In 1878, Fidelia Ford of Berkey, Ohio, made her annual holiday fruitcake. As with many fruitcake recipes, this one called for a year of aging—so when the current year’s cake was being baked, the previous year’s was ready for consumption. Sadly, Ford passed away not long after baking the 1878 cake, and her husband couldn’t bring himself to slice and serve the dessert the following year. Instead, he placed her obituary on top of the cake and saved it. And saved it. And saved it. It was preserved for so long that when he died, the confection remained in the family. In 1952, it was inherited by Fidelia’s great-grandson, Morgan, after his father had a stroke.
As keeper of the cake, Morgan admits he's been a little more lax than his predecessors, allowing his Uncle Amos to sample the ancient dessert back in 1964. “He thought it was a dirty shame nobody had ever tasted grandma’s cake,” Morgan said. After producing a pocket knife and jabbing a chunk off of the cake, Amos rectified the situation. “He didn’t say how it tasted, but I remember it sounded pretty crunchy.”
And the reviews didn't get much better in the years that followed. In 2003, Morgan went on The Tonight Show and allowed Jay Leno to take a taste of the cake, then 125 years old. Morgan finally tasted it too, and he didn’t exactly give it a glowing review: “In the summertime, when they thresh wheat, and you put a couple of the kernels in your mouth and chew ‘em. ... Not much of a taste, no, and not good.”
As of 2012, the ancient fruitcake was still kicking. Though Morgan died in 2013 at the age of 93, he made plans to ensure the fruitcake’s continued survival by willing it to his son, James Ford. James will surely store the cake safely away somewhere, but we may not see it on talk shows anytime soon. "I guess I don't have anything else that's a family heirloom," he said in 2003. "It's history. I think my dad gets a little more fun out of it than I do."
When Greek immigrant Thomas Carvel started the Carvel College of Ice Cream Knowledge in the late 1940s, his intention was to educate his ice cream shop franchisees in the proper handling and distribution of the soft serve cones he had invented back in 1934. Famously strict about his scooping protocol, Carvel would grow upset if he discovered a store owner dished out only three ounces of vanilla to save money, not his required 3.5 ounces. Customers—especially kids—could tell the difference.
"Once a kid realizes he isn't getting his full cone, you've lost a customer," Carvel toldThe New York Times in 1985. "And that's the way you lose an entire chain."
Carvel’s rigid standards sometimes stirred up dissent, as in the case of the antitrust lawsuit filed in 1979 by franchisees over his insistence they buy Carvel-supplied napkins and other goods at inflated prices. But it was his ingenuity that led the 865-location Carvel chain to a stunning $300 million in sales by 1985.
That growth was spurred in large part by the company’s distinctive ice cream cakes, including Hug Me the Bear and Fudgie the Whale. But no confection drew as much attention as Cookie Puss, the cone-nosed birthday treat made famous in a series of 1970s commercials, a 1983 Beastie Boys song, and a legendary bit on The Howard Stern Show.
Although stores frequently tweaked the Cookie Puss design, it never strayed far from its original inspiration: the face of Carvel himself.
(L-R): Cookie Puss, Cookie O'Puss, Tom Carvel. Courtesy of Carvel
Carvel’s ice cream empire began with a flat tire. In 1934, he had borrowed $15 from his fiancée, Agnes, to get an ice cream truck on the road in Hartsdale, New York. The truck broke down, but customers didn’t seem to mind the softening ice cream—in fact, they seemed to love it.
Carvel jumped on the opportunity, cobbling a soft-serve machine together in his garage and obtaining a patent for it. When he realized that selling the machines led to frequent user error, he founded the Carvel Corporation in 1947, lining states—and his pockets—with Carvel-branded frozen treat storefronts.
Carvel recognized that it would take more than his name to help distinguish the stores from other ice cream shops. Their ice cream sandwiches were dubbed Flying Saucers in 1951; Carvel invited franchisees to brainstorm other unique product ideas.
In the early 1970s, an attendee at the College of Ice Cream Knowledge presented Carvel with a cake in a vaguely humanoid shape. With a cone to mimic Carvel’s bulbous nose, Carvel was impressed. He also realized anthropomorphized cakes would be a clever way to further the Carvel brand. An entire line—including Fudgie the Whale and Hug Me the Bear—were rolled out, 50-something ounces of frozen cake goodness that shops could decorate for personalized birthday greetings.
