Here's the good news: it's basically impossible to mess up an ice-cream sundae bar. Provide enough ice cream for all your guests, plus a few toppings, and everyone will leave happy. Just a little more time and effort is all that's required to take your sundae bar from fine to divine and have all your guests marveling over your ingenuity.
Consider a few approaches when choosing the star of your dessert bar. Let the toppings shine by using only vanilla and chocolate ice cream -- or make the ice cream itself the star by choosing flavors your guests might not expect. If you pick the latter approach, gravitate toward flavors that don't include chunks or mixers, since these might limit the number of toppings that will work with the sundae. Research local ice cream vendors and creators; scout your local farmers market for such artisans. Flavors like lemon verbena, buttermilk and pomegranate will pique curiosity. You might also try your hand at creating your own signature ice cream flavor. For a big crowd, offer at least one sorbet or low-fat ice cream. Consider rotating ice cream, setting out a new variety when one is gone, so guests making return trips to the bar have new options.
Sauces and Spreads
Chocolate sauce in a squeeze bottle is a quick and easy option, but you might also buy a thick sauce that has to be served warm, or make homemade hot fudge. Try using white chocolate to make white fudge sauce, or adding sweet flavorings like a scoop of almond butter or a drizzle of raspberry or caramel liqueur for an adult crowd. In addition to a chocolate-based sauce, try your hand at making homemade fruit sauce. Strawberries are the perfect complement to some ice cream flavors. To make your own sauce, try heating a simple syrup of water and sugar, then blending the cooled syrup with berries and lemon juice. Alternately you might warm up some caramel sauce, or set out bowls of peanut butter and jam.
Toppings and Mix-Ins
Some purists will relish a simple bowl of decadent ice cream and rich hot fudge. Others crave more. Offer at least a few toppings of varying textures. Toast and chop nuts of any kind and set out individual bowls of mini marshmallows, fresh berries and chocolate chips or shavings. Offer several crunchy options by crushing up graham crackers, pretzels, mints and chocolate cookies. Set out bowls of honey, pure maple syrup, high-quality olive oil, sea salt, toasted coconut and gummy bears. Scour your cabinets for other items that might give your ice cream bar an unexpected twist. Ice cream expert Jeni Britton Bauer suggests to "Food & Wine" that cornflakes and pomegranate seeds work well with ice cream. Finish off your bar with bananas, maraschino cherries and whipped cream. Homemade is delicious if you have the time -- but no one will balk at the sight of real whipped cream in cans.
To keep ice cream as frozen as possible, set a stainless steel or plastic tub on your table. (Wrap ribbon or fabric around a plastic tub to make it more attractive.) Fill the tub with ice and nestle the containers of ice cream into it. If you have the time, consider pre-scooping the ice cream. Scoop balls of ice cream into wide paper cups and stick them in the freezer until party time so guests don't have to battle with an ice cream scoop. Label each item on the table, making note of any items that include nuts or other allergens, and place a spoon or scoop in each container. A red-and-white striped or pastel tablecloth gives the appearance of an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. Finish off the table with pitchers of milk and water. Stock the table with disposable plates, spoons and ice cream cones and get ready to dig in.