Aja Cage, the pastry chef at Salt, remembers her “aha” moment with ice cream. Her boss at the time, at an upscale Pittsburgh restaurant, asked her to check on some cilantro ice cream. “I thought, ‘Wow. You can make ice cream with cilantro?’ And it was a dessert.”
Cage, 29, grew up in Howard County eating Baskin Robbins, whose 31 varieties didn’t include any type of parsley. Her favorite childhood flavor was chocolate, and these days, even after culinary-school degrees and years in restaurants, she finds herself drawn to vanilla, made with real vanilla bean. Sometimes, after working with the myriad flavors at Salt, she says, “I go back to vanilla and realize I’ve forgotten how good it is.”
On a recent day, she is standing over a 10-quart saucepan in the restaurant’s narrow kitchen, slowly whisking a mixture of milk, sugar, and heavy cream. Soon, she will add egg yolks that have been beaten with sugar. The process, called tempering, is done slowly to ensure that the eggs don’t cook too quickly, thickening to custard. The next step is cooling, refrigeration, and then freezing in an ice-cream maker. Sometime tomorrow, it will be ice cream.
But before that, Cage will decide what flavor this batch will become. She might toss five Earl Grey teabags in the hot milk, cover the pot with plastic wrap, and let it steep for a while. In the winter, she served Earl Grey ice cream with a fig pudding cake, garnished with candied Meyer lemon peel.
Or she might go for Mexican chocolate, elegant and smooth with a cayenne bite. She recently read about the chicken ice cream made at Textile restaurant in Houston and tried it out on the Salt staff. Chef-owner Jason Ambrose loved it, and the two are talking about adding a new dessert in late summer: “chicken” and waffles made with deep-fried chicken ice cream served on a sweet waffle with some kind of syrup.
Making ice cream that tastes like chicken—which sounds like something from Willy Wonka’s famous factory—is not as simple as blending chunks of meat into the mix. Cage is all about infusions, so she poaches chicken bones directly in the milk, the same way she steeps tea. She’s used the technique to make lavender gin ice cream—with gin, lavender leaves, and juniper berries—and toasted-almond ice cream, the nuts soaked in warm milk until their flavor has been leeched into the liquid.
While ice cream is the quintessential American dessert—we consume more than 1.5 billion gallons annually, according to the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA)—its use in many restaurants has long been an afterthought. It’s true that we’ve grown accustomed to ice-cream shops proffering scores of flavors—from straightforward strawberry to spirited Guinness Stout, with any manner of mix-ins from Snickers bars to bubble gum. But restaurant ice cream is most familiar as a scoop of vanilla that elevates a slice of cake or pie à la mode.
Even chefs in fine restaurants, who may think nothing of fussing over a molten chocolate bombe or a fragrant fruit cobbler, often put no more effort into its topping than plunging a metal paddle into a cardboard container.
But ice cream, we’re happy to report, is no longer a bystander. It has begun to take center stage on dessert menus. And chefs are entertaining our taste buds, mixing the savory with the sweet, concocting flavors that may challenge—and, occasionally, bewilder—even as they complement the dessert of the day.
Take pastry chef Joy Ludwig’s red-wine-poached pear tart at Charleston, which she has served in the past with brandied cherry ice cream, or her Key lime cheesecake, delectable on its own, but a different dessert entirely when paired with a scoop of white-chocolate ice cream. And in the cold months, chef E. Michael Reidt of B&O American Brasserie served caramel balsamic ice cream with a butterscotch pudding tart.
The International Ice Cream Association reports that the latest trends in your grocer’s freezer include lowered fat and sugar and the incorporation of probiotics and other purported healthful modifications that some would say have no business in ice cream. Never fear: People still want premium ice creams, too, with add-ins like brownies and cake, the association notes.
Thankfully, Baltimore’s restaurant chefs are not intimidated by calories and cholesterol, embracing full fat with joie de vivre. Even the avocado ice cream at B&O is spun from a base of heavy cream, egg yolks, and sugar. To be sure, sorbets are also popular and can magically deliver the taste of fresh fruit. Ludwig’s blood-orange sorbet, for example, is dark purple in color and as flavorful as the fruit itself, though heightened by added sugar.
In the kitchen at Salt, Cage continues making ice cream, lifting the spoon from the soupy cream—she’s already added eggs—to show its opaque coating, or nappé. She draws the spoon through the broth. “If the line stays,” she says, “you’re ready to go.” The next step is straining the cream through a fine sieve to catch any stray bits that may have cooked on the side of the pan.
