As much as I am interested in new food trends, there are a few classics–especially those that I grew up with–that will always have a special place on my table. As a child of the ’90s, some of these dishes waver on that edge of decidedly old-school, especially as we look at cold salads. Ambrosia is one of those. I am seeing this creamy fruit salad less and less these days, but, in my mind, ambrosia is one of those quintessential summer dishes. Due to the lack of vegetables and the inclusion of fruit, it was a universal favorite in my house while I was growing up. It also made an impression on our extended family (here is the recipe, finally, Lizzie!) Ambrosia was always a true sign of summer (even though, using the canned options, it can be made almost any time of year that grapes are in stores).
I’ve sampled a few ambrosia salads at various barbecues, either a store-bought salad or by someone else’s recipe. And I was always disappointed, if not disgusted. They were always horribly sweet. There are rules about Ambrosia Salad (in my adamant opinion! 😉 ). Rule #1: no maraschino cherries. Listen. I love maraschino cherries. Especially the un-natural, bright-red ones. A visit to any fro-yo place usually ends with most of my money paying for at least one extra ounce of weight made up entirely of half a dozen maraschino cherries. However, they do not belong in ambrosia salad. The juice makes it all vaguely pink and the flavor just doesn’t fit. No maraschinos. Rule #2: no vanilla. This is often linked to the third and most important rule: Rule #3: don’t cover the fruit with a sweet topping. I’ve tried this dish made with whipped cream, cool whip, vanilla yogurt….all of those options will leave your teeth aching and your mouth crying out for water from the sugar. The marshmallows and the coconut and, you know, all the fruit, provide plenty of sweetness. Even vanilla extract adds a heaviness to the salad. You just don’t need it.
In adhering to rule #3, I will finally admit the ingredient that may give you pause. Yes, the topping that mixes everything together into creamy goodness is…. sour cream. Gasp! I know! Just reminiscent enough of those terrible 1950s recipes calling for mayo and shrimp and jello and other horrors to make you stop and reconsider. But hear me out: Sour cream is great here. The tang balances the sweetness of every other ingredient and after a couple of hours, the marshmallows break down into soft little pockets and the sugar on the outside of the marshmallows has blended with the cream to make the whole thing perfectly sweet. Yes, I suppose I would allow swapping plain yogurt for the sour cream, if it really rattles you. But let’s be honest with each other. Sour cream achieves a texture of delightfully-creamy-without-being-heavy that no other dairy product can. Greek yogurt would be too thick and heavy, regular yogurt would be too watery, especially combined with the juicy fruit. Sour cream is the best option. Just don’t think about it too much and do me a favor: try it with sour cream first. Trust me.
I was delighted, in fourth grade, when I started learning about Greek mythology, to learn that ambrosia was the food of the Gods. Having had this dish for many summers, I couldn’t imagine anything more appropriate to feed Athena, Artemis, Zeus, and Apollo. So try it out…it is the food of the gods, after all! Not to mention a really great addition to any barbecue or potluck and the perfect option for a summer evening!
Serves 6-8 | Prep time: 10 min. + resting | Cook time: N/A
- 1 c. mini marshmallows
- 1 c. crushed pineapple, drained (or 1 c. fresh, finely chopped)*
- 1 small can mandarin oranges, drained
- 1 c. shredded coconut (sweetened is traditional, but unsweetened would be fine)
- 1 c. grapes (red or green), slice in half
- 3/4 to 1 c. sour cream**
*My pineapple is fresh, but chopped too large in these photos. As soon as I took a bite, I knew I should have chopped it much finer, when using it fresh.
**Depending on how juicy the fruit is, you may need less or more. Gently fold in the smaller amount first, and then decide if you need the rest.
Combine the fruit, marshmallows, and coconut in a large bowl. Gently fold in sour cream, being careful not to break up the mandarin orange pieces too much. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving, to allow flavors to meld.