There’s no time like National Ice Cream Day (July 19) to examine the history of the ice cream sundae.
The ice cream sundae is a simple yet iconic construction: one or more scoops of ice cream, topped with one or more syrups (chocolate, caramel, or fruit). These days a whipped cream topping is essential; ditto some kind of textured topping, alone or in combination (candy sprinkles, nuts, and—occasionally—canned or fresh fruit). And a sundae wouldn’t be a sundae without a crowning maraschino cherry.
It seems like a thing that’s always existed, but of course, it had to come from somewhere. It falls fairly early on in the timeline of American ice cream history, though it’s a relative newcomer in terms of frozen desserts through time.
Who Invented the Ice Cream Sundae?
That’s a matter of opinion, fueled by local pride. Some say the first sundae was dished up in Ithaca, New York, in 1892. Two Wisconsin towns—Two Rivers and Manitowoc—have competing claims. Buffalo, New York, has also stepped up. Same with Norfolk Virginia and Plainfield, Illinois. Oh, and don’t forget Evanston, Illinois, Cleveland, New York City, and New Orleans. What seems clear is that the sundae was the creation of late 19th-century America, either as a simple dish of scooped ice cream doused in fruit syrup, or an ice cream soda (ice cream and syrup) without the fizzy water, since in some places (Illinois, for instance) the drinking of soda was illegal on Sundays.
By the early 1900s the sundae was an inevitable weekend treat in soda fountains. Fancy variations sprang up, thanks to inventive fountain owners and enterprising jerks. Wikipedia lists the Robin Hood sundae, Cocoa Caramel sundae, Black Hawk sundae, Angel Cake sundae, Cherry Dip sundae, Cinnamon Peak sundae, Opera sundae, Fleur D’Orange sundae, Knickerbocker sundae, Tally-Ho sundae, Bismarck, and George Washington sundaes, and that’s only a small, random listing.
Classic Sundae Blueprints
Some of those above examples might sound inscrutable since they’ve faded from popular consciousness or may have been one-off creations to begin with (we can only assume the George Washington involved extra cherries…), but other classic sundae formulas are still going strong. Here’s a sampling:
Black and White Sundae
Vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce and chocolate ice cream with marshmallow sauce—the black and white cookie of the sundae world.
A peeled and split banana with three scoops of ice cream, each with a different flavored sauce, crushed pineapple, whipped cream, nuts, and maraschino cherries—so big it required the invention of a new type of sundae glass to hold it all. (Even this timeless classic is open to interpretation, though. We made it a bit healthier—and simpler to put together—in our Frozen Yogurt Banana Split recipe; grill the bananas first for a summer upgrade.)
Related Reading: 12 Ice Cream Hacks to Keep You Cool All Summer
Hot Fudge Sundae
Ice cream, warm chocolate sauce, whipped cream, nuts or sprinkles, and a maraschino cherry. So good it has its own food holiday (which happens to be on July 25).
Vanilla ice cream with chocolate and caramel sauces, whipped cream, and chopped, toasted pecans.
Ice Cream Sundae Recipe Ideas
Any of the above are easy enough to recreate at home, and we wrote a whole guide on setting up the ultimate ice cream sundae bar for a party, but if you need some single-serving inspiration, check out some of our favorite ice cream sundae combos and mix-and-match components below. Don’t neglect savory sundae toppings either—or unique ice cream flavors, for that matter.
Zeroll Ice Cream Scoop, $19.95 from Sur La Table
For the perfect scoop.
Greenco Ice Cream Dessert Bowls and Spoons (Set of 12), $13.89 from Amazon
And for serving your sundae.
The basic elements of a s’more plus strawberry ice cream. It’s an indulgent tower of broken-up graham crackers, scoops of ice cream, hot fudge sauce, marshmallow topping, almonds, fresh strawberries, and a charred marshmallow topknot. Get our Strawberry S’mores Sundae recipe.
A sundae inspired by flavors found in many Tex-Mex desserts. The caramel ice cream is a bit salty, the chocolate sauce is slightly bittersweet, and the Cinnamon-Sugar Chips are a riff on the churros commonly seen in Mexican markets (and Disneyland). But they should also be familiar to anyone who misses Cinnamon Crispas from the Taco Bell menu archives. Get our Caramel Sundae with Cinnamon-Sugar Chips recipe.
This Middle Eastern–inspired ice cream sundae is a cool way to end a meal of grilled kebabs on a hot summer night, but instead of chocolate sauce and caramel, try topping your ice cream with grilled fresh figs. Get our Grilled Fig and Orange Blossom Sundae recipe.
Gooey enough to satisfy kids, architectural enough to appeal to adults, this ice-cream-sundae take on classic campfire s’mores is literally over-the-top. Get our Easy Chocolate S’mores Sundae recipe.
Moving into mix-and-match toppings, this intense chocolate sauce is more bitter than sweet and the perfect pairing for your next ice cream sundae. Get our Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce recipe.
Our Basic Caramel Sauce recipe is a good place to start (and no fancy thermometer required!), but this luxurious recipe is the ultimate ice cream topper, from a San Francisco chef famous for her indulgent French-inspired cooking. (A salted caramel sauce can be nice too, though.) Get Traci Des Jardins’s Caramel Sauce recipe.
A warm, drippy marshmallow sauce may be the underdog topping when compared to chocolate sauce, but it adds a little texture and sweet vanilla pop to an ice cream sundae. Get our Marshmallow Sauce recipe.
For those who like things fruity, a fresh strawberry sauce is just the thing, and takes almost no time at all to make. Get our Chunky Strawberry Sauce recipe.
Feeling nostalgic for Magic Shell? Make it at home! Simply combine chocolate with a little vegetable oil or coconut oil (nearly any type of chocolate—milk, bittersweet, or semisweet, but not unsweetened—will work). It’s a fun and easy way to fancy up your next ice cream sundae. Get our Chocolate Shell Ice Cream Topping recipe.
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