ice cream—noun. A frozen food containing cream or milk and butterfat, sugar, flavoring, and sometimes eggs.

ice cream—SO much more than a noun. Cold comfort when you’re down; a smile-generator. Summer in a cone.

Our local ice cream stand opened on Mother’s Day, and it’s been SRO ever since, particularly after supper. The sun sets late now, golden light slanting across the parking lot of the Dairy Twirl and sparkling off the river below. A pack of little kids in T-ball shirts—bright red, blue, green—does chin-ups at the order window, wild with excitement.

Teenagers lean on pickup trucks; the boys eye the girls, the girls studiously turn their backs on the boys (but still manage to sneak peeks over their shoulders). The older folks simply sit in their cars in companionable silence, licking ice cream cones in the calm that comes with 30 years of marriage.

In high school, ice cream was an everyday treat for me. A gang of us girls would pile into the car after hockey practice, and drive across town to Friendly’s, where we’d squeeze into a booth, giddy with end-of-the-day laughter. From 50¢ cones (chocolate marshmallow with jimmies, please) to the $1.25 Banana Royale sundae, I’d willingly fork over my babysitting money for ice cream. Before dinner. And then devour everything my mom heaped on my plate, plus dessert. Ah, to have that metabolism again…

These days, ice cream is more of an occasional treat. And I usually limit myself to the baby-size low-fat, low-sugar soft-serve cone—no jimmies, alas. But every now and then, I break down and order a (small) sundae. The choices are excruciating: chocolate ice cream with fudge sauce and toasted nuts? Or butter pecan with caramel sauce? How about strawberry with marshmallow and pineapple? All with whipped cream and a cherry on top, of course. And oh my, do I enjoy EVERY bite.

One thing I must confess: I’m a sauce snob. The hot fudge has to be bittersweet; the caramel, buttery and smooth. Lately, I’ve taken to making my own sauces. They keep quite awhile in the fridge, and I’m able to make myself the teeniest, tiniest sundae you’ve ever seen: ¼ cup Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia in a miniature dish, fudge and caramel on top, a squirt of whipped cream, a teaspoonful of nuts and yes, a maraschino cherry.

Making hot fudge and caramel sauce isn’t difficult. Just be sure you start with top-quality ingredients: choosing the best chocolate, cocoa, butter, and vanilla makes all the difference. You can easily purchase bottled sauces filled with artificial ingredients; you’ll find them on any supermarket shelf. But if an ice cream sundae is a very special summer indulgence, why not treat yourself to the very best toppings possible—your own?

Let’s make hot fudge sauce first:

Butter and unsweetened (baking) chocolate go into a saucepan. No microwave this time; this sauce is going to cook on the stove.

Heat gently, stirring occasionally.

When everything is smooth, remove the pan from the heat...

...and stir in the half and half.

It makes a curdled-looking mess. That's OK—don't panic!

Add the sugar, cocoa, espresso powder, and a dash of salt.

Stir until well combined.

Return to the heat, and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. The chocolate will creep up the sides of the pan, which is why it's important to use a large enough pan. As soon as the mixture comes to a full boil—it rises in the pan, and the entire surface is bubbly—remove it from the heat.

Stir in the vanilla, and pour into a storage container. I've poured it into a heatproof glass measuring cup, because I needed to see how much it made. But a mason jar is where it ultimately ended up.

Next, caramel sauce. This one has fewer ingredients—basically, sugar, butter, and cream. It's a bit more tricky than the preceding fudge sauce, but trust me, you can do this. One warning: you're going to be working with boiling sugar syrup. DO NOT do this when the kids, dog, cat, or other innocents are around. No sense taking chances.

Combine the sugar with 2 tablespoons of water in a heavy-bottom 2- to 3-quart saucepan. Like the preceding fudge sauce, this will bubble up, so be sure to choose a large enough pan. Bring it to a boil over medium-high heat.

Once the mixture comes to a boil, swirl it vigorously in the pan. You want to avoid stirring it too much; just shake the pan back and forth to get the more quickly browning edges in towards the center.

You'll notice that as the mixture boils, it begins to darken in color.

It'll become a rich amber color. (I removed it from the heat briefly here, as I needed it to stop bubbling so I could take a picture of its color for you.)

Still over the heat, stir in the melted butter. The mixture will bubble more vigorously and foam up a bit.

Remove from the heat, and add the heated cream.

Stir till smooth.

And pour into a heatproof container. Again, a mason jar is a good choice.

These are mini-sundaes—it's just the angle of the picture that makes them look big, honest!

Read our recipe for Sundae Sauces.

Buy vs. Bake
Sometimes it IS more expensive to make your own. But check out the difference in the ingredients—

Buy: Supermarket bottled fudge sauce, 16¢/ounce
Ingredients: Nonfat Milk, Corn Syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Sugar, Soybean Oil, Cocoa. Contains 2% or Less of: Fully Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil, Corn Starch-Modified, Monoglycerides, Sodium Phosphate, Sodium Citrate, Salt, Vanillin (Artificial Flavor), TBHQ (Antioxidant).

Make at home: Hot fudge sauce, 25¢/ounce
Ingredients: butter, chocolate, cocoa, sugar, salt, cream, espresso powder, vanilla.

Buy: Supermarket bottled caramel sauce, 19¢/ounce
Ingredients: Corn Syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Nonfat Milk, Corn Starch-Modified, Natural Flavors (With Milk, Soybean, and Wheat), Salt, Sodium Alginate, Caramel Color, Disodium Phosphate, Sodium Citrate, Vanillin (an Artificial Flavor), Yellow 6, Red 40.

Make at home: Caramel sauce, 21¢/ounce
Ingredients: butter, sugar, salt, cream, vanilla.

PJ Hamel
The Author

About PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!