All photos by Liz Barclay (@liz_barclay)
Nicholas Morgenstern knows a thing or two about the ice cream sundae—or what we like to think of as the dessert version of the American dream.
At Morgenstern‘s Finest Ice Cream, his Lower East Side ice-cream parlor, the pastry savant makes small-batch, egg-less ice cream in offbeat flavors like raw milk, bourbon vanilla, salt-and-pepper pine nut, and salted caramel. The sundaes are equally surprising, deploying these flavors in creations like the “Salted Caramel Pretzel” (salted caramel ice cream with caramel cakes, pretzel crunch, caramel sauce, and whipped cream), and the “Mulie Fajitas Picosos Classic” (bourbon vanilla ice cream with fudge, Piscosos peanuts, and Junior Mints).
To fully understand the sundae, we must look to France, the international pace car for pastry excellence. “The original sundae was invented by the French, and it’s called the vacherin,” explains Morgenstern. “Vacherin has to have four things: sorbet, ice cream, crunchy meringue, and whipped cream. This defines what is essential to a sundae.”
He explains that a sundae should be balanced—both in terms of flavor and texture—and it should include something cake-y and something crunchy, along with the requisite ice cream, whipped cream, and sauce. But that’s just the beginning of the ice-cream guru’s sundae commandments.
Here, Morgenstern shares his secrets to sundae enlightenment. Draw from these Holy Standards, then go forth and forge your own ice cream sundae-making traditions.
1. Start with quality ice cream.
“Häagen-Dazs is the move. In terms of readily-available ice cream products, it’s one of the most consistent out there; it uses real ingredients and no preservatives. I appreciate Häagen–Dazs’ flavor profiles—they’re classic and straight-forward. Base your sundae around real vanilla ice cream, or a base neutral flavor that doesn’t have stuff like Nerds and brownies mixed in. Also, make sure you’re using ‘premium’ ice cream, which means the ice cream has a certain amount of butter fat in it. If you want to make your own ice cream, this recipe from Melissa Clark is great.”
2. Practice restraint with toppings.
“Use your best judgement when it comes to adding toppings, which means have restraint. Don’t go Ben & Jerry’s on everything.”
3. Add a salty element.
“Whether you’re using salted ice cream or adding on salted nuts or pretzels, it’s important to have a salty element. But anything that is too salty is no good—I like salt, but there’s also a balance that you need to strike.”
4. Use a bowl.
“One way to make a sundae is layering it in a glass, vertically. I prefer making sundaes in bowls because people can eat it more easily. Trust me, I have years of experience watching people eat sundaes, and bowls work better.”
5. Crunchies are key
“It’s important to play with texture and add some crunch. Small pretzels have the perfect density and crunch factor. Toasted sliced almond are really nice, as are caramelized pine nuts—they have a popcorn quality and are the right kind of crunchy.”
6. Cake on the bottom.
“The composition is tricky. Your cake-y type of items—whether it’s a brownie, or cut-up pound cake, or caramel cake—should be found lower down in the sundae dish. Also, you have to think about portioning the cake into bite-size pieces: a 1″ x 1″ square is perfect.”
7. Concentrate on layering.
“It’s good to put sauce in the bowl first, along with the cake. And always do whipped cream before sauce, because it marries better.”
From top to bottom, your sundae should be built like this:
- whipped cream
- ice cream
- whipped cream
- ice cream
8. Use sprinkles; call them “shots.”
“At Morgenstern‘s, we call sprinkles ‘shots,’ which is a Massachusetts expression. I like to defer to it because they have a crazy ice cream culture in Boston. Also, two of my staff are from Boston and I like the way it sounds. We all say it with a Boston accent.”
9. Think about portion size.
“I am not very good at dictating how much ice cream a person should consume. That being said, a third of a pint [about 5oz] per person usually makes sense.”
10. Make a mess and enjoy.
“A good sundae should make a mess when you eat it. It should be spilling out of the dish.”