June 24, 2002 | Feature

The Ice Cream Cometh

        After 32 years of slurping and licking, the author reflects on a lifelong passion and sets out to uncover the city's best frozen assets.

        As the establishment cracks and institutions crumble, it is no wonder we reach out to ice cream. It is a link to innocence and security, the last of the eternal verities. Or is it?

        That's what I wrote in "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Ice Cream but Were Too Fat to Ask" in the August 3, 1970, issue of this magazine, several thousand English toffee–Rocky Road Dove Bars ago, long before the cheeky insolence of wasabi sorbet and foie gras ice cream.

        Ice cream has always been my weakness, unleashing the uninhibited, uncontrollable 8-year-old within me. In my fitful attempts at grudging moderation, I've been able to give up eggs and limit myself to a single bite of foie gras, for the sake of my own foie and the freedom to dip into dessert. I used to fantasize about do-it-yourself sundae bacchanals -- with scoops of coffee, chocolate, and rum raisin in wet walnuts, hot fudge, and candied chestnuts with a splash of butterscotch.

        One Christmas, long before the discovery of cholesterol, my then husband and I hand-cranked chocolate-chunk fudge swirl with pieces of date and toasted almonds and roasted a brace of geese for friends at dinner. I basked in the moans of joy from our guests while eating a civilized saucerful. Then, when everyone was gone and the kitchen immaculate, the two of us polished off another two quarts.

        Thirty years ago, New Yorkers were just discovering that Häagen-Dazs, with its decorative map of Oslo, Stockholm, and Copenhagen, was actually churned in the fjords of the Bronx. That didn't stop converts from mainlining it. And there were old-fashioned ice-cream parlors in every borough. Whipped-cream clouds drifted over Serendipity 3's wondrously overwrought sundaes (real cream, that is, not the insipid spray-froth that Serendipity's Forbidden Broadway Sundae wore when I visited recently).

        New York was then in the full throes of an ice-cream renaissance. And the passion for greatness in ice cream has only intensified. Granted, there are a coven of fakirs and con artists trying to cash in on our lust -- cutting corners, pumping up claims. Some addled geniuses seem sure that whisking up something no one ever dreamed of freezing before -- vanilla-Parmesan, say, or coconut-tobacco with flutters of gold leaf -- is a guaranteed trajectory to stardom. To this day, I'm less than impressed by Douglas-fir fudge or granola-and-jalapeño. So far, I've managed to avoid peanut-butter-and-bacon, and Jean Georges's tofu-anise. (Although his deep, dark, fudgy chocolate sorbet is a killer.) None of us will be slurping huitlacoche, a celebration of corn fungus that Ciao Bella was asked to create. It just didn't work. Viagra ice cream may be inevitable now that it's caught fire in Italy.

        Ice cream ought to be pure . . . but then who is these days? Fresh-made, hand-dipped creams and the couturier satin dispensed by our town's most accomplished pastry chefs are mostly free of chemical artifice. But government standards for commercial ice cream are highly permissive: seaweed, locust-bean gum, propylene glycol, sodium carboxy methylcellulose, and other multisyllabic emulsifiers and stabilizers are permitted, as are dried eggs, dried milk, and artificial flavors.

        If I may quote myself, "Ice cream is like wine. It ranges from the meanest vin ordinaire to the grand cru yield of the great châteaux." American ice cream at its best is classically made with rich cream (and eggs if it is "French"), fresh fruit and fruit purée or cooked syrups, salt, sometimes gelatin, and nuts. By now, it's no secret that a crucial ingredient is air -- up to 50 percent is allowed. "You can weigh one pint against another from the supermarket freezer to see who's most full of air," says Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory guru Mark Thompson.

        Gelato is leaner and denser than the American-style ice cream we grew up on, a mix of whole milk, sometimes eggs, sugar, and flavorings, ideally made in small batches for use the same day. "A gallon of mix makes up to five gallons of American ice cream but only two to two and a half gallons of gelato," says Gino Cammarata, chef half of the Sicilian-brother act at Bussola, where extra tubs of Gino's wonders are packed for Italian restaurants he approves of (Il Cantinori, Bellini, Da Umberto, and Sistina are among the favored).

        What makes for the most intense flavor? Lightness, American air-heads insist. Gelato advocates credit denseness and the quality of their flavorings. American-born Ciao Bella gelato straddles both cultures, a little richer than old-world, a little airier, according to Ciao Bella chief F. W. Pearce, who bought the family formula from a one-machine mom-and-pop shop on Broome and Mercer and took it cross-country. Personally, I think it's too much sugar that obscures flavor. As Felidia's Lidia Bastianich observes, "We Italians like our coffee very sweet and our desserts not too sweet."

        You certainly won't hear me obsessing about air or butterfat when I'm confronting Lupa's sticky and bittersweet tartufo with hazelnut sauce. And I never dreamed that the simple chocolate-wafer drugstore cookie sandwich would evolve into the brilliance of today's boutique sandwiches. Gotham Bar & Grill's signature coupe, in its skyscraper glass, permits childhood nostalgia with adult elegance, whether it's the chocolate-malt (layered bittersweet and malt ice creams, candied almonds, and fudgey excess) or the peanut-butter (peanut-butter and praline ice creams and chocolate sorbet). Daniel's Armagnac ice cream strikes just the right note lounging on a prune tart. And there's nothing wimpy about Beacon's sublime vanilla ice cream offered with warm fudge, caramel, or mixed-berry sauce.

        In search of the instantly accessible crème de la crème, we locked our tasters in a room with pints from the city's fifteen best ice-cream makers. Restaurant critic Adam Platt, Underground Gourmets Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld, food editor Gillian Duffy, and Jeremy Gerard, a features editor and amateur ice-cream maker himself, sipped mineral water and nibbled Saltines to clear our palates between creams.

        Someone, definitely not me, decided we should sniff and slurp vanilla and strawberry. Personally, I think vanilla is for sissies. I would have preferred to test chocolate or coffee. But many gourmands think vanilla is the roast chicken of ice cream -- the ultimate test of the chef's skill. And revisiting strawberry after all those flirtations with lemongrass, blueberry cheesecake, and green tea was a welcome return to childhood. The results were surprising. (See below.)

        Almost all our tasters were shocked to learn that the strawberry we loved most was not Häagen-Dazs but Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. Clearly, the decades of affection for the Bronx "Scandinavian" brew has created a taste for that dense richness. We were quick to detect (and reject) grainy textures that linger on the tongue in overly eggy mixes, to complain about excess sweetness, and to cry for soft bits of berry -- not icicles.

        The smart tartness of the best strawberry entries has definitely revived my forgotten affection for that much-abused berry. And the lush satin and intriguing vanilla notes of the top vanillas made me regret my prejudice against the country's most popular flavor. Sure, it's fun to feel rich and seduced and discover the latest frozen diversion at Bouley or Jean Georges. But, as our tasting proved, extreme indulgence and amazing quality are available by the cone. Last week I gave myself Ben & Jerry's One Sweet Whirled on a stick as a guilt-free reward for losing five pounds, and I've been craving its caramel and coffee ice creams with marshmallow and caramel swirls cloaked in milk chocolate ever since.

Cafe Fiorello

Patina Restaurant Group