How to Build an Ice Cream Sundae Bar for Your Next Summer Party

Whether you’re planning a Fourth of July cookout or planning to celebrate America’s birthday in the comfort of your air-conditioned apartment, it’s your patriotic duty to eat as much ice cream as you can, at least according to me. But instead of simply filling up a bowl or eating straight out of the pint this year (no shame there, by the way), allow me to suggest an ice cream sundae bar. That’s right: your ice cream deserves its own spread, buffet-style.

And if you’re as serious about ice cream as I am, you’re going to need to need a strategy. So, who better to advise you then some of the top ice cream makers in the country? Enter Sam Mason of NYC’s Oddfellows, Jeni Britton Bauer of Ohio’s Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams and Tyler Malek of the West Coast’s Salt & Straw. If anyone knows how to create an epic ice cream sundae bar, it’s these experts, who are behind some of the best-tasting, most whimsical and inventive ice cream in the USA. Happy birthday, America.

Newfangled Toppings

Hold the hot fudge for your next retro-themed party and put the sprinkles away, because we’ve been there, done that. Instead, try some of these toppings on for size. Toasted black sesame crumble, anyone? 

Try this condensed-milk ice cream with black sesame polvoron from chef Chad Valencia at Lasa in LA:

At LASA in Los Angeles, chef Chad Valencia makes his own version of ice cream by folding condensed milk into whipped cream—no churning required. A gently toasted black sesame crumble adds texture and a welcome nuttiness.

Get artisanal 

“Crush store-bought meringues with freeze-dried dried raspberries and roll a scoop of sweet cream or vanilla in it!” recommends Bauer. “You can put the scoop on a cone first or roll a ball, then roll in the mixture and refreeze to serve a couple hours later.”

“I also love a scoop of milk chocolate rolled in a mixture of crushed meringues with a bit of yellow curry powder (trust me),” Bauer says.

Maleck from Salt & Straw suggests a nice extra virgin olive oil, Amarena cherries soaked overnight in bourbon, organic rose petals soaked overnight in a jar of honey, or habanero infused Marionberry jam. Your friends and family won’t even know what hit them.

Or, try home-made toppings like a chili-spiced chocolate sauce, salted caramel, crunchy toffee bits, or you could re-create OddFellows’s cornflake crunch topping, which is just like what it sounds, Mason suggests. 

For a streusel-like topping, try this brown butter crumble.

Of course, fresh and seasonal fruit, like peaches or berries, always make wonderful toppings, too.

Make It Boozy

If you’re throwing an adults-only party, Mason also recommends adding a splash of Kahlua, Campari, or even Prosecco to your ice cream.


On the other hand, “If you want to keep your guests alert,” Mason says, “throw a splash of cold brew on top of your ice cream for a summer-friendly version of an affogato.” He knows what he’s talking about. OddFellows just opened an ice cream and coffee bar that combine two of the world’s best treats/vices, and affogatos are definitely on the menu. 

Think Outside the Cone

If you’re going the traditional root, lay out cups and a mason jar of spoons, or a tray of waffle cones, Mason instructs. But there are countless ways to get your scoop on, so don’t shy away from getting creative, too.

Bauer “likes to make sundaes, pavlovas or a large Eton mess on a very chaotic platter — scoops topped with various textures and flavors brought to the table with big serving spoons and footed glasses to serve family style.” Family style ice cream: sounds about right to me.

Try this brownie-cake sundae with pecan-ice cream balls:

If you’re into ice cream cake, try slicing a pint of ice cream into quarters, and serve the slices between two pieces of cake, Malek says. Drizzle some jam on top and you’ve got a mix and match cake that will wow anyone.

Or, “slice a pint of ice cream into quarters, peel the paper off, and slide a popsicle stick in. Dip in melted chocolate and re-freeze,” Malek says. Just be warned, once you make this next-level ice cream bar, your guests will demand it every party for the rest of time.

Stay Cool

Whether you’re churning homemade ice cream in one of these great ice cream makers, trying your hand at the no-churn stuff (try this vanilla almond ice cream with cherries and pistachios from Food & Wine Culinary Director Justin Chapple) or buying pints from the store, inevitably, your ice cream will melt, because that’s what it does. And if you’re throwing an outdoor party in the heat of the sun, those scoops won’t hold their shape for very long.

But there are a few things you can do to prolong the lifespan of your ice cream bar. For one, Malek suggests using a Zerrol brand ice cream scooper dipped in cold water and lightly dried off before scooping. “That’ll give your scoop that beautiful ‘bark-texture’ and it will still come cleanly off the scoop.”

The ice cream master also suggests tempering your ice cream for the perfect texture. “Put it in the fridge for about 20 minutes prior to serving,” he says. “Or if you’re super anxious (and, I know, this sounds like sacrilege) it’s ok to set your microwave on about 20 percent power and microwave the ice cream for about 1.5 minutes.”

If you’re really fancy (and isn’t that the point, here?), you could put out containers in a bin of dry ice or salted ice. “Dry ice can keep ice cream cool for several hours while regular ice might only last 15-30 minutes,” Mason points out.

If all else fails, eat fast. 

This is #HowISummer. Tag your ice cream sundaes or however else you’re celebrating the season on Instagram.

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