Dessert menus are making news with hand-crafted ice creams flavored with pretty far-out ingredients. Mr. Baskin and Mr. Robbins—legendary in ice cream circles as flavor innovators—would no doubt be surprised to see what some of their successors are coming up with these days. Savory herbs and spices like lemongrass and black pepper, creamy cheeses such as ricotta and mascarpone, and exotic fruits are cranking away in restaurant and commercial ice cream makers. While classic vanilla and chocolate are still in big demand, these unusual variations are vying for space in the freezer and on the menu.
Jon Snyder, founder and president of Il Laboratorio del Gelato, can certainly attest to that. From his headquarters in New York's hip Lower East Side neighborhood, he creates signature flavors for some of the most talked-about eateries in the city. Of the more than 100 flavors in his repertoire, an assortment are stocked in his storefront to scoop into cones and cups for walk-ins, but many more are churning away in the back for customized restaurant orders. Popular spots like Five Points, Barbuto, Milos, Pastis, and Schiller's Liquor Bar are a few of Snyder's regulars.
"I'm asked by chefs on a daily basis 'what's new,' or 'what can I serve with this pear tart on my menu?'" Snyder says. "I try to steer them toward seasonal ingredients when possible." Right now, herbs are hot, ending up in trendsetting ice creams flavored with lemon verbena, rosemary, lavender, and tarragon-pink peppercorn. On the spicier side, Thai chile chocolate and dark chocolate cinnamon are destined for bolder menus. And nuts, liqueurs, teas, and tropical produce offer inspiration, too.
His secret formula is a cross between top-quality American ice cream and Italian gelato. "Premium American ice cream is high in butterfat and has air whipped into it, while gelato is denser yet lighter in texture and fat," he says. "My product seems the best of both worlds."
Rob Dalzell, chef-owner of the 98-seat 1924 Main restaurant in Kansas City, MO, favors a rich, custardy ice cream that he learned to make from a California pastry chef. He then refined his palate by sampling ice cream every day during a stint in Paris. Now he's dishing up flavors like black pepper, gingersnap, white chocolate, kiwi, and pineapple on the dessert list of his "spontaneous seasonal" menu.
"To get the full impact, I add the spices and flavorings while I'm steeping the cream," Dalzell explains. He then freezes and "cures" the results, keeping at least a half dozen on hand every night, ready to be offered as the "Trio of Homemade Ice Creams with Cookies" ($6)—a regular on1924 Main's dessert list. "I pair the choices with three compatible cookies, like pineapple ice cream with a coconut macaroon," he says.
Aside from using distinctive fruits, spices, and flavorings, today's ice cream wizards often incorporate cheese and other dairy products into the mix, including mascarpone, blue, ricotta, and sour cream. Dalzell devised a well-received cream cheese ice cream that he teams up with fresh strawberries in balsamic vinegar for his spring menu.
"The cream cheese adds richness and a hint of acid; a lemony nuance that balances the mellow sweetness and slight acidity of the strawberries," he explains.
Sour cream ice cream stars on the menu at the 225-seat Nacional 27, a Lettuce Entertain You Latin-themed concept in Chicago (avg. check, $37). Here, executive chef Randy Zweiban turns several dessert specials a la mode with this sophisticated, slightly lighter topping. For a finale on a recent tasting menu, he paired sour cream ice cream with apples and caramel, then drizzled it with apple cider cooked down to a syrup. For another selection, he served a Venezuelan chocolate brownie sided with a scoop of the ice cream and dulce de leche.
"The slightly savory, tangy flavor of the sour cream complements the profile of my Nuevo-Latino cuisine," says Zweiban. "It's especially good at balancing sweeter dessert ingredients, like caramel and dulce de leche."