It's been hot. Time to buy solar panels and make ice cream. But what kind?
Ice cream has gotten a lot more complicated in recent years thanks to the rise of the artisanal ice cream boutique. If you live in a medium-size to big city, you know what I'm talking about: that trendy-looking new shop with the ever-changing roster of challenging flavors scrawled on a chalkboard and more likely to include "watermelon wheat" or "burnt sweet potato" than cookies 'n' cream. If there's vanilla, it is not just "vanilla." It is "Madagascar vanilla" or "Ugandan vanilla."
You see relatively few kids in this shop because a microscopic scoop of salted bourbon sorbet is twice the price of a big, sloppy cotton-candy cone from Baskin-Robbins.
It was only a matter of time before these boutiques started publishing cookbooks, making the prospect of home-churned ice cream a lot more confusing -- and exciting! -- than it used to be. Which is how I recently found myself trying to choose among four recently published ice cream books packed with flavors I'd never tasted, let alone made, ranging from the beguiling to the weird.
Should I buy the cookbook with a recipe for Guinness-gingerbread ice cream or the one with peach-leaf ice cream? How to decide between the chef who makes ice cream flavored like carrot cake and the one who takes her inspiration from St. Louis gooey butter cake? Impossible. I bought all four books. But that's my problem. The question is, do you need any of these books? And, if so, which?
My plan for comparing these titles was initially simple: I would make the strawberry ice cream from each book and draw conclusions with the help of a tasting panel of four adults and four children. You can tell a lot about a book by its strawberry ice cream, my thinking went -- as with vanilla these days, there is almost always a telling twist.
Unfortunately, the project quickly took on a life of its own. Once I started, I found it hard to stop churning new flavors. Over the course of two weeks, I ended up making 21 batches of ice cream. As he watched me force beets through a sieve, my husband said, "Now you can call your story 'One Hundred Ways To Ruin Ice Cream.' " He's a traditionalist who thinks you'll never do better than coffee ice cream, so why try?
I, on the other hand, had high hopes. The ice cream produced by the marathon of stirring, freezing and beet-sieving proved us both correct.
I started with "Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones" by Kris Hoogerhyde and Anne Walker, founders of the 6-year-old Bi-Rite Creamery in San Francisco. The book, cowritten by Dabney Gough, is heavy, handsome and generously illustrated with photographs of ripe fruit and glossy bricks of Callebaut chocolate. The authors are Alice Waters-style classicists who beat the drum for organic ingredients and look to Europe for inspiration. Because in Italy berries are often paired with balsamic vinegar, "Sweet Cream" calls for a splash in its strawberry ice cream. "The vinegar is subtle and adds depth to the bright sweetness of the strawberries," the authors write.
So it did. But apparently depth wasn't what my tasting panel was looking for in strawberry ice cream. The vinegar didn't heighten the berry flavor, it interfered with it. No one wanted seconds.
Improbably, though, the book's peach-leaf ice cream was a big hit. Inspired by a Chez Panisse dessert, the recipe entails steeping peach leaves in cream to extract their intense almond flavor, then churning the cream into a sumptuous frozen custard. It was superb, as was the book's traditional, rich vanilla ice cream.
And yet "Sweet Cream" quickly dropped out of the competition. Basil ice cream notwithstanding, the recipes aren't demented enough to distinguish it from estimable works of the past, like "The Perfect Scoop" by David Lebovitz. You can't go wrong with this book, but it doesn't break new ground.
By contrast, Molly Moon Neitzel, founder of the 4-year-old Seattle chain Molly Moon's, includes plenty of outlandish flavors in "Molly Moon's Homemade Ice Cream," as well as a handful of straightforward crowd-pleasers. The slim volume is illustrated with photographs not just of the ingredients, but of the animals that produced them, including a cow and a goat. (Incidentally, Neitzel's recipe for blueberry goat's milk frozen yogurt is a keeper.) She favors Philadelphia-style ice cream, which is prepared without eggs. As Moon explains her choice: "[W]e are not only emphasizing the unadulterated, fresh, sweet cream taste of the local dairy we use, but also sourcing from one less animal and using fewer resources."
