The dessert world is vast, filled with inspired confectionary creation, nostalgic tradition, and reimagined ritual. Starting as children, dessert maintains a just-out-of-reach quality. Those magical dessert memories are so powerful, that young sweets eaters envision an adulthood that embodies the freedom to adopt an “eat dessert first” mentality for the rest of time.
Desserts are diverse in flavor, texture, and even temperature, and put simply — Americans love dessert. The Institute of Food Technologists reports that 57% of American adults eat dessert after a meal at least once a week (via IFT). Recent bakery operations suggest the same, with a boom of niche cupcake parlors, donut hubs, and ice cream shops generating local traction and excitement on city corners across the country. Some are modern, some are steeped in tradition, and others are passed down from generations and coastlines. The best desserts can define a city. So, let’s take a note from our childhood fantasies, chase the country’s most traveled powdered sugar trails, and eat the best desserts in the U.S.
1. Classic Cannoli at Termini Brothers Bakery in Philadelphia
Biting into a cannoli is a transformational eating experience, and Termini Brothers Bakery in South Philadelphia nurtures a deep-rooted local Italian tradition with true cannoli perfection. Traditional Sicilian cannoli feature fresh sheep’s milk ricotta and a delicate fried pipe-shaped shell that houses a creamy, rich, and sweet cheese filling (via Bon Appétit). A multitude of textures sets the cannoli apart from any other dessert.
Termini Brothers captures the true magic of the cannoli … a crisp and delicate pastry shell, subtly sweet ricotta filling, and intentional timing. Every Termini Bros. cannoli is filled on-spot to prevent soggy shells and promote that quintessential crunch before sinking into a creamy texture explosion. James Beard Foundation “Rising Star Chef of the Year” awardee and Philadelphia pastry chef Camille Cogswell has nothing but praise for these South Philly cannoli, revealing, “These are the cannoli that made me like cannoli” (via Food and Wine). Out-of-state cannoli lovers can still enjoy one of the best desserts in the U.S. by ordering online—a small package includes 6 cannoli shells and 2 pastry bags with cannoli filling.
2. Salty Caramel Ice Cream at Toscanini’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Ice cream is one of America’s most coveted comfort foods and best dessert categories. Popsugar Food provides evidence, taking inventory of America’s 41% who favor ice cream over all other desserts. Toscanini’s, a 30-year old Boston institution, plays right into that nationwide ice cream-loving narrative. Flavors push the ice cream limits with kulfi, fluffernutter, and grapenut variations. Skeptics can take note from Boston’s city-rival newspaper. Toscanini’s wears the New York Times badge of honor for “The World’s Best Ice Cream” with enthusiastic pride (via Toscanini’s).
Approaching the shop is a thrill. Large and groovy font adorns large windows, with views of bar-style seating and pastel ice cream cups on the other side of the glass. Invigorating enthusiasm from Toscanini’s staff greet line-goers and eager ice cream eaters set up shop with computers and earbuds for an afternoon of work well spent to the scent of sweet, cool cream.
The Toscanini’s menu is extensive, but the Boston Globe decisively declared the “salty caramel” a “sugar-spun tango of salty and sweet” the best ice cream. A silky smooth base, deeply caramelized sweetness, and salty kiss elevate this salted caramel rendition above all others.
3. Whoopie Pies at Two Fat Cats Bakery in Portland, Maine
With a cheeky name and a well-stocked supply of Maine’s official dessert, Two Fat Cats is generating nationwide buzz. Shelves squeezed tight with freshly baked pies and other confections drew both the Food Network and Cooking Channel cameras to Portland for first-hand access to the whoopie pie baking process. Whether you frequent either the Portland or South Portland location, the classic whoopie pie is Two Fat Cats royalty and one of the best desserts in the country.
For those who are unfamiliar, whoopie pies identify less like a traditional American pastry-based pie and more like a sandwich cookie and chocolate cake fusion. The origin of the whoopie pie is debated between proud Maine and Pennsylvania residents, but both stories testify to the enthusiastic “Whoopee” that ensued after eating one of these sweet treats (via Boston Globe).
