a piece of food on a plate: Photograph: Dan Matthews/The Guardian © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Dan Matthews/The Guardian

An appropriately magnificent name for the king of ice-cream sundaes – almost 70 years on, my dad still hasn’t got over the fact that he was never allowed one on his annual childhood trip to the seaside. Too dear, at 2/6d, for little boys, apparently. Every time we go into Morelli’s, still going strong in all its 1950s splendour on Broadstairs seafront, he looks wistfully at the menu before ordering a coffee, yet when we finally treated him, he had to give up after two mouthfuls. Which is why you should indulge yourself now – there’s never been a better time.

Oddly enough, though the knickerbocker glory is now thought of as a very British treat, it seems to have its origins in the United States, spiritual home of the sundae (where it was, according to historian Janet Clarkson, probably created as a response to strict Sabbath trading laws): the first record seems to be in a 1915 handbook for soda fountain proprietors. The name wouldn’t have seemed so wonderfully strange over there, Knickerbocker being the Dutch-American hero of Washington Irving’s 1809 A History of New York, who, in turn, lent his name to knee breeches; Clarkson suggests the link might be the socks worn below these garments, which makes sense, because the knickerbocker glory’s defining feature is its colourful layers, striped with promise.

a piece of cake on a plate: Felicity Cloake’s perfect knickerbocker glory. © Photograph: Dan Matthews/The Guardian Felicity Cloake’s perfect knickerbocker glory.

That said, the knickerbocker glory was certainly here and flourishing by the late 1920s, and almost a century on it’s still delighting adults and children alike – one H Potter enjoys just such a sundae in his first literary outing, albeit one already rejected by Dudley Dursley for insufficient ice-cream. If anything, it’s a mood, rather than a recipe – as food writer Mark Diacono notes, “I’ve probably not made two the same.” That said, here are a few ideas to get you started.

The ice-cream

Though this is essential (I have no time for anyone proposing a knickerbocker glory made with custard or, worse, Greek yoghurt, especially if it also contains granola), ice-cream itself plays a surprisingly small part in most recipes. Only Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh’s book Sweet recommends making your own in the form of an almost shockingly fruity raspberry semifreddo, which has the great benefit of not requiring an ice-cream maker. The aforementioned 1915 recipe doesn’t specify the flavour required, and Caroline and Robin Weir’s masterful Ice Cream, Sorbets and Gelati notes only that the first scoop ought to be vanilla. Chef Mark Hix also likes vanilla, while at Fortnum & Mason, long famous for its ice-cream sundaes, they use a mixture of that and strawberry.

Food writer Tim Hayward, meanwhile, who is icily dismissive of those suggesting you “let your imagination run riot” with a knickerbocker glory, allows that ice-cream is the one place there is scope for variation. If your childhood holidays were “like the covers of Ladybird books … you can ladle in curls of thick, churned West Country ice-cream from a sustainable cardboard tub with a picture of a cottage on it”, he writes in the Financial Times. If, however, “your holidays involved a coach, sick, a caravan and an aunt with a beehive who smoked menthol cigarettes, then just hose in the soft-serve. Either is authentic.”

Though, times being as they are, I’m not able to run out and stop the van to buy one, I do find a recipe from chef Tristan Welch of Parker’s Taveren in Cambridge that gets as close to the original as possible without a machine to aerate the stuff, using glucose and gelatine to recreate its “gluey stretchiness” before whizzing it in a blender to give a perfectly smooth finish. It’s utterly wonderful stuff, if you have the time, but for me a knickerbocker glory doesn’t demand Mr Whippy. Mind you, as Hayward notes, this is a very personal thing, so I’m going to leave the final choice of ice-cream between you and your freezer. Personally, I reckon a scoop of chocolate and a scoop of vanilla do the job just fine.

The fruit

Hayward is less understanding here: “It is absolutely vital that you don’t become distracted by modern notions of freshness – it’s all very well banging on about gorgeous organic native strawberries, but they wouldn’t have lasted eight seconds under the counter in high season.” Instead, he demands that “postwar favourite”, tinned fruit cocktail: “The true secret of the knickerbocker glory, the cubes of tinned peach, the dodgy little blocks of tinned pear and the single, unbearably gorgeous grape that came in each can.” A can proves surprisingly hard to come by (an unlikely victim of stockpiling, perhaps?), but when I do eventually track some down, it’s pure nostalgia.

Fancy fresh fruit is undeniably more popular, however – even in 1915, they ran to raspberry puree. The Weirs use raspberry and crushed pineapple, Fortnum’s diced strawberries and pineapple, Hix sliced strawberries, Ottolenghi and Goh red plums (Goh tells me they “make all the difference in the eating of this”), while Mary Berry suggests mango and blueberry. You can use almost anything you like, but I think the flamboyance of a knickerbocker glory demands something more exotic than British berries, great as they are, or indeed tinned fruit. So I’m going for the ritziness of pineapple and, because a knickerbocker glory is almost as much about visual effect as it is flavour, green grapes. I would, however, urge you to keep the maraschino cherry at the bottom (and top) of the glass: like the seed in the middle of an aniseed ball, chasing it around the glass is a good way to dull the disappointment of finishing the thing.

