Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ice Cream Not for the Masses

When, where, why and how to find the best flavors

I’m going to let you in on a little secret of hardcore ice cream eaters: make the most of the frigid weather.

I’m not talking about some kooka-mamie cold storage tip, nor some fanciful notion that you should travel to warmer climes and eat ice cream there. Nope. The secret about cold weather is it allows ice cream vendors to put their more creative flavors in the case.

When the weather turns and business slows, ice cream sellers have a few options. For one, they can close for the season, but that’s a pretty undesirable option. They can order less ice cream from the distributor and cover up some of the spots in their case, or even shut down one of their cases, thus saving on electricity as well—which is a pretty common option for towns that get little foot traffic in the winter months and even less tourism. Finally, they may just get daring, pulling some of the more staple flavors and swapping them for something a little more inventive. After all, the customers who will continue to visit the ice cream shop even in the dead of winter are likely to be slightly more adventurous than the vanilla-demanding public of May through September.

For about two years, I worked in a sweet shop in Buffalo, N.Y., that had a sizable ice cream counter. In the summer, we often dedicated four slots in the freezers to vanilla: one for vanilla frozen yogurt, one for French vanilla, and two for regular vanilla (we sometimes needed two tubs on hand since we burned through it so quickly making shakes, sundaes, and the run-of-the-mill scoop, or as they’re often called in Buffalo, “dips,” as in, “I’ll have a double-dip of vanilla”). On top of that, there were a few flavors that the owners demanded be available in the peak season, including chocolate, strawberry, butter pecan, mint chocolate chip, chocolate chip, pistachio, coffee, cookie dough, and a handful of other flavors that sold particularly well in that market. I recall a mandate that so long as peach frozen yogurt was available from the supplier, it would have a permanent home in our case.

We employees, in fact, would have heated debates when a slot opened up that wasn’t dedicated to one of the most popular flavors. Should it be filled with strawberry frozen yogurt or espresso chip? Chocolate almond or raspberry cheesecake? And I recall on more than one occasion coming to near blows with a girl who refused to see the importance of having at least one peanut butter flavor on deck at all times. I damn near knocked her over wrestling a five-gallon tub of Moose tracks into place, a quart of which I intended to take home for myself.

But in the winter months, no one really bats an eye if peach frozen yogurt isn’t on the menu. If you’ve got the tantalizing seasonal flavors, like apple pie, pumpkin pie, and peppermint stick, no one usually notices the absence of cookies-n-cream. The most adventurous flavors move because, in the winter, the only people out buying ice cream are the ones who set their minds to it well in advance. There aren’t any impulse shoppers. There’s no foot traffic. It’s just you, me, and the die-hard ice cream fans.

One little caveat before I go on: I’m using the words “ice cream” when I should, technically speaking, say “frozen dessert.” Gelato, sorbetto, sorbet, frozen yogurt—I do appreciate that there is a difference, but quite frankly it’s not all that important to me. If it’s cold and sweet (and more importantly, contains peanut butter) I’m in. What makes it even more of a moot point is the popularity of gelato in San Francisco. Still, the principle is the same, so let’s not get too uppity about terminology.

San Francisco, unlike Buffalo, N.Y., doesn’t really have a peak season/off-peak season for ice cream. It’s 55 degrees in January and it’s 55 degrees in August. Still, there are streaks of warmer weather when ice cream sales do pick up, and conversely, there are cold spells that drive the business into near-hibernation, two of which we’ve already seen in 2007.

Around October, at the start of the rainy season, I began to take notes on what creative flavors were slowly budding from local ice cream vendors. At the somewhat recently opened Holy Gelato in the Inner Sunset neighborhood, I nabbed a scoop of rice pudding gelato and one of Jameson and cookies right around the time the thermometer started to drop. At Ciao Bella in the Ferry Building, I’ve been scribbling the names of available flavors over the last two or three months, irresistibly creative flavors that we might not be seeing once the warmer weather sets back in, like grapefruit Campari, maple gingersnap, and malted milk ball. From Gelateria Naia, which admittedly has imaginative concoctions all year round, I recently saw marzipan-chocolate, panna cotta, and the company’s flavor of the month from November, cannoli. Tango Gelato has listed on its web site flavors I’d imagine are more popular in the cold, like olive oil and plum wine. Mitchell’s, probably San Francisco’s most well recognized ice cream shop, carries a wide array of flavors all year round but offers a few specialty flavors for the season, like Irish coffee in March for St. Patrick’s Day.

