Not so long ago, ice cream was simple. You had your standard trio of vanilla, chocolate or strawberry at the local ice cream parlor…with a few tubs of mint chocolate chip and cookie dough thrown in for good measure.
But these days, the frozen treat has become a blank canvas for innovative chefs who are intent on creating wholly unique desserts. Artisanal flavors like hay, pizza and black sesame seaweed adorn the menu boards of shops throughout New York City. But what may be more surprising than the unusual—and often outrageous—flavor combinations are how popular they’ve become.
“The future is combining different vegetables and fruits into your ice cream and creating a creation that you’ve never had before but tastes damn good,” says Scott Seigel, general manager of Max and Mina’s Ice Cream in Flushing, Queens, which serves flavors like herring, pinot grigio and corn. “There are no boundaries.”
Max and Mina’s, which opened 14 years ago, helped to pioneer the current trend. The scoop shop makes all of its roughly 50 rotating ice cream flavors in house and has a waiting list of eager taste-testers who don blindfolds to sample new flavors. Some of the more unconventional ones, such as pizza, which is made with Parmesan cheese, marinara sauce and cookie dough, require about a dozen tries to get right.
“When we first started doing this, people thought we were crazy,” says Seigel, who proudly notes that the shop’s most unexpected varieties are also big sellers. “This is the future right here, right now.”
Amy Miller, owner of the Early Bird Cookery, based in Callicoon Center, New York, would agree.
She hawks flavors like hay, beet and goat cheese with maple walnut at markets and festivals throughout the city.
“People always ask me for a vanilla. But I just don’t have it in me,” Miller says. “If we’re going to spend the time doing it, I want these flavors to be flavorful, memorable, local and seasonal. Otherwise, people can get it at the store.”
She hopes the one-of-a-kind combinations will differentiate her from the pack of other small-batch producers and help her to build a name for herself, she says.
“I’m thinking of doing some different grain ice creams, like maybe a toasted rye ice cream or a wheat ice cream,” she says.
As outlandish as some of those flavors may sound, they aren’t that unusual—or new, according to Laura Weiss, the author of “Ice Cream: A Global History.”
Weiss points out that chef Antonio Latini was making pine cone, eggplant and pumpkin ice cream in the late 17th century in Naples, Italy. Monsignor Emy, whose first name is unknown, mixed up batches of artichoke, foie gras, asparagus and violet ice cream for those wealthy enough to afford a taste in mid-18th-century France.
But such frozen creations, which blur the line between sweet and savory, only started to take off about five years ago in the United States.
“It’s part of the whole intense interest in experimenting with food,” Weiss says. “You can be really creative with ice cream, which I think people are discovering.”
Sutheera Denprapa, co-owner of SkyIce, a café and ice cream shop which recently opened in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is among the new flock of ice cream innovators. She began making ice cream as a teenager in her native Thailand and eventually started experimenting with exotic flavors that she couldn’t find anywhere else.
Denprapa whips up Asian-inspired iced indulgences like Thai tea, black sesame seaweed, durian and sweet basil several times a week—as well as classics like vanilla bean.
She is now in discussions to create a possible new flavor for the famed Thai restaurant SriPraPhai, a foodie favorite in Woodside, Queens.
“It’s whatever I want to have,” says Denprapa, who has been selling her frosty desserts to Thai restaurants in Manhattan and Queens for several years. “People keep coming to see what’s new, what’s next.”
— Clare Trapasso, City Spoonful