It’s a given that the colder weather of winter calls for warming food and drinks, but who says ice cream has to be off the menu? It’s far too delicious to shun until summer, and it can be imbued with wonderful seasonal flavors from frosty peppermint to spicy ginger—even pine is fair game. Plus, it’s a perfect partner to holiday cakes and pies, not to mention the endless tins of cookies being baked in December.
Ice cream sandwiches are an especially fantastic way to combine complementary winter flavors—and are basically two desserts in one, which is always nice. They have that all-important holiday benefit of being make-ahead; assemble and stash in the freezer, and simply take them out to come to room temperature before you serve (unless you can’t bear to sacrifice slightly gooey, warm cookies, in which case they’re a little more work last-minute). Either way, kids and adults alike will be delighted. Here are some pointers for making them from scratch:
The Ice Cream
Whether you buy it from the store or make your own, there’s a world of inventive ice cream (and gelato, and sorbet, and frozen yogurt) flavors out there, and if you do make your own, there are multiple techniques to work with.
An ice cream maker can seem like an equally worthwhile and dangerous investment. If you have one, crafting your own frozen goodies is easy, at least once you master making custard. The most important part of that process is tempering your egg-sugar mixture with the hot cream so the eggs don’t curdle, because while bacon ice cream may be a thing, scrambled egg ice cream…not so much. You can also find recipes for custard-free ice cream using a machine, like this one, but generally, custard-based concoctions are richer, if that’s what you’re after. If not, experiment with other ice cream bases, like ricotta cheese (which makes a fabulous cannoli-inspired ice cream with dark chocolate, pistachios, and candied orange peel, for instance). And if you’re dairy-free, check out these recipes for starters. In any case, your ice cream will basically take care of itself once it’s in a machine.
If you don’t have an ice cream maker, you can still create your own frosty desserts, in one of several ways:
1. If you’re looking to get a little workout while you make your ice cream (and willing to make a bit of a mess), you can follow the bag method, where you put the ice cream base in a small, well-sealed Ziploc bag, put that inside of a larger Ziploc bag filled with rock or kosher salt and ice, then shake or squeeze vigorously for 5 to 10 minutes. Obviously, this makes a fairly small amount of ice cream, but that might be just what you need! And if you need it immediately, you can eat it straight from the bag. Sad, or brilliant?
2. Speaking of brilliant, food scientist Harold McGee has an alternative bag method that’s less physically demanding but requires more advance planning, outlined here (bonus: the recipe includes instructions for making a flawless and worry-free custard if you have a sous vide setup, or are interested in trying a DIY version).
3. Another easy method that requires a little babysitting but no special equipment or forethought has you freeze the ice cream in a shallow baking dish, stirring it every 30 minutes for 3 to 4 hours until it reaches the right consistency.
4. You can opt for a frozen treat that’s similar to ice cream but made from whipped cream and condensed milk, which you can freeze without having to stir at all (after the initial mixing). This method is also readily adapted to vegan ingredients. The texture is a little lighter and fluffier, more airy frozen mousse than traditional ice cream, but it’s definitely worth a try.
5. And for something a bit more middle ground, you can lighten up store-bought ice cream with whipped cream (and booze, if you like), as in these particularly festive gingerbread men eggnog ice cream sandwiches:
Soften ’em Up
No matter how you make it (or buy it), you’ll want to let your ice cream or other frozen substance soften a little before putting it in the sandwiches—and again before serving them if you’re not assembling them right before eating, because they should be easy to bite through, not make you feel like the star in The Nutcracker Suite. Conversely, if the ice cream gets too runny and melty before you’re done assembling all the sandwiches, pop everything back in the freezer for a few minutes. Better to wait a bit than have all your ice cream ooze out on the first chomp. And instead of trying to smush down a big scoop of ice cream that would be perfect in a sundae, it may be easier to use a smaller kitchen spoon to carve out flatter pieces that will sit better between two flat-bottomed cookies.
The cookie part of the ice cream sandwich equation is a bit more obvious, and you no doubt have your favorite recipes close at hand, but here are some general tips to optimize your experience:
- Use a melon baller or cookie scoop if you desire perfectly portioned and perfectly round cookies, which are useful for making evenly sized sandwiches. If you want ’em as large and jolly as Santa himself, use your ice cream scoop to measure out the dough. (Or, for slice and bake cookies, roll the dough log shorter and fatter for bigger end results.)
- Chill your dough before baking so your cookies don’t spread out too much. It’s worth the wait.
- If you’ll be pre-assembling your ice cream sandwiches, you can err on the side of underbaking your cookies so they retain a little more goo and chew even once they exit the freezer. However, don’t shy away from intentionally crispy cookies if that’s what you like; they work just as well.
- Any cookie mix-ins (chocolate chips, dried fruit, nuts) will get harder in the freezer, so if you’re assembling your sandwiches ahead of time, you might want to grate or extra-finely chop these ingredients before adding them to your cookie dough; any ice cream mix-ins should generally be similarly sized, because nobody wants dental work for Christmas.
You also don’t have to limit yourself to cookies! Thick slices of sweet bread or pound cake, babka, even mini pancakes, can all make great ice cream sandwich bookends. Rice Krispie Treats, waffles, stroopwafels, donuts, French toast…truly, if you can dream it, you can do it, at least when it comes to dessert.