The gelaterias out here, close as we are to Napa and Sonoma, adore pleasing their oenophile customers, offering flavors like Merryvale Merlot Grape (Gelateria Naia), Pink Champagne sorbet (Ciao Bella), and blackberry cabernet (Tango Gelato). San Francisco has a great Asian influence, so it’s not uncommon to see Thai tea, green tea, red bean, ginger, and fruit flavors from the far East (lychee, jackfruit, et cetera). One of my dream flavors is Vietnamese coffee, made sweetened condensed milk-flavored ice cream (maybe employing a similar technique as used in Cold Stone Creamery’s “cake batter” flavored ice cream) and powered by the caffeine bite of strong espresso.

Before it’s too late, bundle up and trek out into the driving rain to your favorite ice cream parlor before the masses drive out the best flavors.

—Jill Duffy

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A Taste Worth Not Knowing

“I hear dark chocolate is the better chocolate nowadays. But I’m pretty sure my granddaughter likes milk chocolate—”

“The best chocolate is the chocolate you like. If your granddaughter likes milk chocolate, encourage her to eat that.”

This was a snippet of conversation I overheard in Fog City News about a week or two ago while on my lunch break, browsing the store’s madly stocked shelves in preparation for Valentine’s Day. When an elderly gentleman asked for advice about what to get his granddaughter, Adam (or at least I believe it was Adam, the owner of Fog City News) of course made the right call in dispelling the customer’s myth. But even better, I appreciate that he used the word “encourage.” We’ve heard the same song and dance a hundred times about wine: The best wines are the ones you like to drink.

So, “good” wine, chocolate, and well, any food or drink is the one you like. There’s no other way to judge quality except by personal taste. This mantra, unfortunately, is two-pronged. On the one hand, it’s true that people should not be swayed by statements of nonsense and snobbery, including but not limited to: “There’s no such thing as good merlot”; “One must learn the A, B, Cs of wine: Anything But Chardonnay;” “Dark chocolate is divine. Milk chocolate is crap.”

On the other hand, these flaming accusations came from somewhere, and may even have an inkling of truth behind them.

A History of Accusations

Like any great stereotype or over generalization, these statements were generated for some reason. The stigma against milk chocolate, for example, has developed as a reactionary stance against turn of the century cheap chocolate, specifically Hershey’s, as pointed out by Steve Almond in his book Candy Freak, as well as mentioned by A.K. Crump at his book-signing talk for French Chocolate the other night at Books Inc. in San Francisco. As Crump speculated, as the appreciation for chocolate grew in America, a reactionary stance developed that rejected the old Hershey’s chocolate taste, which was primarily sugary. And since milk chocolate is typically sweeter tasting than dark chocolate, even when it is made of very high quality cacao and doesn’t contain an overwhelming amount of sugar, some people turned their noses to it in favor of the darker varieties on principle alone. As a result, fewer people even venture into milk chocolates.

I’m sure what happened with wine is similar, though I won’t pretend to know the history of the last 100 years of wine trends in America. However, two older women told me, through their thickly European-accented English, that chardonnay in particular was not only widely available in the U.S. for years and years, but also cheaply produced, made to be overly buttery tasting, and so on and so forth.

Flavor Association

The residual issue is that the majority of the population, the people who are not wine connoisseurs, who have never examined how cacao tastes without an overload of sugar and preservatives, only know what they are exposed to, and so they develop a taste for Hershey’s or Heinz ketchup or Stouffer’s lasagna or Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies. The development of those tastes and the solidification in the brain that those tastes are desirable are what further fuel the processed foods and fast food industries.