To spread the word, Carvel began featuring Cookie Puss in regional television advertisements throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Airing Saturday mornings and late at night, the ads were low-budget—Carvel refused to hire an ad agency—and featured Carvel himself as the narrator, his gravelly voice urging viewers to consider Fudgie for Father’s Day, Cookie Puss for all occasions, Cookie O’Puss for St. Patrick’s Day, Dumpy the Pumpkin for Halloween, and Cookie’s female counterpart, Cupie Puss, for whatever else might require massive sugar consumption.
Carvel even issued stuffed toys of Cookie Puss and Fudgie in 1985, hoping the $5.98 dolls would become Carvel’s version of Ronald McDonald, a food mascot that transcended corporate direction.
Even people who had never tried Cookie Puss were still aware of him thanks to the pervasive ads. The Beastie Boys broke through with "Cooky Puss," their 1983 single that was built around a real prank phone call made by Adam Horovitz to a Carvel store asking to speak to Cookie Puss. (One unconfirmed urban legend says Carvel was so annoyed by the album that he was considering legal action before his nephew, a Beasties fan, talked him down.)
In 1991, The Howard Stern Show dragged Cookie Puss back into the spotlight when Stern spent an inordinate length of time berating staffer Fred Norris for giving his mother a Cookie Puss for Mother’s Day. Using audio effects, Stern raised his pitch to resemble Cookie’s distinctive voice:
Stern: Hey, Fred. How come you didn’t get your mom a Fudgie the Whale? Because Cookie Puss is number one, right? ... I think you really didn’t think about your mother.
Norris: Thank you for judging me, Cookie Puss.
Stern: Tom Carvel was a weird guy. I wish he could have named me Rambo. Rambo the Cake.
Puss’s heyday came to an end in 1993, when Carvel’s new owners (Tom Carvel had sold the business in 1989 to investment bankers for $80 million) hired an actual ad agency to create a polished campaign. Carvel himself died in 1990, and was later the subject of a bizarre claim by his niece that he had been murdered so his aides could lay claim to the Cookie Puss fortune. The allegation was later dropped.
Today Puss, Fudgie, and the others can still be found at the 400-odd Carvel locations; the company’s slightly retroactive history currently claims that Cookie Puss is actually an alien from the Planet Birthday.
But whatever its fictional narrative might be, Cookie Puss still bears a strong resemblance to Tom Carvel. The inspiration for Dumpy the Pumpkin, however, remains unknown.
Few traditions are as enduring as holiday foods, especially desserts. Your grandfather’s Bing Crosby Christmas carols might have given way to Mariah Carey, and children today are more likely to be dreaming of new iPhones than sugar plums, but every generation can agree on the importance of a sweet treat after dinner. This holiday season, instead of just sticking to the old favorites, consider adding a new dessert from a different part of the world—who knows? One of these recipes might just become your new favorite tradition.
1. BUCHE DE NOEL (YULE LOG) // FRANCE
France, Belgium, and many other formerly French nations celebrate Christmas with an edible version of one of the season's most enduring icons: the Yule log. As an ancient European tradition, huge Yule logs were burned to celebrate the winter solstice; the practice was later integrated into Christian rituals. You may not have room in your home to burn a full tree trunk, but you can still enjoy this rich chocolate confection which mimics the shape of a log. Feeling particularly ambitious? Check out Bon Appetit’s sleek and striking "birch log" recipe, compete with meringue "mushrooms."
2. FIGGY PUDDING // THE UK
To modern Americans, figgy pudding is probably best known for it’s appearance in the lyrics of "We Wish You A Merry Christmas." The demand for a treat ("We won’t go until we get some!") references the old English tradition of wealthy nobles giving money or food to the common people on Christmas Eve. So what is it? The name is actually an anachronism, as the modern dish is not what we consider pudding, nor does it contain any figs! It's actually a steamed cake made with raisins and brandy, and a rather ambitious culinary undertaking—one chef recommends starting the cake five weeks before Christmas! For a less time-consuming recipe, try this one from Food.com, which you can make in an afternoon.
