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Sweet On Sundaes

Finally, the weather is warming up. And that means I'm dreaming about ice cream sundaes.

When I was researching my book Ice Cream: A Global History, sundaes were the ice cream treat I was most eager to learn about. For me, there's no more sumptuous dessert than the classic American combo of ice cream, toppings and whipped cream.

Sundaes are just a teensy bit fancy, but not so dressed up that they look out of place on a picnic table or at a barbecue. And sundaes are an easy way to flex your culinary muscle. That's because with these indulgent treats, it's the construction, not the cooking, that counts. And there's no need to fuss in the kitchen. You can prepare your own sauces and ice creams, but store-bought varieties work well, too.

When it comes to mixing and matching ice creams and toppings, the sky's the limit. (For me, the ice cream is an afterthought. Hit me with that topping, and lots of it, please.) Ladle hot fudge over peppermint ice cream. Drizzle honey over coconut sorbet and top it with grilled pineapple. Drop a scoop or two of chocolate ice cream into a bowl, add some brownie pieces, then crown your creation with butterscotch and whipped cream. You can also smother vanilla ice cream in berries and grilled peaches. Or for a simple but very adult dessert, pour a tablespoon of coffee-flavored liqueur over a scoop of chocolate or butter pecan.

And don't forget to add some crunch. Sundaes need a bit of texture to counter all that goo and creamy richness. Crumbled cookies, nuts, even granola — anything with a snap to it — will do the trick. Then, there's the whipped cream and garnishes. You could finish your ice cream construction the traditional way with a maraschino cherry. But why settle for the obvious when you can choose shaved chocolate, candy bits or crumbled bacon?

Whatever ice cream and sauce combinations you elect, start building your sundae with a spoonful of sauce in the bottom of the dish. Then add ice cream, more sauce, and another scoop of ice cream. Douse the whole thing with yet more sauce. With this method, you'll be sure to taste sauce and ice cream in every bite. The exception to this rule is the banana split, in which the ingredients are laid side by side in a nest of banana halves, and the sauce is poured on top of the ice cream.

Sundaes are not an American invention. The Europeans beat us to it with dishes such as the French coupe. Sundaes as Americans know them came into being in the U.S. in the early 1890s. The question of the exact locale of the sundae's birthplace has sparked fierce, but good-natured, civic rivalries, with several American towns, including Ithaca, N.Y., Two Rivers, Wis., and Evanston, Ill., claiming to be the sundae's rightful spawning ground.

At the end of the day, I don't much care where sundaes originated. I just love them.

Hot Fudge Sauce Sundaes

There are lots of recipes for hot fudge. This one is essentially a ganache. It cooks in minutes and boasts a deep, rich chocolate flavor. You can use either semisweet chocolate or a high-quality eating chocolate. I don't add sugar to this fudge sauce because I like the contrast of bittersweet chocolate and sweet ice cream; you can add sugar if you prefer a sweeter topping.

Makes 4 servings

/ Laura B. Weiss for NPR
Laura B. Weiss for NPR

Fudge Sauce

12 ounces semisweet chocolate or good-quality 70 percent chocolate bar

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

1/4 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

The Sundae

For each serving:

2 scoops vanilla ice cream

1 tablespoon coffee liqueur

2 tablespoons toasted almonds

Whipped cream

Break the chocolate into pieces and set aside. Pour the cream into a saucepan and heat over medium; don't let it boil, or it will curdle. Turn off the heat and add the chocolate. Stir well, adding salt and butter. Return to heat on low and cook for 5 minutes, being careful not to let it boil. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Use the topping right away or store it in the refrigerator. To restore it after it's been in the refrigerator, stir the sauce well and reheat in the microwave for 1 minute, or until it softens.

To make the sundaes, place a tablespoon of hot fudge in the bottom of each bowl. Place 1 scoop of vanilla ice cream on top of the fudge. Drizzle more sauce on top of the ice cream. Place a second scoop of ice cream on top. Spoon on additional sauce. Drizzle the coffee liqueur on each sundae, sprinkle with toasted almonds and top with whipped cream.

Peach Berry Sundaes With Honey

I make this sumptuous sundae in the summer when stone fruit and berries at their peak ripeness.

/ Laura B. Weiss for NPR
Laura B. Weiss for NPR

Makes 4 servings

24 shelled pistachios

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

2 ripe peaches cut in half, pitted, peeled and cut into 1-inch slices

4 large fresh strawberries, sliced thinly

3 scoops vanilla ice cream per serving

1/4 cup honey per serving

Toast the pistachios in a dry skillet for 2 minutes, being careful not to burn them. Set them aside. Place the butter, vanilla and cinnamon in a medium-sized sauté pan over medium heat. Sauté the peaches and strawberries for 3 to 4 minutes, until they begin to soften but are still firm. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Place 3 scoops of vanilla ice cream in each bowl. Spoon honey, then fruit mixture onto the ice cream, and top each sundae with 6 toasted pistachios. Serve immediately.

Banana Splits

I'm not fond of traditional banana splits with their multitude of sauces (traditionally, strawberry, pineapple, chocolate) and ice cream flavors (vanilla, chocolate and strawberry). This recipe is a luxurious, and simpler, version of the old standby. The peanut butter sauce is adapted from About.com Southern Food.

Makes 2 servings

Peanut Butter Sauce

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup light corn syrup

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup cream

3/4 cup smooth peanut butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

The Split

For each serving:

1 banana split lengthwise

4 scoops chocolate ice cream per serving

2 scoops vanilla ice cream per serving

Whipped cream

1 chocolate wafer cookie, crushed into crumbs, per serving

1/4 cup toasted peanuts per serving

Place the brown sugar, corn syrup, salt and cream in a medium saucepan and mix with a spoon or whisk over medium heat. Bring to a boil and immediately reduce heat to a simmer. Cook 4 to 5 minutes, or until the mixture starts to thicken. (Don't worry if it's still a bit runny. Once you add the peanut butter, the sauce will stiffen up.)

Remove from the heat. Add the peanut butter and mix well with a wooden spoon. Add vanilla and mix. Pour the sauce into a bowl and set aside. If you're not going to use the sauce immediately, refrigerate it. Before serving, heat it in the microwave for 1 minute to soften.

To assemble the banana split, place one banana half on each side of the dish. Place 2 scoops of chocolate ice cream, 2 scoops of vanilla and 2 more scoops of chocolate in a line down the middle of each dish, between the banana slices. Drizzle the ice cream with the peanut butter sauce. Garnish with the whipped cream, cookie pieces and toasted nuts.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura B. Weiss
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