,000, 2,500 years ago, something like that.

SMITH: And you say in your book that this wasn't for everyday eating. This was almost a religious item at first.

KRONDL: This was food of the gods. This was food of the gods, because to boil all that sugar down to refine it was outrageously expensive. And often what they did was they would combine it with various milk products. And as you can imagine in India, milk goes bad, right? So, they figured out all sorts of ways of preserving it. In Europe, the way they figured out to preserve cheese was to add salt. In India, it seems, they figured out that if they boiled down the milk with the sugar, they would preserve it.

SMITH: So we picked up this assortment of Indian treats. What do you think is most like what we would have been eating 2,000 years ago?

KRONDL: Probably the closest thing to that would be something called barfi.

SMITH: Barfi. Which one is that?

KRONDL: Barfi is this one. And...

SMITH: Now barfi...

KRONDL: And this is made in all sorts of ways. It's sort of like - well, you tell me what you think it tastes like.

SMITH: OK. It is intensely, intensely sweet, dense. It's one step removed from just sugar pressed into a little ball.

KRONDL: It really, I think, tastes a lot like fudge.

SMITH: Yeah. In ancient India would we have been seeing anything fried? Anything like a doughnut. I see like a little - it looks like a little fried ball of something here.

KRONDL: It's unclear how far the fried desserts go. There's definitely fried desserts as far back as, let's say, 1,000 years ago. One of the ancient holy liquids was ghee that is clarified butter. And so, how do you make something holier? Well, you fry it in one of the holy substances.


SMITH: So luckily a few things sugar and milk and oil are all holy objects.

KRONDL: Yeah, holy doughnut is it. Yep.

SMITH: Yeah. You pretty much invented the holy doughnut.


SMITH: Michael Krondl is a food historian and the author of the new book, "Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert." Thank you so much for going on the quest and eating with me.

KRONDL: It's been an over-the-top delight.

SMITH: Over-the-top is the correct word. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.