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How to make a better ice cream sundae, with recipes and tips

(Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

It’s unclear when and where the first ice cream sundae was made, but I would like to thank whomever topped scoops of ice cream with sauce for this marvelous invention. Since that first glorious concoction, people have taken the sundae to outrageous heights.

I favor a more minimalist approach. No, there aren’t really any rules when it comes to constructing an ice cream sundae — any way you build it will surely be a tasty treat — but I encourage you to practice restraint so there aren’t too many competing flavors and textures, resulting in a muddied mess.

How to create the ice cream of your dreams

The tips below will help you to build a better ice cream sundae, to enjoy by yourself or for setting up an ice cream sundae bar for a crowd. And I’ve also included some recipes if you feel inspired to make the ice cream, sauce or toppings yourself.

Serving dish

The standard sundae glass is a classic for a reason. The tall, not-too-wide serving dishes are great for building layers of flavor and texture — a must for a great sundae. If you don’t have these specific dishes, you can build your sundae in a drinking glass, mug or bowl with tall sides to the same effect. To keep the ice cream from melting too quickly, put the dishes in the freezer for at least an hour before serving to help keep the sundaes cold.

Ice cream

For an individual serving, two to three scoops of ice cream are all that you need. Vanilla and chocolate are always good options, but any flavor of creamy frozen dessert can be used. And you don’t need to stick to just one flavor — feel free to mix and match whatever flavors sound good to you. Perhaps chocolate and coffee, or strawberry and pistachio? The only limit is your imagination, but I’d keep it to two different flavors max, so there isn’t too much competition.

Similarly, while I love ice creams with mix-ins, I would be cautious about using one with a ton of added ingredients when building a sundae. Once the sauces, toppings and finishing touches are added, you don’t want there to be too much going on in the finished product. Here are some ice cream recipes to get you started:

Vanilla Ice Cream. The key to this recipe is goat’s milk, which gives this custard-based ice cream a luxuriously creamy texture and just a bit of tang.


S’mores Ice Cream. Toasted graham cracker pieces and marshmallow fluff folded into chocolate ice cream channel a campfire classic in this recipe. When using in a sundae, add a toasted marshmallow on top for a nice finishing touch.

8 recipes to please any ice cream lover: boozy or fruity, no-churn and vegan


Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream. Mint and chocolate are a classic combination. You can reinforce that pairing in a sundae with crushed Thin Mints, chopped Andes Chocolate Mints or York peppermint patties.

Think outside the carton with these creative ice cream recipes

Sauces

It’s not a sundae without a sauce. Like with the ice cream itself, limit yourself to one, maybe two sauces so the flavors don’t get too muddied. When building, put some sauce between the scoops of ice cream — and maybe at the bottom of the glass, too — for better distribution.

Dark Chocolate Syrup. Yes, a drizzle of hot fudge sauce is classic. But if you’re going to make it yourself, this dark chocolate syrup is more versatile in how it can be used.

2-ingredient chocolate shell is an easy way to upgrade your ice cream


Go-To Salted Caramel Sauce. Unlike personalities, a caramel sauce improves with a little bitterness. If you prefer a sweeter, mellower sauce, don’t let the sugar brown as much.

Watch: How to make caramel sauce


Strawberry Sauce. This recipe calls for frozen fruit, which means you can make it any time of year to drizzle on sundaes, cakes, French toast and more.

Toppings

While toppings obviously bring flavor — don’t forget about salty and savory items — I am more excited about the textures they can introduce to a sundae. Here are some to consider:

  • Crunchy: toasted nuts, granola, chopped candy bars, crushed pretzels, cookie pieces, potato chips, bacon
  • Chewy: brownies, dried fruit, gummy candies, shredded coconut
  • Fluffy: whipped cream, crème fraîche, marshmallow fluff, yogurt
  • Juicy: various fruits and berries

Ultimate Brownies. If brownie sundaes are your thing, then a great brownie made from scratch is the way to go. These are thick, moist and chocolaty.


Maple Spiced Glazed Nuts. These nuts have a warming kick thanks to cinnamon and cayenne, and they add a nice crunch to any sundae.

How to toast nuts on the stove, in the oven or in the microwave


Crunchy Nut and Seed Clusters. While this recipe is marketed to add crunch to salads, these nut and seed clusters would be equally at home atop a few scoops of ice cream.

Air fryer granola with chocolate and chile is our crunchy ideal

Finishing touches

Unlike Coco Chanel telling you to take one thing off before you leave the house, when it comes to ice cream sundaes, one last piece of flair — be it sprinkles, chocolate shavings, fresh herbs and/or piece of fruit — can be the (literal) cherry on top to take it from good to great. So while I encourage restraint, don’t be afraid to finish with a bang.

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