There’s hardly any other food so universally equated with childhood happiness as ice cream. And to make it, all you need are four basic ingredients: milk, cream, egg yolk and sugar.
But Philly chefs are expanding ice cream’s expected flavor range beyond just sweet and creamy, while leaving previous concepts of savory ice cream in the dust. To ice cream’s happy associations they’re bringing new elements while radically rethinking the dessert, telling us that it can be just another component of dishes that show up on any section of a menu. After all, could there be a more unapologetic challenge nailed to the frozen-dessert church door than scrapple ice cream?
“Ice cream feels like the most approachable and comfortable medium for introducing people to new and unexpected flavor combos,” says Monica Glass, who consults on all things pastry for Fish. She avoids heavier desserts. Savory elements, while making a dish lighter, “also tend to brighten it and boost flavor and impact without boosting the heaviness.”
For example, at chef Peter Woolsey’s annual duck dinner at his Bistrot La Minette, Glass offered a brilliant balancing act: a duck-fat-enriched sticky bun served with a bourbon ice cream surrounded by an accumulation of duck cracklings.
“It’s all about balancing salty with sweet — or with fat — complementing and offsetting flavors as you would in any dish,” says chef Brad Spence of Amis. At a recent Industry Night, Spence’s spheres of butterfat ice cream quickly disappeared, their robustness cut by a sail of crisp, delicately salty chicken skin.
Welcome to the newest realm of savory ice creams, where herbs, cheese and brittle chicken skin reside.
That scrapple version? It’s just one creation dreamed up by the beautiful mind of Thomas McCarthy, pastry chef at Morimoto. While understanding that people often want familiar touchstones amid Morimoto’s adventurous omakase menu, McCarthy is hardly putting out anything quotidian, even when it comes to ice cream.
“At Morimoto and other places, people are looking for something they haven’t had before,” he says. “They get that in the first three courses, and then we comfort them — but it still has to have something of the exotic.”
Made for a staff meal after a small order of scrapple was accidentally delivered as a full case, the resulting ice cream was more than just scrapple-flavored: There was an evocation of a breakfast of scrapple drizzled with syrup and eaten with French toast. To the ice cream’s base of coffee, brown sugar and maple syrup, McCarthy added chunks of actual French toast and the scrapple, candied in maple syrup.
For the menu, he makes a chevre ice cream. For a special-occasions dessert, he infuses Chinese five-spice into a heated mixture for the base. After it’s turned into soft serve, he folds in some pork fu, the sweetened, shredded pork that adorns Chinatown pastries and that here balances out the five-spice.
Focus on the scrapple or the pork and you miss the point, which is that pastry chefs can display the same creativity seen elsewhere in the kitchen, where ingredients are expected to play off each other while creating broad, ponderous flavor profiles.
But that’s high chef talk. What about the people with no professional training who benefit from never having been told they’re screwing up? Enter Peter Angevine.
“That was a joke that went really well,” the Little Baby’s Ice Cream co-owner says of the pizza ice cream created for Pizza Brain’s 2011 pizza-memorabilia show.
Angevine and partner Martin Brown decided to do “the most obvious and dumb thing we could think of,” says Angevine. Along with that flavor, Morimoto’s McCarthy collaborated with Little Baby’s on another for the event: anchovy ice cream. “The pizza ice cream was good. The anchovy was a hook, a novel experience — I never had anything like that before that moment. It was very emotional in that way,” McCarthy says.
Little Baby’s also makes an Old Bay-and-barbecue ice cream billed as tasting like “you’re eating ribs and crabs.” The flavor — thankfully — doesn’t pop right away, but builds slowly. “I’m inspired by ice cream as a blank canvas. There’s a great opportunity to try all sorts of things,” Angevine says. “And it’s really hard to mess up.”
Sam Jacobson of Sycamore, via a collaboration dinner at Han Dynasty (where — full disclosure — I recently started working as a waiter) with David Ansill and Han Chiang, helped put together a ginger-molasses fruitcake with walnut syrup, to which they applied a Sichuan-peppercorn ice cream. It went beyond the dinner’s purpose of putting a Chinese spin on Western dishes. “It was strong, intense,” Jacobson says. “The people who got it loved it,” he says of the divisive, numbing experience.
At Lacroix, Jon Cicho pairs blanched asparagus with asparagus ice cream. To a melodious plate brimming with freshness and color, the ice cream contributes a cool, breezy chorus. “The sugar of the ice cream cuts the slight bitterness of the asparagus,” Cichon says.
Similar applications play out across town at Ela via the Musashi-like precision of chef Jason Cichonski.
To a salty, chili-cured salmon tartar, Cichonski applies a cannelle of avocado ice cream that carries salt, cilantro, lime and a dash of sriracha. The ice cream echoes the chill of the salmon and extends the creaminess of avocado.
While describing what a bone-marrow or truffle ice cream means to his cooking, Cichonski explains that any ice cream embodies the same principles as other sauces he prepares. Though for appetizers and mains, he avoids using the words “ice cream” on the menu’s description. He wants people to figure it out for themselves. “We want it to be fun, to broaden horizons,” he says. “If I give a dish to them in the same way as anyone else, why come here?”