Very noble. Very Seattle. Sadly, when tasted against custard-based ice creams, Molly Moon's were decidedly grainy. Baracky Road, Neitzel's twist on rocky road (she uses hazelnuts instead of walnuts), was delicious, but gritty in texture. Her cheese ice cream had the same textural problem (among others). The ice cream was strewed with curdlike bits of grated cheddar. This may have been the most repulsive ice cream I have ever made. Or was it? There was stiff competition.
The opening lines of "Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream" by Jake Godby, Sean Vahey and Paolo Lucchesi set the tone for this alternately grating and amusing book: "Hey, bitches, thanks for buying our ice cream book."
You're welcome, bitches. Godby and Vahey, who own a San Francisco ice cream shop that opened two years after Bi-Rite and 21 blocks away, seem determined to make you feel like a square, dropping references to trannies, junkies and George Michael on just about every page.
They find strawberry ice cream achingly banal and their recipe, called "Here's Your Damned Strawberry Ice Cream," is followed by one variation that incorporates jalapeno peppers and a second involving Kalamata olives. I went with the olives. The result: super-salty black-flecked ice cream that was neither repulsive nor delicious. The olives seemed more a deliberate defiling of strawberry than a thoughtful enhancement, like declaring one's individuality by getting a really ugly tattoo. On the neck.
The tasting panel was unimpressed. Worse yet, the tasting panel was unshocked. Black olives in strawberry ice cream are just kind of stupid.
But I loved the spirit behind the Humphry Slocombe inventions, and even flipping through the scrapbook-y softcover today I want all those wack recipes (butter beer, mushroom, peanut-butter curry) to work.
Alas, the authors are more about bratty attitude than heightening flavor or attending to detail. Humphry Slocombe's hibiscus beet sorbet: rude essence of beet, simultaneously cloying and earthy. ("It tastes like soil," said my friend Kate.) Humphry Slocombe's peanut-butter curry ice cream: Imagine a Thai entree, but sweet, homogeneous and cold. The book's corn ice cream recipe brought to mind oversalted canned cream corn. A marble-size scoop atop a piece of cornmeal cake at a fussy restaurant would be a clever accent. On a cone? Unwelcome.
I've eaten Humphry Slocombe ice cream in the shop, and it's terrific. But making great ice cream and writing recipes for great ice cream are two very different enterprises. Prepared using their book, even uncontroversial Humphry Slocombe flavors shared a fatal flaw: too much salt. Their very traditional rocky road recipe -- like Molly Moon's, called "Baracky Road" -- should have been a no-brainer but was ruined by oversalting. If you buy this book, you should halve the salt in just about every recipe.
Of the four books I bought, "Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream at Home" by Jeni Britton Bauer (the founder of a chain of ice cream parlors in and around Columbus, Ohio) is the prettiest, with shots of ice cream in long-handled silver spoons floating on clean white pages.
The book is full of outré flavors, including an homage to pad thai, but Bauer doesn't screw around with her strawberry. She roasts the berries to concentrate their flavor and adds buttermilk for tang. The delicate ice cream -- fresh and uncomplicated -- was the most conventional of all the strawberry ice creams I tried but easily carried the day with the tasting panel.
This recipe introduced me to my one overriding complaint about the book: Bauer's method involves pouring hot ice cream base into a plastic bag and then submerging this bulging pouch into an ice water bath. I thought of about 10 different ways this step could end in tears and decided to ignore it. So should you. It turns out, if you simply chill the batter in a bowl, the recipes work perfectly.
Where Humphry Slocombe's brash beet sorbet repelled, Bauer succeeds with a lovely, crimson beet ice cream. She uses the root as a foundation upon which to layer orange, mascarpone and poppy seeds, which soften the vegetable's mineral edge and turn it into a plausible treat. While no one shrieked with delight when they tasted it, no one shrieked in horror, either. In the realm of beet desserts, this counts as victory.
Bauer also successfully incorporates curry into a chocolate-coconut ice cream, the tablespoon of spice adding exotic dimension to an otherwise mundane combination. Her celery ice cream with candied ginger and rum raisins was strange and strangely wonderful, although I was the only one who appreciated its charm. Unlike Humphry Slocombe's, her flavors are not just inventive; they're also thoughtful and balanced.