You won't find anything leafy, crispy or green in Pam Holmes's favorite salad.
What will you find? Marshmallows, heavy whipping cream, a can of fruit cocktail, cream cheese, mandarin oranges, maraschino cherries and mayonnaise. That's right, mayonnaise.
It's the stuff fluff is made of.
Whether it's pink fluff, orange fluff, lemon fluff or pistachio fluff, this classic side dish is a favorite in many families. A staple at potlucks, backyard barbecues, picnics and holiday dinners, fluff salad has as many variations as it does calories. From its unlikely combination of ingredients to its name (salad, really?), fluff is weird, wonderful stuff.
Wonderful with its light, creamy consistency and sweet, refreshing taste. Weird because of what's in it. Some fluffs call for containers of cottage cheese and frozen whipped topping, canned fruit, packages of gelatin or pudding mix and a scoop of mayo — all in the same recipe.
Despite its peculiarities, fluff has its fans. A fair amount, apparently. We received more than 100 recipes from readers for this feature.
“It's very strange, but it works,” Holmes, a Lincoln resident, said of pairing mayo with marshmallows and other sweet ingredients. “I really enjoy it.”
For the past 20 years, she has been making cherry fluff adapted from a recipe she found in a restaurant cookbook. Unlike most fluff salads, it's frozen overnight. She also leaves out the original recipe's crushed pineapple.
Holmes and other home cooks like fluff partly because of the many ways you can customize it. It's easy to tailor recipes to accommodate people counting calories (sub in low-fat, nonfat or sugar-free ingredients) and those with food allergies or dietary restrictions.
Since the early 1980s, Gwen McKee of Brandon, Miss., has collected a variety of fluff recipes as co-editor of the “Best of the Best” state cookbook series. Enjoyed around the country, fluff salads are featured in most of the cookbooks in the 50-volume series.
Cranberry Fluff Salad is among the recipes in “Best of the Best from Nevada Cookbook.” Orange Fluff Salad appears in the “Best of the Best from Carolina Cooking,” while “Best of the Best from Virginia Cookbook II” has a recipe for Heavenly White Fluff Salad.
For as long as McKee, 71, can remember, home cooks have been mixing fruit salads with some sort of binder or “fluff” — mayo, sour cream, cottage cheese, whipped topping or marshmallow creme, she said in an email.
“In the South we like them especially when the weather is hot, which is a lot, because they are so cooling,” she said.
McKee considers Waldorf salad, which dates to the 1890s and combines celery, apples, walnuts, raisins and mayonnaise, as a forerunner of fluff salads.
She recalls her mom making a salad in the 1950s with chunk pineapple, mandarin oranges, coconut, sour cream and mini marshmallows (a cup of each ingredient) called Five Cup Salad.
There are several reasons for their popularity, McKee said. They're delicious, quick and easy to make since there's no cooking involved, transport easily, and go with virtually any meal.
“They can sort of cleanse your palette, too, like between a soup and the main course,” she said. “Some can be served as lighter desserts.”
Marshmallows and other sweet ingredients show up in many fluff recipes. Food historian and author Lynne Olver of New Jersey said that grew out of the popularity of marshmallows as a snack and baking ingredient early in the 20th century.
According to Olver, who runs Food Timeline (a food history website), home cooks began adding marshmallows to fruit salads and other dishes because they were “inexpensive, pretty looking and satisfied the family sweet tooth.”
Besides marshmallows, other sweet ingredients found in fluffs include pieces of cookies, cake and candy bars, making them more dessert-like than what most people consider a salad.
Even with a majority of sweet ingredients, something like Oreo Fluff, which includes Cool Whip, cookies and cream cheese, could technically qualify as a “salad” if you go by one of the dictionary definitions — small pieces of food mixed with a dressing.
Ginny Napora of Papillion reaches for a package of fudge-stripe cookies when she and her daughters, ages 5 and 9, make a salad they call “Uncle Danny's Favorite Fluff.”
She found the recipe about eight years ago in a church recipe cookbook and adapted it to suit her family. It's named after her brother.
Napora mixes buttermilk, mandarin oranges, Cool Whip and vanilla pudding mix. Then she adds frozen, crushed cookie pieces to the mixture. She enjoys experimenting with different pudding flavors and likes that it's a recipe so easy that her girls can make it by themselves.
“It's our favorite,” Napora said. “It's a staple. It's pretty much for any gathering.”