When someone asks me to share a formative experience with dessert, I know they're secretly hoping to hear a charming recollection of something like my grandmother's apple pie. Or how I grew up hanging from my mother's apron strings, waiting to lick the beater. Maybe a folksy yarn about life in Kentucky, with a culinary history as rich as buttermilk pie.
Would that I could dish up anything so poetic, but my fount of inspiration bubbled up from mid-'90s Cool Whip commercials. No joke. Watch a handful and tell me they don't offer the most joyous, unapologetic parade of edible Americana. I mean, one sweet 15-second spot delivers brownie sandwiches, candy-topped sundaes, chocolate chip cookies, waffle cones, and swirled custard cups. In another, we're treated to chocolate pudding, banana splits, and a slice of cherry pie. And for Christmas, we're granted a vision of frosted sugar cookies, pecan pie, hot cocoa, and gingerbread men.
Dipped, dunked, dolloped, or kissed with Cool Whip, those desserts appealed to me like dinglehoppers to a little mermaid. But I was a greedy, ambitious child. I didn't want to buy Cool Whip; I wanted to make it.
And, before anyone asks, no, homemade Cool Whip isn't plain ol' whipped cream. Cool Whip is gloriously dense and silky smooth, with a milky flavor like Dairy Queen soft-serve, and every bit as cold because it lives in the freezer. Then again, Cool Whip's just as happy atop a hot picnic table on the Fourth of July, because it's chock-full of stabilizers. It's a sturdy thing that keeps for weeks in the fridge, never devolving into a watery mess.
It's tempting to dismiss such "unnatural" feats as an industrial abomination made possible only at the expense of real cream, but not so! That kind of magic is surprisingly easy to invoke at home, and it starts with homemade marshmallow fluff.
If you've ever made marshmallows before, the process is almost identical. There's a bit of gelatin and a boiled-sugar syrup, but also a mix of fresh milk, powdered milk, and vanilla to replicate Cool Whip's dairy-centric flavor.
If you haven't made marshmallows before, there's no reason to be scared. You just toss the sugar syrup on the stove and let it boil until it hits 250°F (120°C), a.k.a. the "hard ball" stage. That's it. Really. At that temperature, all but 8% of the water is driven off, creating an incredibly thick syrup. It's incredibly hot, too, and thus can damage the gelatin's thickening power if not allowed to cool (more on that here).
Transferring the syrup to a heat-resistant bowl kick-starts that process, and, when it's cooled to 212°F (100°C) a few moments later, it's safe to add the gelatin. From there, just queue up some Devo and whip it good. What happens next is the miracle of gelatin, which reduces the surface tension that would otherwise cause the bubbles to burst.
Because it's not a lot of syrup—less than a cup—I've found that this recipe does poorly on stand mixers, where the weird divot at the bottom of the bowl prevents all but the very tip of the whisk attachment from being submerged. With a normal bowl and the dual blades of a hand mixer, the gelatin-reinforced syrup whips up like a cloud, more than doubling in volume along the way.
It would turn into a giant marshmallow if given the chance, but the addition of vanilla milk thins the candy into a soft "creme." It'll be surprisingly warm for quite some time, so it needs to cool completely before being incorporated with fresh cream—about two hours at room temperature. Resist the urge to speed things along in the fridge, as cold temperatures allow gelatin to develop a more rigid structure. At room temperature, however, the base sets rather softly, retaining enough elasticity to accommodate the cream.
It whips up fluffy but thick, something like shaving cream. Except, you know, extremely delicious. The sheer volume of the whipped marshmallow cuts the cream's fat per serving in half, ensuring that my Cool Whip won't overwhelm rich desserts like brownies, ice cream, or cake, and remains light enough to taste refreshing on a hot summer's day.
Though it's ready to enjoy straight away (and I highly recommend you grab a spoon), gelatin's ability to strengthen over time means homemade Cool Whip will improve significantly after an hour or two in the fridge. It'll still be soft and creamy enough to dollop over dessert, just far more stable—making it travel-friendly, with or without a cooler.
Since gelatin doesn't begin to melt until roughly 98°F (36°C), it reinforces the airy framework of whipped cream, protecting against collapse. That makes homemade Cool Whip a champ on hot days, happy to tag along on all your picnics, cookouts, and barbecues, ready to be dished up with summer cobblers, pies, and shortcake or simply served with fresh fruit.
The real kicker is that gelatin makes homemade Cool Whip freezer-safe, keeping its water content safely bound as it thaws. That makes its shelf life a matter of avoiding freezer burn rather than spoilage, so it's something I like to keep on hand. It can be pulled out at a moment's notice and thawed within the hour, ready to dress up last-minute desserts or accompany your holiday travels (it'll work wonders on Uncle So-and-So's pumpkin pie).
Regardless of whether you share my nostalgia for Cool Whip, I promise the DIY version is a trick you'll be glad to keep up your sleeve.