I grew up eating ice cream sundaes at Will Wright's and C.C. Brown's, two of Los Angeles' famous ice cream parlors that no longer exist. At home I'd try to make my own sundaes using bottled sauces and supermarket ice cream. But they were never the same.
Even so, I came to develop strong ideas about ice cream sundaes at a fairly young age. I knew pretty quickly to avoid marshmallow sauce; it was always too sweet, and I never liked the consistency of it. And I knew why bottled hot fudge sauces were inferior to the ones at Will Wright's and C.C. Brown's: They were brown and not black; too creamy and not sticky. Proper hot fudge should be thick, and it should be bitter.
My favorite sundaes were ones with the right balance between sweet and bitter (the sweetness of vanilla ice cream against the bitterness of good hot fudge) or even sweet and salt (the salty peanuts in tin-roof sundaes against the ice cream, sauce and whipped cream). I loved the sensation of taking a bite of cold ice cream and hot fudge, and the way the warm sauce would start to melt the ice cream. I loved the crunch of the nuts--whole almonds with the skins left on are best--that contradicted everything else in the dish.
As I later learned when I started to make desserts for a living, it's the contrast of hot and cold that keeps a dessert interesting. And in every dessert I make, I look for what I think of as "the crunch," the last detail that makes or breaks a dish.
Much of my time in my early career was spent making tarts and tortes and other French pastries. Ice cream was meant to be served on the side or alone. But I gradually worked many of my childhood obsessions into my professional cooking, from chocolate chip cookies to Blum's coffee crunch cake and, yes, ice cream sundaes.
The problem with many hot fudge recipes, I discovered, is that they have too much cream. And most of them don't have enough chocolate or cocoa powder. I like my hot fudge to taste of chocolate, not corn syrup. I also don't use butter; to me butter is for chocolate sauce, not for real hot fudge.
I even found a recipe for marshmallow sauce that I liked. I based it on an Italian meringue. Without the artificial sweeteners and stabilizers that have to go into bottled versions, marshmallow sauce became something I actually liked.
For the sundaes we serve at the restaurant, we layer the ice cream and sauce in a glass and top them with whipped cream and whole unblanched almonds, which I think of one of the most important parts of the sundae. I like the look of the skins and the way they protect the almonds from getting soggy. I lose that cherry part of the sundae, by the way; it's one detail I can live without.
Recently, I've been obsessed with the combination of salty peanuts and caramel. L'Orangerie makes a salty caramel ice cream that sounds delicious to me. But instead of re-creating his idea, I wanted to do something a little different. I made a caramel ice cream with a salty peanut swirl that was fantastic. It's a difficult ice cream to make, however. The swirl solidifies almost immediately, which makes the ice cream hard to scoop.
Then I started thinking about restructuring the ice cream as a sundae--caramel ice cream with a salty caramel peanut sauce instead of the swirl. I changed the caramel ice cream from my standard one by adding a little creme frai^che to smooth the burnt sugar edge from the caramel--a better contrast for the stronger sauce to come. The sauce has a toastiness from the peanuts, which is amplified by vanilla bean, and just enough salt to stand up to the sugar.
It's everything a good sundae should be--salty and sweet, warm and cold, crunchy and smooth. Whipped cream is optional, and as for that cherry, forget about it.
Nancy Silverton is co-owner of Campanile restaurant in Los Angeles and co-founder of La Brea Bakery. She is co-author of "The Food of Campanile," "Nancy Silverton's Breads From the La Brea Bakery," "Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton at Home" and "Desserts."
SALTY PEANUT CARAMEL SAUCE
2 3/4 cups unsalted, unroasted, peeled peanuts, preferably Virginia (1 pound)
2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon salt
1 large plump or 2 thin vanilla beans, split lengthwise
1 3/4 cups heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1/2 cup corn syrup
1 1/2 cups sugar
Toss together peanuts, peanut oil and salt in small bowl. Sprinkle peanuts only (not excess salt from bowl) onto baking sheet. Toast at 325 degrees until lightly colored, about 10 minutes. Set aside.
Scrape vanilla bean seeds into small saucepan, then add pods. Add cream and butter and heat over medium heat until butter melts. Remove from heat and set aside.
Heat corn syrup in 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat until it begins to bubble. Begin stirring syrup slowly and continuously and sprinkle in sugar in about 4 batches, waiting until each batch of sugar is incorporated into syrup before adding more. (Don't stir too fast or sugar won't color.) Continue cooking and stirring slowly until mixture is thin, bubbly and straw-colored. (Don't let sauce get brown at this point).
Remove syrup from heat and slowly add half of cream-butter mixture. Caramel will boil up; stir to incorporate ingredients. Repeat with remaining cream-butter mixture.
Return caramel to medium-high heat and boil until sauce has thickened and darkened slightly, about 2 minutes. Add peanuts but not any clumps of salt that may have fallen onto baking sheet. Stir peanuts into caramel. Boil slightly longer if color is not dark enough; sauce should be pale brown, not medium or dark brown. Remove vanilla bean pods before serving. Serve over Caramel Ice Cream or vanilla ice cream.
Makes 3 cups. Each 2-tablespoon serving:
278 calories; 745 mg sodium; 34 mg cholesterol; 21 grams fat; 21 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.92 gram fiber.
CARAMEL ICE CREAM
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
2 1/4 cups sugar
4 cups milk
3 cups heavy whipping cream
20 egg yolks
1 cup creme fraiche
Scrape vanilla bean seeds into large pot and add pods. Add sugar and melt, stirring gently and constantly, over medium-high heat until sugar liquefies and turns dark caramel color.
Slowly add milk and whipping cream and bring to boil, stirring constantly, over medium-high heat. Remove from heat and let stand 30 minutes.
Return caramel mixture to boil over medium-high heat. Slowly pour over egg yolks in large bowl, whisking constantly. Whisk in creme fraiche. Strain through fine mesh strainer into separate bowl. Whisk to release heat until cool. Chill.
Freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions. Scoop into bowls and top with Salty Peanut Caramel Sauce.
Makes 1/2 gallon. Each 1/2-cup serving:
422 calories; 63 mg sodium; 427 mg cholesterol; 30 grams fat; 33 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0 fiber.