Ice cream is more than a cooling summer treat; it’s a blank canvas. The pliability of churned, frozen cream makes it a great raw material to build upon—whether it’s covered in torched meringue to form a spiky, flaming mountain in Baked Alaska or shaped into a bombe floating in a sea of blackberry sauce to evoke a luminous, floating moon in Clair de Lune.

Beyond ice cream’s shape-shifting abilities, it can also hold seemingly endless colors and flavors. I’ve had purple ube ice cream, red bean ice cream—both delicious—and even an unfortunate batch of cream-colored, wiener-studded Nathan’s hot dog–flavored ice cream that I can’t in good conscience recommend.

This summer, I’m going to explore some of the more spectacular ice-cream inventions of the last century. I won’t need to travel back in time to do it: Gastro Obscura is a treasure trove of stories about unique desserts that people have dreamed up with ice cream, many of them featuring recipes waiting to be attempted in your home kitchen.

This is the season to stop being vanilla with your ice cream choices—unless that vanilla is stirred into a glass of ginger soda, that is. Below are some of our favorite recipes for fascinating, delicious desserts made with ice cream.

Clair De Lune

Nixon demanded an ice cream dessert that "no one had ever seen."
Nixon demanded an ice cream dessert that “no one had ever seen.” Jessie YuChen for Gastro Obscura

What dessert could possibly equal the patriotic spectacle of the first moon landing? Ice cream, of course.

Amid the tumult of the summer of 1969, President Richard Nixon sought to draw positive media attention his way by throwing a televised 1,440-person banquet to welcome the astronauts of Apollo 11 back from their historic journey.

While Vietnam War activists protested outside, astronauts, politicians, and Hollywood stars dined on poached salmon, stuffed artichoke hearts, and French cheeses, followed by a sugary nod to Apollo 11’s lunar visit: globes of vanilla ice cream with raisins and marzipan, covered in meringue and lightly toasted to evoke lunar craters. The Clair de Lune, as it was called on the night’s menu, sat in a dish of blackberry sauce like a moon floating through the night sky. More than 50 years later, you can make your own Clair de Lune with the help of Gastro Obscura’s recipe.

Boston Cooler

"It’s sweet, creamy, and a little tingly from the carbonation in the Vernors," says Keith Wunderlich, a lifelong Detroit resident.
“It’s sweet, creamy, and a little tingly from the carbonation in the Vernors,” says Keith Wunderlich, a lifelong Detroit resident. Sam O’Brien for Gastro Obscura

In Detroit, no summer is complete without a frothy ice cream–based drink called, oddly enough, the “Boston Cooler.” Born in Boston, the Cooler reached its zenith in Detroit soda fountains of the mid-1900s, where soda jerks blended ice cream and local Vernors ginger soda to make a bubbly milkshake that locals say holds its consistency better than a root beer float.

Gastro editor Sam O’Brien attests that the Boston Cooler is pretty simple to make at home; all you need is vanilla ice cream and a can of Vernors, which you can order online. Try it yourself and see what the fizz is all about.

Nobel Ice Cream

The Nobel Museum serves its own ice cream in a nod to the treats that have been served at Nobel banquets.
The Nobel Museum serves its own ice cream in a nod to the treats that have been served at Nobel banquets. mizzyayaya/Used with permission

If there’s any dessert that can supply you with a sugar rush, a temperature drop, and a few extra IQ points, it’s the ice cream that was often served to Nobel Laureates and other attendees of the Nobel Prize banquets of the 1900s.

It’s a tradition for the extravagant gatherings—held every December 10 in Stockholm—to conclude with servers marching down a grand staircase carrying exploding sparklers and a variety of sweets. As Gastro Obscura editor Anne Ewbank writes, for much of the 20th century, those sparkly trays were full of ice cream.

The banquet’s exact flavors have varied from blackberry sorbet to elderberry ice cream. Today, at the Nobel Museum’s bistro, guests can relive bygone days of ice-cream glory with a dessert of raspberry sorbet and vanilla ice cream molded into a small bombe, which may be a macabre reference to Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite. Gastro Obscura’s recipe requires two types of ice cream and garnishes, including chocolate-foil coins to represent your own glittering Nobel Prize.

Wisconsin’s Ice-Cream Cocktails

(Left to right): Grasshopper, Brandy Alexander, and Pink Squirrel cocktails at the Del-Bar in Lake Delton, Wisconsin.
(Left to right): Grasshopper, Brandy Alexander, and Pink Squirrel cocktails at the Del-Bar in Lake Delton, Wisconsin. Del-Bar

America’s dairyland is also the land of boozy ice-cream drinks. According to writer Jeanette Hurt, at any given bar in her home state, “even if they don’t advertise it on their menu, they might just make you a proper Grasshopper with ice cream—and if they don’t serve ice-cream drinks, the place next door probably does.”

Hurt attributes Wisconsinites’ affinity for alcoholic ice-cream beverages to the state’s status as a dairy-farming powerhouse and the birthplace of the blender, as well as its abiding love for cocktails of all stripes. The six drink recipes she shares, from the swirly Pink Squirrel to the Fruity Pebbles–covered Yabba Dabba Do It, are sure to delight, cool, and inebriate all at once in the heat of summer.

Blue Moon Ice Cream

Fater's version of Blue Moon.
Fater’s version of Blue Moon. Luke Fater for Gastro Obscura

If you have spent a summer in the Midwest, you have most likely tried Blue Moon ice cream, the floral, citrusy, cosmic-blue flavor that is the region’s pride. You also most likely have no idea what’s in it. The flavor, patented and closely guarded by Weber Flavors, is sold to creameries all over Wisconsin, Michigan, and parts of Indiana and Illinois, with no detailed delineation of its ingredients.

In a culinary whodunnit, Gastro Obscura’s Luke Fater did some serious sleuthing into Blue Moon’s contents, even enlisting top New York gelato maestros to decipher its secrets. Even they could not trace Blue Moon’s je ne sais quoi with certainty, but Fater used their estimates, along with those of a few other intrepid food writers, to cobble together a recipe that allows us to taste this Midwestern wonder without flying to Michigan.

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