Ice cream topped with only sauce and whipped cream isn’t much to scream about, which is why ice cream sundaes have long been bypassed in favor of other pastry showstoppers.
Chefs thinking a little deeper, though, know that a few texture tweaks and contrasting flavors can make an ice cream sundae worthy of commanding attention and boosting more of the bottom line.
“One of the reasons people order sundaes is because they want more than plain ice cream,” says Beth Kellerhals, chef at Playa Provisions,, which includes the dessert concept Small Batch, in Playa Del Ray, California. “They want something special and it’s our job to take it to the next level.”
Concept Your Sundae Ideas
Ice cream sundaes can work on virtually any menu, whether they play off nostalgia or experiment with flavor trends to fit the concept.
“People feel comfortable and happy going back to childhood memories via food,” says Pastry Chef Robert Differ of Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental, Boston. “All our sundaes are based on flavors everyone knows and loves. We take those flavors and elevate them with a few surprises.”
His mint chocolate sundae is a throwback to the beloved Girl Scout Thin Mints® cookies, highlighting mint chocolate cookie ice cream, semi-sweet chocolate sauce, chocolate wafers and whipped cream. Differ also taps into nostalgia with a strawberry shortcake-inspired sundae that includes warm marshmallow, strawberry ice cream, strawberry sauce and sable cookies.
Pastry Chef Megan Garrelts of Rye in Leawood, Kansas, also draws inspiration from traditional desserts.
Her "anything goes" policy drives her reinterpretation of baking classics. Garrelts’ take on German chocolate cake features coconut ice cream, a dulce de leche sauce smeared into the glass, toasted coconut, chocolate soda and chocolate cake diced on top with whipped cream. “If you are working with a familiar sundae recipe, you can rearrange the components and the customer will still enjoy it, because it’s something that they know and understand,” she says.
Find Your Base
The same unbending principles for cooking apply: a strong base and quality ingredients. To that end, Differ, Kellerhals and Garrelts all make their own ice cream, so that they can control the quality and balance flavors through texture.
For example, the cream cheese recipe base for Kellerhals’ cheesecake ice cream is creamier and thicker, much like a custard. “Pairing it with a caramel sauce would be counterintuitive,” she says. “ It would be too creamy, ‘too one-note.’ ” Instead, she pairs the dish with a blueberry compote, which complements the creaminess of the ice cream, and finishes it with a bright note of lime zest and whipped cream.
Build Layered Desserts
Much like iced cocktails, the melting speed of an ice cream sundae changes its viscosity. Layered dessert toppings are essential to maintaining complexity and balance of textures.
Kellerhals credits the Dairy Queen hot fudge sundae for helping her understand the importance of layering. “That sundae, in my mind, was the first step to realizing that layers are very special and important,” she says. “It wasn’t just a hot fudge sundae. It was tasting how the salty peanuts highlighted the hot fudge.”
Chrysta Poulos, corporate pastry chef for Ford Fry restaurants in Atlanta, layers flavors so that the diner can evenly experience the components together. The special ice cream sundae she served at the steakhouse Marcel, for example, featured a heated, crumbled brownie covering the entire surface of an oblong serving dish, topped with two scoops of vanilla bean ice cream, drizzled salted caramel, hot fudge and roasted salted peanuts. Piped Chantilly cream finished the dessert.
“Layered desserts should account for a proper amount of each ingredient,” says Differ. For his hazelnut Rocher sundae, adding Nutella into the glass like a hot fudge was too overpowering for the hazelnut gelato, which was the component he wanted to highlight. Smearing the Nutella® onto the glass in a swirl motion added just enough effect, along with the addition of praline feuilletine, which introduces a delicate crispy texture and maintains its body even as the ice cream melts. The sundae is also topped with tiny chocolate covered crunchies he calls carmelia, and a housemade hazelnut Rocher.
Temperature is also an important consideration when layering a sundae. “Ice cream is cold, and I am always thinking about how we complement that with texture and a warm component,” says Garrelts. Rye’s carrot cake sundae illustrates her method by starting with scoops of ice cream at the base of the glass and alternating layers of walnuts, raisins, pineapple and caramel sauce. She pours orange soda over the sundae and tops it with whipped cream and chunks of carrot cake.
Diners aren’t saving ice cream for after dinner anymore. Of all restaurants serving ice cream sundaes, 45% offer the dessert all day, compared to 15% exclusively sold at dinner, according to the research firm Datassential.
Bar Boulud enjoyed success last summer for its ice cream sundae promotion, accounting for 16% of overall dessert sales – including a significant portion ordered during lunch, which is typical.
“It was a big success monetarily and in creating buzz,” he says. “People were splitting them and there were many who came in just for the sundaes.”
Sales at Rye echoed those results. “Seasonal sundaes are very easy for us to create and present an interesting option for diners, specifically those who are looking to share,” says Garrelts.
Along with an increased interest from diners, pastry chefs can benefit by getting scrappy with customization. At Small Batch, Kellerhals keeps food costs in check by stretching ingredients, such as the blueberry compote used in the coffee cake during Playa Provisions’ breakfast and brunch programs, for her sundaes. Variety in the dessert pantry also allows for flexibility by accommodating diners with dietary restrictions, swapping sorbet for ice cream to create a dairy-free option.
“Being able to offer something that is unique and really well done is what makes people come back,” Kellerhals says. “We are fortunate that we can just make a big batch of things and spread the love across the menus.”