On Dessert: An Ideal Sundae


The salt in the chocolate bits is the surprise, and it’s also the great reconciler.

Gentl and Hyers for The New York Times. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Glen Proebstel.

Having decided quite suddenly to marry, Michael and I had a wedding so small that when my mother claimed we eloped, I didn’t disagree. There was some family fallout, but the disadvantages were minor when set against the joy of not having to worry about who wasn’t speaking to whom and where they were seated, or the relief of avoiding bridesmaids’ discontent. Best of all, the ceremony was short, which meant that at 10 p.m. I was just where I wanted to be, sitting next to Michael at New York’s long-­cherished and now-gone Rumpelmayer’s ice cream parlor, sharing a hot-fudge sundae generously crowned with whipped cream — a dessert I still consider a celebration and one I wouldn’t swap for a fancy wedding cake.

Before I loved cookies and cakes, and long before I loved anything as sophisticated as tarts or pastries, I loved ice cream. I loved the way it starts off cold and firm and warms, softens and melts on its way to disappearing, its flavor lingering and beckoning the next spoonful. And I loved sundaes immoderately, realizing early on that with so many good parts, sundaes are an invitation to savor slowly and an imperative to play with your food.

Perhaps because they’re a construction, sundaes take ice cream to a realm where chefs can invent new combinations, and those of us devoted to the dessert can ponder how taste, texture and temperature conspire to become an evanescent pleasure. Not that I gave any of this a thought when, as a kid, I made sundaes by pouring Fox’s ­U-Bet chocolate syrup over ice cream, topping it with sweet, sticky walnuts from a jar, whipped cream out of an aerosol can, rainbow sprinkles from a glass bottle and a cherry that might have been colored with Red Dye No. 2.

Even having honed my sundae skills over decades, I never considered them as comprehensively as Nicholas Morgenstern. Morgenstern is a sundae scholar — he has spent years thinking about defining characteristics and putting them into practice at his ice cream parlor, Morgenstern’s Finest Ice Cream, on New York’s Lower East Side — so I called him up. He began to enumerate his triad of sundae ‘‘nonnegotiables’’: ice cream; sauce, which can be fruit, but not raw fruit, unless it’s bananas for a split; and whipped cream, always fresh and softly whipped. And then there’s the trio of textures that can be layered into a sundae: crunchy (pretzels and toasted nuts); chewy (bits of cake, brownies and cookies); and crispy (morsels of meringue). Although we were reviewing what I came to think of as his ‘‘rule of three,’’ I dared to ask about the proverbial cherry on top. Morgenstern was firm: ‘‘Only on splits, and then only an extremely high-­quality cherry.’’

I hung up content to have rules — they can be so reassuring — but understanding they would produce the ideal sundae only if all the elements they governed were in balance. Something I learned from cooking and baking applies equally to sundaes: Too much of one ingredient, too little of another, an overpowering add-in or a flavor out of alignment, and what should be intriguing could become a muddle.

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