Dessert is a course that concludes a meal. The course usually consists of sweet foods, such as confections, and possibly a beverage such as dessert wine or liqueur; however, in the United States it may include coffee, cheeses, nuts, or other savory items regarded as a separate course elsewhere. In some parts of the world, such as much of central and western Africa, and most parts of China, there is no tradition of a dessert course to conclude a meal.
The term dessert can apply to many confections, such as biscuits, cakes, cookies, custards, gelatin, ice creams, pastries, pies, puddings, sweet soups, and tarts. Fruit is also commonly found in dessert courses because of its naturally occurring sweetness. Some cultures sweeten foods that are more commonly savory to create desserts.
Sweet desserts usually contain cane sugar, palm sugar, honey or some types of syrup such as molasses, maple syrup, treacle, or corn syrup. Other common ingredients in Western-style desserts are flour or other starches, Cooking fats such as butter or lard, dairy, eggs, salt, acidic ingredients such as lemon juice, and spices and other flavoring agents such as chocolate, peanut butter, fruits, and nuts. The proportions of these ingredients, along with the preparation methods, play a major part in the consistency, texture, and flavor of the end product.
Sugars contribute moisture and tenderness to baked goods. Flour or starch components serves as a protein and gives the dessert structure. Fats contribute moisture and can enable the development of flaky layers in pastries and pie crusts. The dairy products in baked goods keep the desserts moist. Many desserts also contain eggs, in order to form custard or to aid in the rising and thickening of a cake-like substance. Egg yolks specifically contribute to the richness of desserts. Egg whites can act as a leavening agent or provide structure. Further innovation in the healthy eating movement has led to more information being available about vegan and gluten-free substitutes for the standard ingredients, as well as replacements for refined sugar.
Desserts can contain many spices and extracts to add a variety of flavors. Salt and acids are added to desserts to balance sweet flavors and create a contrast in flavors. Some desserts are coffee-flavored, for example an iced coffee souffle or coffee biscuits. Alcohol can also be used as an ingredient, to make alcoholic desserts.