The sauce

There’s another reason that I’ve avoided the classic red fruits of British summertime; though the American recipe calls for chocolate syrup (leading me to this easy and stupidly tasty recipe, which I highly commend to you and which is so good I’ve included it as an option below), British knickerbocker glories tend to prefer a generic, red-flavour version sometimes known as Melba syrup, suggesting it has raspberries somewhere in its ancestry, though the young Hayward knew it as “monkey’s blood”. You could make something similar, if less lurid, from watered-down and sieved raspberry jam, as he suggests, or indeed any jam you like (marmalade might be nice), but the fresh version in Ottolenghi and Goh’s recipe, echoed in the recipe in Tom Parker Bowles’ Fortnum’s Cookbook, is almost as easy, and irresistible in its tangy sweetness.

Whatever sauce you choose, divide it between the layers; pouring it from the top, as in Hayward’s memory, will provide insufficient coverage – in fact, the same goes for the fruit in general. Pooling it all at the bottom makes for a disappointing ending, unless you get as excited about fruit as you do about ice-cream, which I must confess I do not.

The extras

Ice-cream, fruit and syrup are all that’s required here, but some recipes can’t resist gilding the lily, which feels appropriate in a recipe that is, let’s be honest, 90% theatre and 10% sustenance. Hix makes a lovely strawberry jelly that, like Fortnum & Mason’s mini meringues, adds another layer of pleasure to proceedings – you don’t need either, as much as anyone can be said to need any element of a knickerbocker glory, but if you happen to have them to hand, they make a welcome bonus prize. The Soda Water Guide drizzles rose essence in the base of the glass, which is rather a good, if perhaps grown-up addition, especially if you go for the raspberry sauce.

The toppings

Whipped cream is a must, popping up in every recipe except for Hix’s, which adds clotted cream instead. Here, I think the latter is too dense and buttery – clouds of airy chantilly offer more contrast to the chilly solidity of the ice-cream below. Fortnum’s tops its showstopper of a sundae with Italian meringue, blowtorched until just golden, which is a great idea if you’re looking to stop traffic with your sundae, though as this is the kind of thing you might like to whip up on a hot afternoon, and meringues are undeniably a bit of a sticky faff to make, I’m going to stick with lightly sweetened cream.

A sundae is a symphony of textures as well as flavours, which is why something crunchy is required in among all that soft fruit and rich dairy – Hayward recalls hundreds and thousands and a wafer being the crowning glory of his childhood memories, though he concedes flaked nuts were available “for the posh”. Some recipes, such as Berry’s, use these simply chopped (pistachios, in her case), some caramelise them first, like Hix, while Ottolenghi and Goh make an addictively delicious pecan brittle, which is well worth 15 minutes of your time.

Finish with a wafer, a meringue stick, a long spoon or, my own favourite, a chocolate flake reminiscent of the very British ’99. Devour immediately, without pausing to take a breath.

Perfect knickerbocker glory

Prep 15 min

Cook 6 min

Makes 2

For the almond brittle

1 tbsp golden syrup

2 tsp sugar

? tsp flaky salt

50g flaked almonds

For the raspberry sauce…

200g raspberries

2 tsp icing sugar

… or for the chocolate sauce

60g cocoa powder

100g sugar

? tsp flaky salt

To finish

200ml whipping or double cream

1 tbsp icing sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

4 maraschino or fresh cherries

200g chopped fruit of your choice

– I like pineapple and green grapes

6 scoops ice-cream of your choice – I like a mixture of vanilla and chocolate

2 chocolate flakes or wafers

Start by making the almond brittle. Heat the oven to 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6 and line a baking tray. Gently heat the golden syrup, sugar and salt in a small pan until melted, then add the almonds and stir to coat. Spread out on the prepared tray, bake for six to eight minutes, until golden brown, then remove, leave to cool and harden, then roughly chop.

a piece of cake on a tray: Felicity Cloake’s knickerbocker glory: the almond brittle. © Provided by The Guardian Felicity Cloake’s knickerbocker glory: the almond brittle.

To make the raspberry sauce, whizz the raspberries to a puree, then pass through a sieve to catch the seeds, and stir in the sugar to taste.

a bowl of fruit on a plate: Felicity Cloake’s knickerbocker glory: tart mashing the fruit for the sauce. © Provided by The Guardian Felicity Cloake’s knickerbocker glory: tart mashing the fruit for the sauce.

If making the chocolate sauce instead, put the sugar in a small pan with 250ml water and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Whisk in the cocoa and salt, and continue to cook, stirring, until thickened, then leave to cool.

Whip the cream in a large bowl until it just holds its shape, then whisk in the sugar and vanilla.

a bunch of ripe bananas sitting on top of a wooden cutting board: Felicity Cloake’s knickerbocker glory:the fruit. © Provided by The Guardian Felicity Cloake’s knickerbocker glory:the fruit.

To assemble the dish, put a cherry in the base of a tall glass and top with a spoonful of fruit, followed by a scoop of ice-cream and a spoonful of your chosen sauce.

a bowl of fruit: Felicity Cloake’s knickerbocker glory: start layering up. © Provided by The Guardian Felicity Cloake’s knickerbocker glory: start layering up.

Sprinkle over a few of the nuts, and repeat these layers, this time omitting the cherry, twice more. Top with a dollop of cream and more nuts, add the flake and a second cherry, and eat immediately.

? The knickerbocker glory: a fond memory, or something best left in the past, riding on the coat tails of an undeniably fantastic name? What’s your favourite ice-cream sundae?

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