There's no doubt about the retro appeal of maraschino cherries, whipped cream cans and chocolate syrup in a squeeze bottle. But it's funny to think they coexist in the same dessert galaxy with basil sorbets and pink peppercorn-tinged ice cream.
Anything as gourmet as ice cream from today's artisanal parlors and creameries deserves something similarly handcrafted on top.
So we turned to a trio of ice cream experts to help us reinvent ye olde ice cream social, sans squeeze bottles and quasi-fruity syrups. The results will take you six ways to sundae, with fresh lemon-blueberry syrup, vanilla butterscotch, extra bittersweet fudge and even bacon peanut brittle.
And if there's a cherry on top, it better be a Bing.
Whimsy runs rampant at San Francisco's Humphry Slocombe, Jake Godby and Sean Vahey's trendsetting ice cream shop.
It's known for eclectic flavors, including Elvis the Fat Years (banana, peanuts and bacon) and Secret Breakfast (bourbon-cornflake), as well as a Hot Mess sundae, which tops vanilla ice cream with banana slices and homemade butterscotch and marshmallow sauces.
"We do things somewhat backward," Godby says. "With the Hot Mess, we came up with the name first, and then figured out what it would be."
"I always try to have a good balance of acid and salt, so you're not overwhelmed. If it was just a big gooey mess, I wouldn't be interested after the first three bites."
That's why most artisanal ice cream toppings include bitter, sour or salty notes. It's all about layering flavors and textures, Godby says, but a dash of serendipity helps.
Take the day Humphry Slocombe's signature bacon-peanut brittle candy was left on the stove a tad too long. Loathe to just throw away a batch of brittle, Godby and Vahey mixed it into a batch of fresh banana ice cream - and Elvis the Fat Years was born.
You can stir the chopped brittle into the ice cream and serve it by the scoop. It also lends itself to sundae-fication when the ice cream is served with sliced bananas and topped with shards of brittle.
Caramel and butterscotch are favorites of Kris Hoogerhyde. So it's no wonder the lines that wrap around Bi-Rite Creamery, her San Francisco ice cream shop, are there for the signature salted caramel ice cream.
Salt is what makes flavors pop, whether it's on a scoop of that ice cream or sprinkled on a chocolate sundae drizzled with organic bergamot olive oil.
Unusual? Yes, but powerfully addictive, she says. "The olive oil gives a nice silkiness to it, the bergamot pairs so nicely with chocolate, and the salt makes your taste buds want more. People say, 'Ooh, salt on ice cream?' It's that sweet and salty combination. People forget that."
Hoogerhyde's favorite caramel is cooked to a deep mahogany hue, but she also loves a lighter, butterscotch version. Add a little scotch or bourbon, and you'll have Bi-Rite's "boozerscotch."
"The butterscotch is a caramel we don't take as far, so you're not getting that bitterness," she says. "We add butter to it, so it's really lush, and when you warm it and put it over ice cream, it cools down and becomes chewy. It's the same with our hot fudge sauce. As it sits against the cold ice cream, it get that candylike consistency, which I think is yummy."
Even the most strait-laced grown-ups get excited when everything is homemade, she says. Toss fresh berries with a little sugar and let them macerate until they release their own syrup, she suggests, or cook up a lemon-blueberry sauce to top a creme fraicheice cream sundae.
"I'm a purist," she says. "A really good vanilla with fresh strawberries makes me super happy."
It's a view shared by Jeni Britton Bauer, an Ohio-based artisanal ice cream maker whose book, "Jeni's Ice Creams at Home" just won a James Beard award. Her wildly popular Farmers Market Sundaes use lemon frozen yogurt and fresh berries, macerated with Champagne, port or Grand Marnier. Her Ohito Sundae, a play on the classic rum cocktail, draws its flavors from fresh mint leaf-infused ice cream, a white-rum praline sauce and a wedge of lime, so guests can squeeze the tart citrus over the entire affair, including the sprinkling of turbinado sugar crystals.
"I like things to be a contrast," she says. "Something crunchy, sweet, sour, bitter, salty, a little bit of everything. What's great about the artisanal ice cream world is you can start with something more unusual, or something really well made, but very simple."
As for that cherry on top, Bauer uses fresh Bings or brandied cherries, such as Amarena cherries imported from Italy.
"I don't know how much more natural they are than maraschino, but they are so good and so beautiful," she says. "Probably maraschino cherries were supposed to be like that, but someone messed up."
Tin Roof: Vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, frosted peanuts and Maldon salt
Hot Mess: Vanilla ice cream, butterscotch sauce, marshmallow cream and sliced bananas
Farmers Market Sundae: Lemon frozen yogurt, macerated berries, whipped cream and fresh herbs
Ohito Sundae: Mint ice cream, white-rum praline sauce, lime wedges, whipped cream and turbinado sugar garnish
Sam's Sundae: Chocolate ice cream with Maldon salt, bergamot olive oil and whipped cream
The Sundae Blues: Lemon-blueberry sauce over creme fraiche ice cream