According to Yelp reviewers, the whoopie pies steal the show. “Outstanding,” “Truly delicious,” and “the best we have ever had” validate the irresistible appearance (via Yelp). These delightfully large and pillowy chocolate cake domes, filled with a light and creamy marshmallow fluff buttercream, are available on GoldBelly for nationwide shipping.
4. Cinnamon Sugar Doughnuts at Hole Doughnuts in Asheville, North Carolina
Tucked between scenic Blue Ridge Mountain peaks, Hole Doughnuts is Asheville, North Carolina’s resident doughnut haven. They play their cards well, catering to America’s well-founded fried-dough appetite. We can credit Russian refugee Adolph Levitt for inventing the doughnut in 1920, and lighting a flame to the doughnut craze we can all relish today (via US Census Bureau).
Hole Doughnuts sets forth on their best dessert journey with a soft yeast dough. Inventive coatings transform the fried dough base, with combinations like Strawberry and Black Pepper Doughnut allowing for lots of creative decision-making. But the cinnamon and sugar variety captures the art of simplistic perfection, allowing the cornerstone of fried dough excellence to shine. Every doughnut is fried to order, so the second you clutch a warm Cinnamon Sugar Doughnut and bite into the pillowy dough, it’s impossible to overlook the dedication to detail. Golden brown and crisp on the outside, the treats aren’t the least bit greasy and hand-cut edges feature eccentric bubbles and nodules to trap beautifully balanced bits of cinnamon and sugar. These carefully thought-out details have Hole Doughnuts boasting an impressive and rare 5-star rating on Yelp.
5. Ultimate Coconut Cake at Peninsula Grill in Charleston, South Carolina
Bold statements are commonplace at Charleston’s Peninsula Grill. Considered the “crown jewel” of Charleston’s dining scene, indoor-outdoor flow, towering greenery, and glowing light accents set the stage for a coconut cake at the center of it all. Before dessert, diners can feast on a Southern-inspired meal with freshly shucked oysters, seasonal mains, and epic steak cuts either on the outdoor patio or intimate dining room.
But the Ultimate Coconut Cake is a grand finale that inspires best dessert declarations across the country. The Charleston City Paper coined the sweet treat the “Best Slice of Heaven” and “The Today Show” and “Good Morning America” forced a nationwide craze with dazzling cake construction clips (via Peninsula Grill).
The cake itself is a 12-layer centerpiece, featuring six layers each of coconut cake and cream cheese frosting, all even in decadent thickness. The toasted coconut-coated outer edge is a ti-off for what’s to come on the inside, and has even coconut skeptics returning for more (via Yelp). Weighing in at an extraordinary 12-pounds, The Ultimate Coconut Cake can be shipped right to your door with nationwide shipping.
6. The Sea Salt Chocolate Chunk Cookie at Avalon International Breads in Detroit
The Avalon International Breads operation started small, but their commitment to quality, organic ingredients, and passionate baking grew the bakery into a statewide venture. The bakery started on the backs of friends and family who contributed “bread dough dollars” to make Avalon International Breads become a reality (via Avalon Breads). Initial determination and passion planted a seed that grew into a national business with heartfelt Detroit roots.
Three Michigan locations supply nearby carb-lovers with pastries, cookies, cakes, and crusty bread loaves for retail and in-house café sandwiches. But the Sea Salt Chocolate Chunk Cookie reigns supreme, earning the title of “Best Cookie in Michigan” by Yelp in 2017 (via Avalon Breads). A true celebration of sweet and salty, each cookie is golden brown on the outside with bursting smooth chocolate chunks on the inside and a perfect salt bite at the end. The chocolate chip cookie is so coveted, the generous Avalon Bakery staff share their best dessert offering with locals for special events (via Instagram). Michigan locals can purchase Avalon Bakery’s top-rated cookie in select Whole Foods Market stores in addition to the three bakery locations.