The mix is soon ready for chilling in an ice bath, and then freezing. Cage already has a container of ice-cream mix she prepared the day before in the freezer. Now is the fun part: spinning the ice cream.
Both Salt and Charleston use Italian-made Musso machines. Ambrose bought his from Ixia after it had gone out of business. “I heard it was for sale and rolled in there with cash,” says Ambrose, who paid $850 for the ice-cream maker, which churns just two quarts at a time. The Musso is essentially a refrigeration unit with a bowl affixed. Rather than having to refreeze the bowl for each batch, Ambrose says, “Our turn-around time is zero.” Once a flavor is churned and the bowl and dasher (stirring paddle) are cleaned, it’s ready for another go. “We can make ice cream all day,” he says.
By some standards, the Salt machine was a bargain. The Pacojet used at B&O is no bigger than a home espresso maker and sells for almost $5,000, says Reidt. Moreover, the canister, called a beaker, has to be frozen each time it’s used. (Most commercial establishments probably own multiple beakers, at about $40 each. B&O has 12.) Reidt insists the Pacojet is worth the money. One reason is that it spins ice cream in graduated strata, just one portion at a time. “You can basically make ice cream to order,” he says. He calls it “Paco-tizing” and boasts that the machine can be used for anything—even pureeing paté from chicken livers, port wine, and onions, though they must be cooked and frozen first.
Home cooks, take heart. Michel Tersiguel, chef at his family’s eponymous French restaurant in Ellicott City, says that he replaced his costly machine, which seemed to constantly break down, with two $30 Rival machines from Target. From these, he makes ice cream from ingredients grown in his parents’ Randallstown garden: fresh mint and raspberries and lavender with honey from a local beekeeper. The ice cream at Tersiquel’s is served in a “bowl” molded from chipped ice.
But Reidt also praises the Pacojet for the texture it produces. The aerated results mean consistent dollops of ice cream. Reidt and Ludwig both favor the classic “quenelle” shape, named for a poached dumpling that can be traced to ancient Rome.
Though Aja Cage uses a round scoop to create uniform balls—notably for the trio of miniature ice-cream cones served at Salt—she also appreciates the quenelle and makes one by dragging a teaspoon through the ice cream, then warming the back of the spoon on her wrist, so the lump will plop on the plate in the shape of an egg, or, more accurately, in the shape of the bowl of a spoon.
While classic flavors are still popular—Ludwig says her dark chocolate cake with coffee ice cream represents more than a third of the desserts sold at Charleston—the use of savory ingredients is growing. (Though not necessarily at Charleston. Chef-owner Cindy Wolf says, “I don’t believe ice cream is supposed to be salty. It’s supposed to be sweet. I’m just old-fashioned, I guess.” Her favorite is buttermilk ice cream.)
Reidt at B&O understands the reluctance toward unusual flavors. “Savory ice cream requires a certain mindset,” he says. He’s a fan, though, and may include dark chocolate ice cream with adobo chile paste and bacon on his fall menu. The salty bacon will provide contrast to the rich dark chocolate with its bitter overtones. The adobo will be ground with raisins for a sensation both sweet and hot.
Reidt explains his dedication to real ingredients. He grew up in Boston and, on weekends, would go north of the city for ice cream with his father to shops operated by family-owned dairy farms. “I got to be really picky,” he says. “I won’t even eat processed ice cream.”
At Jack’s Bistro, chef-owner Ted Stelzenmuller is known for his whimsical combinations—like the oft-mentioned macaroni and cheese laced with dark chocolate—that may fall into the category of “acquired taste.”
Jack’s has dessert ice creams—in particular its exclusive pink peppercorn and lavender—but Stelzenmuller also has come up with a savory one—ranch-dressing ice cream. (Both recipes were developed by the chef but are made at Maggie Moo’s in Fells Point.)
Stelzenmuller serves the ranch-dressing ice cream on his “BLT” appetizer, a bed of arugula with sliced and marinated heirloom tomatoes topped by a slice of pork belly. The dish is crowned by a scoop of the savory ice cream. Sure enough, the ice cream mimics the familiar ranch flavor, though it’s a bit sweeter than the bottled stuff. It slowly melts over the tender sous vide pork and drips onto the greens.
It’s a far cry from accompanying a birthday cake. But that’s the point.