If you’re not assembling your sandwiches ahead of time, you can use the cookies for cradling your softened ice cream either at room temperature or gently warmed, though obviously not so hot they’ll completely melt the filling before you can finish them. If you pre-assemble your ice cream sandwiches, be sure to take them out of the freezer between 10 and 20 minutes before you’re ready to eat them so they’re not rock-hard. The flavors will be better after a little warming up too.
With those basics in mind, think about your favorite winter flavors and let your imagination run wild. Or check out these specific recipe pairings to inspire your own holiday-appropriate combinations that’ll make you feel all aglow.
Because sugar cookies are so neutral, they’re perfect for sandwiching all sorts of ice cream flavors, from caramel, cardamom, and brown butter pecan, to Mexican chocolate, spiced orange, and cinnamon, just to name a few. You could go with decorated sugar cookies for extra festiveness, but these crackly-soft rounds are perhaps better suited to sandwiches, and this vibrant no-churn cranberry ice cream would add lovely visual and flavor contrast to the simple, sweet cookies. Get our Crackly Sugar Cookies recipe. Get the ice cream recipe.
Chocolate chip cookies are a holiday classic and year-round favorite, not to mention a quintessential ice cream sandwich choice. Why not pair them with a more unexpected flavor that’s not only delicious but has a cheeky Christmas carol association? If you actually want to roast your own chestnuts, try this ice cream (no open fire required), but the recipe featured simply calls for a can of sweetened vanilla chestnut cream, or crème de marrons. You could also fold some diced roasted chestnuts into the ice cream as it begins to freeze for extra dimension. Get the cookie recipe. Get the ice cream recipe.
Whether you like to leave the raisins out of your oatmeal cookies or not, their chewy texture and buttery brown sugar sweetness with a hint of cinnamon would pair exceptionally well with the rich sugary spice of cookie butter transformed into a smooth ice cream. Get the cookie recipe. Get the ice cream recipe.
Two holiday classics combined! If you’re frightened of fruitcake, consider using orange-cranberry shortbread instead, but these cookies are much lighter than the much-maligned loaf. It’s up to you whether or not to use bourbon, rum, or brandy in the eggnog ice cream, but don’t add more than a splash or it won’t freeze properly. If that’s not enough of a nip, you could always soak the dried fruit in the cookies in booze too (but give it time to drain and dry before mixing it into the dough). Get the cookie recipe. Get the ice cream recipe.
If you’re a fan of the tingly tango of mint and chocolate, this is a perfect pairing. The intense chocolate cookies are more tender and crumbly than chewy, and the peppermint ice cream is a pale, pretty pink from the crushed candy canes. If you really like to be walloped with mint flavor, you could always add a little peppermint extract as well. Get the cookie recipe. Get the ice cream recipe.
If gingerbread men are a bit too pedestrian, try these spicy, chewy, chocolate-studded cookies with deep molasses notes. They’d be fantastic sandwiching salted caramel ice cream, or you could double down and do a dark chocolate gingerbread ice cream filling, but a slightly more unusual choice would be maple-bourbon. The recipe instructions have you serve the maple-bourbon ice cream with roasted pears and a gingersnap crumble, but why not chop up the roasted fruit and fold it into the ice cream itself, then stick it between gingery cookies instead of using them as a garnish? Get the cookie recipe. Get the ice cream recipe.
‘Tis the season for decadent mugs of hot chocolate, so why not get your fix in cookie form too? These contain a little bit of straight-up cocoa mix for authentic flavor, but you can find other recipes that eschew it if you prefer. Either way, it’s only natural to broil a marshmallow on top, and to sandwich a couple together with rich, creamy marshmallow ice cream that happens to be as white and fluffy as snow. Get the cookie recipe. Get the ice cream recipe.
Christmas coconut cakes are perennially popular, and chewy coconut macaroons often show up on cookie swap plates. Try sandwiching two together with a spiced pineapple ice cream (which has a hint of tequila too) for a tropical flavor that also features familiar winter hints of cinnamon and cloves. Get the cookie recipe. Get the ice cream recipe.
Soft, homey snickerdoodles’ cinnamon and sugar flavors are a great match with another classic: rich chocolate ice cream. Pure comfort, and simply scrumptious. Get the cookie recipe. Get our Rich Chocolate Ice Cream recipe.
You know those boxes of cherry cordials people gift around the holidays? This pairing evokes those fruit-filled chocolates, but is far more appealing (no judgment if you actually like those things, of course). The chocolate cookies are chewy with a lush, creamy center, and the ice cream contains gorgeous roasted cherries steeped in bourbon, plus more dark chocolate bits that melt in your mouth. You could also try swapping out the bourbon for Amaretto. Get the cookie recipe. Get the ice cream recipe.
Red velvet cake is a festively colored favorite that’s just as good in cookie form. Pairing it with a sweet yet puckery lemon curd and goat cheese ice cream echoes the classic tangy cream cheese frosting, but in a nicely unexpected way. And if you’re still missing summer, this one might take you back there for a moment. Get our Red Velvet Crackle Cookies recipe. Get the ice cream recipe.
Header image courtesy of A Beautiful Plate.