Celebrate National Dessert Day in Philadelphia!

By Caity R. RSS Wed, October 14, 2020

Need an excuse to satisfy your sweet tooth? We are here to help! Today, October 14, is National Dessert Day, and a great opportunity to break out your favorite dessert of choice.

While I truly believe that this year deserves multiple days of observance, it’s always nice to have a solid reason to eat cake on a weeknight. This year, I’m going to keep it local and explore desserts that are beloved by this city.

Philadelphia may be known as a cheesesteak town, but I think it’s time we shift the narrative. Philadelphia is a place that knows and loves desserts. Beyond the cult following that exists for local snack food-producing brand Tastykake, there are plenty of desserts associated with the region.

Water ice (not to be confused with Italian ice) has been popular here for over a century. Whether your favorite flavor is cherry, chocolate, or mango, water ice is an iconic Philadelphia treat. The proliferation of local dairies has also made Philadelphia a prime location for ice cream. Bassett’s is the oldest ice cream brand operating in America and was established all the way back in 1861. They were also the first vendor to sign a lease with Reading Terminal Market and have been operating there since 1892! Going one step further, ice cream floats were a local invention. Robert McCay Green came up with this delicious drink in 1874 when he ran out of cream while operating a soda-fountain and the invention quickly gained popularity. 

Slightly more polarizing is Philadelphia’s fascination with Irish potatoes—which confusingly contain neither potatoes nor do they come from Ireland. While their exact origin is unknown, the coconut cream-based candies are a tradition in Philadelphia and can be found throughout the city in the weeks leading up to St. Patrick’s Day. Philadelphia-style cheesecake, technically named for the Philadelphia company, not the city of Philadelphia, are well known for their use of cream cheese (instead of sour cream) as their star ingredient. Let’s claim that one, too.

The influence of early German settlers to the region also had a deep impact on our dessert culture. The Pennsylvania Dutch popularized carnival favorite funnel cakes, as well as marshmallow-y whoopie pies. Apees cookies, flavored with anise, are a local, holiday-season tradition. My personal choice, however, for a German-descended dessert—and one very appropriate for this holiday—is Philadelphia Butter Cake (also known as "butterkuchen"). Similar in texture to a very rich pound cake, Philadelphia Butter Cake is known for having a very buttery, pudding-like center. This cake is especially popular in Northeast Philadelphia, and is the perfect decadent indulgence for National Dessert Day! If you want to try making it on your own, check out the recipe below.

Philadelphia Butter Cake

For the Base:

  • 1/4 cup (about 2 ounces) granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) salted butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 (1/4 ounce) packet active dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup warm milk (105-115°F)
  • 2 1/4 cups (about 12 ounces) flour, sifted
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract 

For the Topping:

  • 1 cup (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter
  • 2/3 cup (about 3 ounces) flour
  • 2 cups (about 16 ounces) superfine sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 4 tablespoons milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 


  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix sugar, butter, and salt on low speed until combined. Add egg, and beat on medium speed for 1 minute.
  2. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in warm milk.
  3. To egg/sugar mixture, add flour, then yeast mixture and vanilla, beating about 3 minutes (with dough hook or by hand). Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and knead for 90 seconds. Place in a lightly greased bowl, cover with a towel, and allow the dough to rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
  4. Toward the end of the rising period, start preparing the topping. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes on medium speed. Add the flour and sugar to the mixture, and continue beating on medium speed until fully combined. Add the eggs one at a time, allowing the first to fully incorporate into the batter before adding the second. Add in the vanilla. Add the milk, 1 tablespoon at a time. If the consistency is any thinner than a pancake batter, don't add any more milk.
  5. Grease or line a 9- by 13-inch aluminum pan with parchment paper.
  6. Once the dough has doubled in size, punch it down. Remove it from the bowl, and pat into the bottom of your prepared pan. Crimp the edges of the crust halfway up the sides of the container so that they will hold in the filling.
  7. Spread the topping evenly over the dough. Let stand for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375°F and position a rack in the middle position.
  8. Bake 30 minutes, or until browned on the edges but still quite gooey in the middle. It will solidify as it cools. Wait until it has cooled completely before serving; store in the refrigerator.

*Recipe from Serious Eats.

If this post has inspired you to continue celebrating National Dessert Day after today, check out the Culinary Literacy Center's upcoming program "Spooky Halloween Treats!" In this bake-along class, families will learn how to make a dreadfully delicious dessert from local baking extraordinaire Chef Monica. Tickets are $10 per (haunted) household or are complimentary for any who can't afford the fee at the moment. Get your tickets now, or email kitchen @ freelibrary.org for more information!

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