7. Key Lime Pie at Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits in Chicago
Biscuits and pie are an unlikely yet logical union. Luckily for Chicago locals and visiting tourists, Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits is realizing and executing on this extraordinary coalition, and a masterful take on Key lime pie is at the epicenter of the pastry-forward menu. Satisfy your savory tooth with sausage biscuit or pot pie before diving headfirst into one of the country’s best desserts.
An unquestionable Florida staple, Key limes are smaller and sweeter than their Persian lime counterparts. But Chicago is serving up one of the country’s most poised Key lime pie slices, with a lusciously smooth key lime custard, studded with aromatic freshly grated lime zest and set in a homemade graham cracker crust. That’s right, their graham crackers are made in-house. Going the extra Key lime mile is paying off, so much so, it happens to be Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits year-round best-seller (via Instagram). Customer witnesses validate their Key Lime Pie’s best dessert standing with statements like “their key lime pie is the best key lime ever” and “Key lime’s my favorite pie in general, and theirs is delicious” (via Insider).
8. Kouign Amann at Dominque Ansel Bakery in New York City
Dominique Ansel’s visionary pastry prowess made worldwide headlines when he invented and debuted the cronut years ago. As a result, many bakery-goers initially overlooked the mighty kouign amann at his New York bakery, a pastry hailing from the Brittany region of France (via Food 52). This Breton masterpiece marries the flakey texture of a croissant and caramelized sweetness of a palmier cookie, teetering between a breakfast pastry and buttery afternoon dessert. The pastry’s addictive qualities left Dominique Ansel no other choice but to share his original recipe with the Cooking Channel, so we too can bake our way to flakey and caramelized sugar perfection.
The baking process closely mirrors that of croissants, using folds to create layers of butter in between the yeasted dough. Before the final fold, the kouign amann strays from its croissant cousin with an added dusting of granulated sugar. Dominique Ansel then carefully shapes the delicate pastries and bakes them in metal rings, with just enough dough overhang to create a caramelized muffin-like top. This “caramelized croissant” is actually Dominique’s #1 best-selling item (via Dominique Ansel NY). For fresh kouign amann delivered next-day to your front door, order a four-piece box and taste the bestseller in the comfort of your own home.
9. Cinnamon Rolls at Knaus Berry Farm in Homestead, Florida
Knaus Berry Farm is a verified food destination by southern Floridians. Founded as a road-stand in 1956, the Knaus family started selling their fresh strawberries to locals, eventually expanding an established strawberry reputation to include baked goods too (via Knaus Berry Farm).
For some visitors, pick-your-own strawberries play second fiddle to Knaus Berry Farm’s beautifully sticky cinnamon rolls. The family operation treats the rolls with the same level of care as they do the strawberry fields. The strawberry season runs from November to April, which means lines form quickly but thankfully move fast (via Florida Rambler).
Knaus Berry Farm’s cinnamon roll is inherently comforting, with a light and fluffy dough and melt-in-your-mouth sticky exterior. The “best cinnamon rolls ever” are hefty in size, featuring a hypnotic cinnamon sugar swirl and gooey glaze that caresses the soft dough’s twists and turns (via Yelp). Order the famous Knaus Berry Farm cinnamon rolls on Goldbelly.
10. Creole Bread Pudding Soufflé at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans
The Famous Commander’s Palace is a New Orleans dining institution. A cheerful blue exterior greets eager diners, prefacing a meal full of genuine whimsicality. The historic Garden District location opened nearly 130 years ago in 1893, and has since secured a verified reputation with seven James Beard Foundation awards (via Commander’s Palace).
The Commander’s Palace menu takes on an identity near and dear to its surroundings. Head chef Meg Bickford uses local inspiration to transform local ingredients into New Orleans-inspired “haute creole” menu steeped in local history. Gulf shrimp, crawfish, and center-cut steaks take shape as Jambalaya, gumbo, and a roasted beet jus bordelaise to accompany seared beef.
