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What is a Parfait?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 16, 2024
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Parfait is really a general term used to describe many different types of layered foods served in a dish. In practice, though, most Americans are familiar with ice cream or yogurt parfaits, which are a very specific type of dessert.

The American parfait is very similar to a sundae. It may contain layers of ice cream or cream, and include nuts, syrups, whipped cream, fresh fruit, granola, and any number of other dessert style toppings. It is a popular dessert in fairly upscale restaurants that want to offer something a bit more casual than heavier traditional French desserts. French parfait itself is traditionally made with eggs and cream whipped with a layer of fruit.

The French also make many different items en parfait, and it is not uncommon to find various assorted savory parfaits in France. One finds seafood vegetable, and even fois gras in this form throughout France. The unifying theme tends to be the layering, the somewhat creamy consistency, and the service, which is usually in a tall clear glass.

Parfait has been in America since the late-19th century, although it declined in popularity for many decades. In recent years it has seen a resurgence of interest, and some chefs have begun to experiment wildly with their dishes, bringing them more in line with traditional French parfait in terms of their breadth. The foodie movement, in particular, has embraced the form as a canvas upon which to experiment with creaming innovative ingredients, from broccoli to liver, and making them into dessert-looking entr&eaccent;es or appetizers.

In the last few years, the American parfait has changed in the mainstream, as well. While not as drastic as the shift within the foodie movement, it nevertheless represents an essential change. As people have become more health conscious and begun to move away from wanting to eat large amounts of ice cream, yogurt has become the base of choice for everyday Americans making parfait. This shift is so pervasive that, for many Americans, the term now automatically brings to mind a layered yogurt dessert, although only a few short decades ago that would have been very rare.

The Japanese use the word to refer to dessert as well, although in the Japanese context, parfait is really the same thing as an American sundae. Ice cream is still considered the base, and the additions added are the standard sundae additions, from ground nuts, to hot chocolate syrup, to sprinkles and cherries.

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Discussion Comments
By andee — On Apr 08, 2012

I always crave something sweet after a meal, but don't usually want a heavy dessert. That is why I am glad McDonald's starting selling their yogurt parfait.

This is made with yogurt and fruit and hits the spot when it comes to satisfying my sweet tooth. I also don't have to feel guilty about eating one and know it is much better for me than something like a hot apple pie.

I also like to make parfaits at home. It just seems to taste better when it is presented in a pretty, tall clear glass. Our favorite is to layer strawberries, yogurt and blueberries.

I also like to add some granola or nuts on top for a little bit of crunch.

By SarahSon — On Apr 07, 2012

@seag47 - I also have a hard time picturing a tasty parfait made of meat and vegetables. I suppose it isn't much different than layering something in a casserole, but it just doesn't sound as appealing.

When I think of a parfait, the first thing that comes to my mind is a Peanut Buster parfait at Dairy Queen. I don't get these very often because of all the fat and calories, but they sure are good!

I am getting hungry for one right now as I am thinking about them. There is one Dairy Queen in my town and in the summer it is not unusual to see at least 10 cars lined up waiting for a sweet treat.

I love the layers of ice cream, peanut butter, chocolate, nuts and whipped cream.

By OeKc05 — On Apr 06, 2012

I'm not crazy about yogurt, but I do love pudding in a parfait. I make a delicious butterscotch pudding parfait that I serve for dessert whenever company is over for dinner.

I use the instant pudding because it is so easy. In the glass, I start with a layer of crumbled vanilla wafers. Then, I drop some pudding on top of them.

On top of the pudding, I sprinkle some almond slivers. Then, I start over with the vanilla wafers again and continue until I reach the top of the glass. I put a scoop of whipped topping on top.

Another variation on this parfait is to use banana pudding instead. Then, you can chop up some actual bananas and add nutritional value to the parfait.

By lighth0se33 — On Apr 06, 2012

@seag47 – My husband loves to eat Mexican food in the form of a parfait. He uses sour cream between layers of meat and vegetables, and he tops the whole thing with shredded cheddar.

He got the idea from watching a cooking show. We have always loved making steak fajitas, but we had been eating them the typical way, which is wrapped up in a flour tortilla. Once he saw that you could layer the dish up inside a big glass, he couldn't wait to try it.

The steak is cut into bite-sized strips and seasoned with cumin and a few other spices, so it has a lot of flavor. We cook it with bell peppers and onions, and we toss a few of them in with each steak layer of the parfait.

By seag47 — On Apr 05, 2012

It's interesting to me that people make parfaits of things other than desserts. When I think of a parfait, sweetness comes to mind, and I have trouble envisioning savory food in one instead. Mixtures of meat and veggies always come in casserole form at my house.

Does anyone here have any suggestions for a good savory parfait of meat and/or vegetables? I think it would be an interesting way to mix up dinner, and it might even get my kids more into eating healthy. Sometimes, it's all about presentation.

By cloudel — On Apr 05, 2012

I love eating fruit and yogurt parfaits for breakfast. I carpool with people who love to stop at a fast food restaurant on the way to work, and the parfait option keeps me from having to eat greasy sausage and bacon every day.

This parfait includes lowfat vanilla yogurt, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, and granola. A layer of yogurt is followed by one type of fruit, then another yogurt layer, another type of fruit, and finally, the granola on top.

It isn't overpoweringly sweet, since the yogurt is designed to be lowfat and the berries are fresh rather than canned. Sugar content can be just as important as fat content when you are trying to watch your weight.

By anon29534 — On Apr 03, 2009

Is there a topping for a Traditional French Parfait?

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