You guys know how much I hate Cool Whip, right? So, just don’t buy it. And before you say anything, I can hear some of you now wanting to know what else you can use to top your pies or your cakes. As usual, I’ve got your backs; I’m here to help. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve gotten some emails and read some comments left on some of the cooking forums asking about making whipped cream from scratch, looking for an alternative to whipped cream because someone in their family doesn’t like it (?!) and even how to make a Cool Whip substitute (?!) It was that last one that made me realize that I’d better get to work. If folks are looking for Cool Whip substitutes, I’m not going to let them down.
So here, for your edification, I present a Compendium of Creamy Homemade Dessert Toppings. All are made from normal, everyday ingredients and none of them contain any partially hydrogenated anything.
- Whipped Cream Softly whipped cream (or, to use the French term, creme chantilly)is a wonderful topping to spoon on top of some fresh berries. Since it’s soft, it will sort of slowly sink into the berries. Cream whipped to medium-to-firm peaks is your best Cool Whip substitute, because you can do that perky little dollop on top so that your pie looks like the pie in the Cool Whip commercials. Here’s how you do it by hand: Take some cold heavy cream (as opposed to heavy cold cream–we’re not removing make up) and put it in a metal bowl. Start whisking. You don’t have to whisk it crazy-fast or anything, just fast enough that you get some air incorporated. Once the cream has thickened a bit, add in some sugar (superfine is nice because it dissolves quickly), a pinch of salt and a wee splash of flavoring. Taste, and add a little more sugar if you need to. Whisk until the cream is at the perfect thickness for what you want to do with it. As you can see, whipped cream isn’t really a recipe. It’s more of a technique. It’s more about keeping things cold and whisking well and less about how many teaspoons of sugar you are using. Here’s a tip for getting really dense, creamy whipped cream. I don’t think that many people know about this secret, so come a little closer. If you whip your cream in the food processor, it will be dense and smooth and creamy. You have to be careful, because the food processor is pretty harsh, and you could end up with butter if you don’t pay close attention. I’m serious, though, guys–cream whipped in a food processor or with an immersion blender has a dense texture that you just can’t get when whipping by hand or with a hand or stand mixer.
- Whipped Creme Fraiche–This is some seriously good stuff, folks. While true creme fraiche is pretty pricey, a very reasonable facsimile can easily be made at home. Stir buttermilk and heavy cream together. For every 1 cup of cream, you’ll need 1 TBSP of buttermilk. We used to make a 12 quart recipe at the restaurants, so this formula scales up very easily. Okay, so you just stir them together and let it sit out at room temperature, covered, until thickened. This can take anywhere from 12 to 36 hours, depending on how much you’re making and on the temperature in your kitchen, so be patient. Once your cream has thickened, refrigerate until cold. The chilled creme fraiche will be pretty thick–almost like soft-serve ice cream. Don’t worry, though. You can whip it just like cream. When you start whisking, it will thin out and then start to thicken again. Use the same technique that you used for making whipped cream. The tang of the creme fraiche is a nice complement to very sweet dishes and is a little more of an adult flavor.
- Italian Meringue–This kind of topping won’t be as rich as whipped cream or whipped creme fraiche, but it is fat free! Yay for you guys who are looking for a fat-free topping to counteract all the fat in the big old American Hummer Pie you’re putting it on! That’s kind of like ordering the Monster Thickburger, large fries and a Diet Coke, but what do I know? Back to the meringue: take a cup of sugar and put it in a pot with a little water, just enough to get it wet. Heat and stir to dissolve the sugar, and then bring to a boil. Put the lid on and let it boil for a couple of minutes to wash any sugar crystals off the sides of the pan. Bring the sugar syrup up to 245 degrees, F. While the sugar is coming to temperature, whip 5 egg whites together with a pinch of salt and either a teaspoon of lemon juice or 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar. Whip the whites to medium peaks. With the mixer on low, slowly and carefully pour the sugar syrup in a thin stream down the inside of the bowl. Once you’ve added all the syrup, increase the speed to medium-high and whip until the whites are stiff and glossy and cool. Flavor it with some vanilla or mint or lemon or any kind of extract. At the restaurant, we used to pipe little dollops of Italian meringue on parchment and store them in the walk-in freezer. (They don’t get hard in the freezer, they just keep nicely). Then, when it was time to plate, we’d bring out a frozen dollop and hit it with a torch to brown it. You don’t have to brown this meringue, though. It’s cooked!
- Whipped Sour Cream–This is an easy topping with a slight tang. Whip cold, heavy cream to medium peaks, and then add an equal amount of sour cream. Sweeten, salt and flavor as desired. Don’t think that you can mix the sour cream and the cream together and then whip them. It doesn’t work. Trust me; I know. Make sure you bring your cream to medium peaks before adding the sour cream.
- Silken Tofu Whipped Topping–This one is for you lactose intolerant type folks out there. I will not let you be reduced to using Cool Whip. Try this instead. In a food processor or blender, mix together a package of firm tofu (10.5 oz.), 2 TBSP sugar/brown sugar/agave nectar/what have you, a pinch of salt, and a wee splash of vanilla and lemon juice. Blend or process until smooth. If it’s too thick, thin with a little soymilk and blend again. If you want it sweeter, add another TBSP or two of sweetener.
- Coconut Cream Buy full-fat coconut milk and let it sit. Carefully skim off the very thick cream, leaving the watery part behind (you can use it in your recipes–it’s great as a liquid in cakes or in Thai curries). Chill and sweeten to taste. Whip it for a few minutes using your stand mixer or a hand mixer and use immediately for topping…whatever. Key lime pie seems a good bet. A hit of lime juice is great in this, by the way.
- Sour Cream Topping–This one might be my favorite. It’s not whipped and poofy. This this the topping that my mom bakes on top of my chocolate cheese birthday pie–vanilla wafer crust, cheesecake, ganache, sour cream topping. I know, right?!–and I love it. All you do is add 1/3 cup of sugar and 1 1/2 tsp vanilla per cup of sour cream. Stir in a pinch of salt, and that’s pretty much it. You pour this on top of a just-out-of-the-oven cheese cake or a hot chocolate pie, put it in the oven for 5 minutes at 300 degrees, F, let cool, and you’ve got a fantastic tangy-sweet semi-set topping that, well, it’s just the best. And that’s why I saved it for last.
Some other ideas for you: try using brown sugar, honey or maple syrup in place of the sugar when whipping cream or creme fraiche or even your tofu. Also, there’s no rule against adding citrus zest or cinnamon or espresso powder. Give some thought to what you’ll be putting your topping on and use complementary flavors. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with just using a little vanilla. Sometimes, less is more.
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