3. SUFGANIYOT (JELLY DOUGHNUTS) // ISRAEL
Hot, sweet, and crispy, jam-filled doughnuts called sufganiyot are particularly beloved in Israel at Hanukkah gatherings. Like latkes, another Jewish holiday staple, they are deep-fried in oil, a direct connection to the famously long-lasting lamp oil of the Hanukkah story. Try Martha Stewart’s straightforward take on this relatively-modern Israeli favorite.
4. GLOGG (MULLED WINE) // NORWAY
December’s a perfect time for rich cookies and pastries, but don’t forget a festive libation to wash everything down! In Norway, as well as other Scandinavian and Germanic cultures, nothing says "celebration" like a warm cup of glogg, or mulled wine. As with many alcoholic concoctions, there are endless variations to explore, but nearly all recipes include dry red wine, clear spirits, rich spices like cinnamon and cardamom, and sweet dried fruits, like raisins and figs. Try serving Marcus Jernmark’s modern take on the classic, which includes Indonesian peppers for extra spice.
5. STOLLEN (FRUITCAKE) // GERMANY
Fruitcake is a paradox—it’s one of the oldest-known desserts (the ancient Romans had a version with pomegranate) and eaten around the world, yet it carries a much-maligned reputation and often serves as a Christmas punchline. (Johnny Carson famously quipped, "There is only one fruitcake in the world, and people keep sending it to each other.") Perhaps Carson would have changed his mind if he'd tried authentic German stollen, a hearty, doughy cake filled with nuts and raisins and generously dusted with sugar. Supposedly it's meant to look like the infant Jesus, although that effect might require a few extra cups of glogg.
6. BEIGLI (SWEET ROLLS) // HUNGARY
An Eastern European holiday treat, beigli are spiral sweet rolls, featuring a flaky pastry crust filled with a sweet mash of walnuts or poppy seeds. Symbolically, the poppy seeds represented wealth and fertility, while the walnuts served as protection against witchcraft. Due to their unique structure, beigli might present a challenge for the novice baker—take a look at this step-by-step guide if you're feeling adventurous!
7. PAVLOVA // AUSTRALIA
Most winter holiday foods are rich and filling, perfect for cold, dark December nights. But in Australia, Christmas falls at the beginning of summer and calls for something a little more refreshing. Aussies celebrate the season with a slice of Pavlova, a creamy meringue pie with a crispy crust, topped with fresh fruit.The dessert was inspired by Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova’s visit to Australia in the 1920s, and can certainly be enjoyed year-round—but this berry-bedecked wreath makes for an especially cheery interpretation.
8. PICE AR Y MAEN (WELSH CAKES) // WALES
A regional favorite often referenced by poet Dylan Thomas, "Welsh cakes"—pice ar y maen in the native tongue—are a buttery tea-time treat described as "a cross between a pancake and a baking powder biscuit, with a touch of cookie and muffin thrown in for good measure." They’re particularly popular at Christmas as well as on March 1, the traditional feast day of Saint David, patron saint of Wales. The simplicity of the recipe makes Welsh cakes a great opportunity to let children help in the kitchen. Try this extra-festive holiday version, which adds orange zest and currants.
9. SAFFRANSBULLAR (SAFFRON BUNS) // SWEDEN
Sweet yeast buns are eaten year-round in Sweden, but at Christmas they're given an extra "twist." Saffransbullar are richly flavored with saffron and raisins, and frequently twisted into a figure-eight shape known as lussekatter, meaning "Lucia cats." The unusual name refers to the feast day of Saint Lucia—December 13th—as well as the entwined shape, which resembles a sleeping cat curled up into a ball. They’re best enjoyed with pepparkakor, traditional gingersnap cookies cut into the shape of hearts or animals.
10. RISALAMANDE (RICE PUDDING) // DENMARK
A Danish staple dating back to the 1800s, Risalamande (from the French Riz à l'amande, or "rice with almonds") is a Christmas Eve tradition enjoyed throughout much of the Nordic world. This simple-but-scrumptious recipe enlivens a basic rice pudding by adding whipped cream, chopped almonds, and a warm cherry sauce. For extra fun, some families leave a single unchopped almond in the bowl; whoever finds the almond wins a small novelty gift.