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Banana Split Recipe

Why It Works

  • Topping the banana split with unsweetened whipped cream keeps the treat from being cloying.
  • Setting all the ingredients out before building the banana split means assembly is complete before the ice cream starts melting.

When I was a kid, most “junk food” was forbidden in my household, but ice cream was a fairly frequent treat. Looking back, I think this had a lot to do with my mom’s own love for the frozen dessert—she was happy to ban the fluorescent cheese puffs she didn’t personally like, but she wasn’t going to deprive us of the same joy that ice cream brought her. Love for frozen dairy runs deep in my family: Ice cream cones at the parlor and homemade root beer floats were a fixture of beach trips with my mom’s side of the family, and seeking out the best ice cream is still a key part of any family outing. I have pictures of my niece clutching an ice cream cone in gloved hands on a freezing, drizzly spring day in Vermont, so the fondness does not skip any generations—nor is it weather dependent.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

But of all the frozen treats I’ve eaten—and there have been enough that I’ve even written a whole book about ice cream—the one that I am most nostalgic about is my very first banana split, which I shared with my Granddaddy O’Niell when I was a little girl. While the details of the ice cream parlor where this banana split was eaten are fuzzy, I vividly recall my absolute wonder at the pairing of ice cream with bananas, another favorite treat. I was also wowed by the variety of ice cream flavors and toppings, as well as the sheer size of the dessert, which made it perfect for sharing—because sharing with a beloved family member certainly has as much to do with the tenacity of this memory in my mind as my love of ice cream. Proust’s madeleines and all that. 

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

My late grandfather was on my mind as I set about developing a recipe for my ideal banana split: scoops of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream—evoking the “Neapolitan” cartons of Breyers from my childhood—nestled onto a banana halved lengthwise and topped with fudge sauce, caramel sauce, and strawberry sauce. There is, of course, whipped cream, as well as crushed walnuts, and at least one maraschino cherry for each scoop of ice cream, along with some of the syrup from the cherry jar. Last but not least, the banana split must be served with two spoons for sharing. It’s a version that fits my childhood memory perfectly, and I can picture myself digging into this massive sundae with my grandfather. One of the many great things about banana splits, though, is how customizable they are, so use this recipe and the tips below as a loose guide for creating your own ideal banana split—one that reminds you of your own youth, or one you might fondly remember 40 years from now. 

History of the Banana Split

As with many foods, the question of who invented the banana split is up for debate. According to NPR reporter Nancy Baggett, most sundae experts credit David Strickler, a pharmacy clerk in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, with the invention of the banana split in 1904. Baggett and several other sources, however, note that, Wilmington, Ohio, also claims to be the birthplace of the banana split, with their version making its debut three years after Strickler’s in 1907.

“On a cold winter day in 1907, Wilmington restaurant owner Ernest Hazard held a contest among his employees to see who could come up with the most interesting food creation,” Nathan Havenner wrote in the June 2017 issue of Ohio Magazine. “Hazard himself created the winning idea by putting three scoops of vanilla ice cream between a banana sliced lengthwise and finishing it with chocolate, strawberry, and pineapple toppings. His cousin Clifton Hazard christened it the banana split.” While Pennsylvania and Ohio may continue to have a friendly food fight about the treat’s birthplace, there is more consensus about the name of the treat—most people agree it’s called a split because of the way the banana is split in half vertically to form the base of the sundae.

Tips for Banana Split Success

Set out your mise en place. It might sound funny to apply a term associated with professional cooking to a banana split, but having all your components prepped and ready to go before you assemble your sundae is critical if you want to serve actual banana splits, not melted banana split soup. As they say on The Bear, “every second counts,” and you want to be able to move quickly. Having everything set out is particularly important if you are making more than one banana split and/or letting people assemble their own. If you are making a particularly large number of splits, I recommend pre-scooping the ice cream onto a sheet pan and sticking the whole thing in your freezer until it’s time to assemble. 

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Keep the sugar in check. Here’s another thing that might be strange to say about a dessert: Take it easy on the sugar. But with a dessert that’s full of sweet ice cream and syrups, I like some of my toppings to be completely sugar-free to balance the flavors and keep the split from being a one-dimensional wall of sweetness. I recommend unsweetened (or very lightly sweetened) whipped cream, as well as a topping of simple toasted nuts rather than the saccharine wet walnuts that sometimes come on ice cream parlor sundaes. I also prefer to use Luxardo cherries, which are slightly less cloying than some other maraschinos. 

Get creative with the toppings. An informal poll of Serious Eats staffers and a perusal of some popular ice cream parlor splits reveals that the only “mandatory” ingredients for a banana split are bananas, ice cream, whipped cream, cherries, and at least one sauce. So mix up the toppings however you want. Add crushed pineapple, macerated fruit, syrups such as butterscotch or peanut butter, sprinkles, and crushed cookies, or go streamlined with just one flavor of ice cream and the mandatory toppings.

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