Quest For The Holy Doughnut, And The First Dessert

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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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