But it’s word of the bread pudding soufflé that travels well beyond this soulful city’s epicenter, so much so that food icons like Martha Stewart adapted the Commander’s Palace dessert for her readership. But the Commander’s Palace 20-minute build-up and mountainous presentation is a one-of-a-kind Big Easy dining experience. A rich soufflé base of cream, eggs, and warm spices take an airy turn when whipped egg whites and fluffy French bread join the party. The iconic ceramic dish arrives at the table with impressive golden-brown height and a personalized table-side warm whiskey sauce pour.
11. Cookies and Milk Pie at Joy Cafe in Atlanta
A milk and cookie dipping session is a childhood dream. The warm and crispy cookie exterior touched by a glass of cold milk leaves an addictive aftertaste. The Joy Cafe is bringing those nostalgic memories back by honing the art of comforting and creative Southern baking. The Cookies and Milk Pie stays true to that narrative and honors the gratifying simplicity of a cookies and milk dunking moment (via AJC).
Executive Chef and co-owner Joy Beber took months to perfect the Cookies and Milk Pie recipe, striving to accurately mimic the flavors of a milk-dunked, slightly soft chocolate chip cookie (via WSBTV). Every component is made from scratch, starting with homemade chocolate chip cookies that are dunked in vanilla cream before the two components merge on top of a graham cracker crust to form a delicious mound. For added curb appeal and texture, the creamy pie top embraces a sprinkling of chocolate chip cookie crumbles. A true labor of love, we can thank Chef Beber for her meticulous process and an “infamous” pie that holds up to the hype (via Instagram).
12. Melting Cloud at Seven Reasons in Washington, DC
The Latin-inspired menu at D.C.’s Seven Reasons is a culinary feat led by Venezuelan native Enrique Limardo. Architectural intrigue and height guide the entire Seven Reasons dining experience, starting with the restaurant’s three-story arboreal dining room. The plates are visually stunning, informed by Limardo’s architecture and industrial design studies and his childhood memories in the kitchen (via The Washington Post). His creative food style earned high praise from D.C. food royalty. The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema designated Seven Reasons as the #1 restaurant in Washington in 2019.
The Melting Cloud dessert challenges the thrill of the entire meal that comes before it, holding true to Limardo’s deliciously creative theatrical tendencies. He masterfully recreates the flavors of a lemon-coconut pie, featuring a lemon custard, almond crumble, limoncello marshmallow, butter cookie sorbet, coconut foam, and finally, a meltable cotton candy encasement that’s torched right at the table. The cotton candy cloud collapses under the heat, leaving behind bright flavors and giant smiles (via Instagram).
13. Tiramisu at Giovanni’s Tiramisu in Los Angeles
When 73-year-old Giovanni Bolla emigrated to America decades ago, his current tiramisu empire was an unforeseen venture. But when his daughter Isabella suggested he start a tiramisu business, delivering scrumptious trays of the Italian dessert became his new mission (via The Infatuation). From there, Giovanni’s Tiramisu was born.
Cut much like a slice of American sheet cake, tiramisu combines layers of espresso-dipped spongey ladyfinger cookies, a lightly sweetened mascarpone cheese cream and alternating dustings of cocoa powder. The name itself refers to the instant “pick me up” as a result of a little sugar, a little coffee, and sometimes, a little alcohol dousing (via Eater). Tiramisu is a dessert that satisfies in so many ways, which only adds to the best desserts argument.
Giovanni’s version highlights all of tiramisu’s most amazing qualities. The recipe hails from his Piedmont upbringing with 100% Italian-imported ingredients. Not overly sweet and perfectly caffeinated, Giovanni is considered “The Tiramisu Delivery Man” of Los Angeles (via Giovanni’s Tiramisu). The world was captivated by Giovanni’s passion, but it was the irresistible tiramisu that earned him praise from the Los Angeles Times, The Kelly Clarkson Show, and CBS. Lucky Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley residents can order his tiramisu for doorstep delivery. The rest of us will have to make a trip to LA to experience Giovanni’s contribution to the best desserts in the U.S.