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Certain dessert traditions come to mind during Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and the holiday season in general. There are pumpkin and sweet potato pies, rugelach and babka, bûche de Noël and figgy pudding, and cookies left for Santa.
Bakers may swoon at the thought of being able to crank out elaborate sweets and candies over the holidays, but I’m here to maintain there’s one dessert perfect for this time of year. And it’s ice cream.
Before you start throwing marshmallows and sticks of butter in protest, hear me out. Ice cream might sound like a hot-weather-only dessert, but I believe it’s the ideal holiday treat for everyone — young and old, dairy-loving and dairy-free.
And I’m not advocating that ice cream replace all other desserts on the menu. If you live for baking your favorite gingerbread cake or apple pie during the holidays, keep doing it! I don’t want to stop anyone from enjoying what they love.
But here’s why I’m making the case for ice cream as a holiday dessert.
Make it from scratch — or don’t
As a professional cook who’s fielded frantic calls and texts over holiday seasons from friends who are less confident about cooking, I know firsthand how intimidating it can be to attempt homemade pies and other baked desserts.
Many people assume there’s an expectation to make their holiday goodies from scratch. And if that doesn’t happen, they feel as if they’ve somehow failed to live up to the holiday spirit.
With ice cream, that issue simply doesn’t exist. Sure, some find it fun to whip up a homemade batch. But I’m pretty sure no one expects a pint of fresh peppermint stick ice cream to be waiting for them at the holiday table (unless that’s your personal tradition, and if it is, can I be invited?).
So buy the ice cream, especially if you’ve got dairy-allergic family members, and don’t think twice. That tub of creamy wonder is your invitation to create holiday dessert magic.
Dress it up or keep it simple
Think of ice cream as the little black (or white or pink) dress of holiday foods. You can serve it simply spooned into a bowl or gussy it up with toppings.
For family parties, take inspiration from Kevin McCallister “eating junk and watching rubbish” in “Home Alone” with an over-the-top ice cream sundae bar. Let everyone augment their own scoops with their toppings of choice. Or for a make-ahead dessert that will produce the same childlike joy, assemble a simple Neapolitan ice cream cake with store-bought elements.
If you want to buy the ice cream and make a few from-scratch toppings to accompany it, here are some suggestions:
Have your cake or pie and eat them, too
Every local ice cream shop worth its (rock) salt sells a version of ice cream cake, and buying one is a wonderful way to support a small business and put a festive dessert on the menu. You can also, of course, make your own cake or pie.
To make a custom ice cream pie, grab a store-bought or homemade cookie crumb pie crust, your favorite flavor of ice cream and add-ins or toppings such as chocolate chips, chopped candy bars, Oreo cookies or crushed candy cane pieces.
Let the ice cream thaw for about 10 minutes so it’s soft enough to stir, then transfer to a bowl and gently incorporate the toppings. Scoop into the prepared pie crust and freeze again. Top with whipped cream before serving.
Feed a crowd or a party of one or two
This may be the most obvious reason why ice cream is the ideal dessert for, well, any occasion, but it’s also an important one: Ice cream can scale up or down to serve a group of any size.
It can also withstand getting shoved back into cold storage as leftovers. Unlike cake and cookies, you don’t have to worry about ice cream going stale or losing its potency after a few days.
The holiday season can effectively keep going as long as you have ice cream in the freezer. Grab a spoon and let the celebration continue into 2023.