Bread may satisfy the stomach, but cake satisfies the soul.
Unlike savoury staples, dessert is biologically unnecessary, says food historian and author Michael Krondl. Yet its frivolousness is precisely what makes it fascinating.
For his new book, Sweet Invention: A History of Dessert, released this month, Mr. Krondl travelled the world examining the relationship between various cultures and their confections, from Indian laddu, which are droplets of deep-fried batter soaked in sugar and formed into balls, to American Twinkies.
Dessert, he says, is akin to music, architecture, painting and sculpture. Whatever drives us to make and consume sweets triggers the same desires that brought us Notre Dame, the Taj Mahal and Disneyland, he says. Desserts reflect what makes our species unique.
Mr. Krondl explained by phone from New York why our love of sugar, butter and cream tells us more about ourselves than we might think.
How does dessert offer a window into what makes us human?
Dessert is fundamentally completely unnecessary from a nutritional standpoint. When you remove the nutritional necessity, then you have to wonder, why is it necessary? Presumably, on some level it is, otherwise we wouldn’t spend so much treasure and time developing all these wonderful desserts. So you get away from our animal needs and you look at our cultural needs.
You say that pastry trends come and go faster than other culinary trends. Why?
Desserts are traditionally made in stores by professionals, usually in urban settings, where there’s relatively a lot of competition. Everybody’s trying to one-up each other, trying to come up with the greatest, the best, the newest.
Why are you not a fan of down-market desserts going up-market, like s’mores being served at fancy restaurants?
When you see a place that sells 25 different cupcakes, ultimately, it’s exactly the same dessert with slightly different flavouring. This crowds out something that might have different textures, different flavours, different histories.
Most down-market desserts cater to a very, very simple combination of tastes. You’re really going with something that’s fairly one-dimensional. Which is not to say that I don’t like a cupcake. But if that’s all I have, I get pretty bored pretty fast.
In your book, you examine six areas of the world you call “dessert superpowers”: India, the Middle East, Italy, France, Austria and the United States. Why are these areas dominant in dessert?
History has a lot to do with it. India has a good climate for growing sugar cane, and it’s a place where you had a major civilization. You put one and one together, and you ended up having the domestication of sugar cane and the invention of refining it. Once you have sugar, you begin to do stuff with it.
In other cases, the trading cities of Italy were major [hubs]for the shipment of spices and all sorts of other goods, so Venice naturally became an importer of sugar. … The United States for many years was the largest sugar consumer in the world.
The sweet tooth is universal, but some cultures seem to do more sophisticated things with it than other cultures, and there seems to be a connection.
In Venice, you found it difficult to find traditional desserts among all the mass-marketed gelato shops aimed at tourists. And you mention that in England, the number of indigenous desserts has declined since the Elizabethan era. Are we losing the diversity of desserts?
I don’t think we in North America are because we have the good fortune to exist in a place that’s both high culture and low culture. Our dessert culture is changing around us. But I think a place like Venice is losing its dessert culture, yes.
You mention how various countries went through dessert “golden ages” during cultural and economic booms. How does the shaky global economy affect desserts today?
Oddly enough, I don’t think in a bad way. Let me give you an example. Paris right now is going through what I’d say is another dessert golden age. There’s an intense competition among pastry chefs to create something new, something interesting, something different. You don’t see it, for example, in a city like New York. New York City, in terms of pastry, is really dull right now.
So I think there is regional inventiveness, in France particularly, where there wasn’t for a good 50 to 70 years.
What’s driving that?
In France, I don’t want to put it down entirely to a chef called Pierre Hermé [dubbed by Vogue magazine the “Picasso of pastry”]because I don’t think you can ever put it down to one person. But he has been incredibly influential in pushing the envelope. People are constantly comparing themselves to him and trying to out-invent him.
After sampling all sorts of desserts around the world, what’s your favourite?
Oh, it’s like asking, ‘Who’s your favourite child?’ I like a good chestnut or nut torte in Vienna to a cider doughnut, to gelato, to a piece of apricot tart. Apple pie. A fresh-baked piece of apple pie can’t be beat.
This interview has been condensed and edited.