Back to the scene in Fog City News. What I liked about Adam’s response is that he said he would “encourage” the girl to eat milk chocolate. By saying that the grandfather should “encourage” the development of the girl’s initial taste preference, Adam very subtly tapped into the problem so many people face with food snobbery, which is this: If one only thinks one knows what one likes without experimenting fully, then one never develops a true verdict—only a limited sense of how one thinks a product should taste.

With wine and chocolate, it’s especially hard to be totally objective. Any taster is immediately informed by price tag fore mostly, packaging, presentation, brand-association or name, as well as the perceived quality of the retail purveyor (for example, the same bar of chocolate as purchased from a mass chain supermarket versus a small chocolatier, specialty shop, or organic grocery). A $25 bottle of wine will taste better than a $7.99 one. A tiny truffle served on a stylish white square appetizer plate with mint leaf garnish will taste better than the same truffle eaten out of a napkin. A jar of Dagoba organic drinking chocolate from Safeway seems less reputable than the same one purchased from Whole Foods Market.

Beans, It’s What’s for Dessert

While I personally don’t know a whole lot about chocolate, and even though I know even less about wine, I know literally next to nothing about dim sum. I don’t even have the same prejudices about packaging or cost or esteemed purveyors when it comes to dim sum. So in a sense, it represents for me truly uncharted territory where I can taste new foods for myself, without influence.

Before I moved to California, I had never even heard of dim sum. I’ve since learned that it basically refers to a way of eating, sort of like “brunch” or “snack,” without referring to any specific food or dish.

Because the majority of my pleasure from eating originates in texture, I felt good about dim sum from the get-go. I savored the gooey, gluey steamed rice flour concoctions. I fiddled with soft baked pork buns, stretching the dough and pulling bits off with my fingertips before popping them into my mouth. I slurped long rolled rice noodles that resembled lasagna sheets. I tried it all. I can’t say I relished every single bit that passed my lips, but overall, I’ve liked almost everything I’ve tried. Within my first two encounters, it became evident that I was inclined to try anything with sweet red beans, anything wet and slimy (like some dumplings) with pockets of hot broth, anything containing egg custard. I tried take-out first, and more recently, sit-down service, where little clanging push carts made a racket throughout the long meal and servers had to be shooed away every other minute as they tried to unload tray-fulls of food on our table.

Why did I like what I liked? Because it tasted good. I don’t think I’ve ever paid more than $1.50 for a piece of dim sum, with $0.33 being more like the average, so cost wasn’t a persuasive factor. I went in with zero expectations and zero anticipations (and zero hesitation). For me to experience food with an open mind, I had to venture into something I knew nothing about whatsoever. Eating something that I had no preconceived notions about was a valuable experience—not to mention refreshing—and I would encourage others to reinvigorate their thoughts about how food should taste by delving into some cuisine that their taste buds know nothing about. It’s worth it to not know because how you approach the food changes.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to step back far enough from my preconceived notions of chocolate or wine to fully appreciate them anew; my exposure to has simply been too long to shake them. At least I have dim sum.
—Jill Duffy

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Spotlight On: The Effin’ Chefn'!

Is “cute” the new kitchen “black”?

I admit it: I adore my Switchit Spatula more for its dapper looks than its ability to hold up under stress. My baby pink utensil (though available in a range of colors, from frost to avocado to huckleberry), made by the design hipsters at Chef’n, juts out of my makeshift kitchen-caddy like a newly sprung tulip. When I first bought it up for about $10 more than a year ago, it was something of an impulse buy, a rare occasion for someone who is an extreme comparison shopper. But by golly, look at it!

The scenario goes, as Alton Brown would say, thusly: You’re in the spatula and pancake-flipper section of your favorite kitchen store, when a jar of colorful Swithits catches your eye. The Switchit demands you pick it up for a closer examination. You notice its firm and rubbery self is a joy for the palm to behold, or in any case, “hold.” Its weight is assertive, but not overbearing. It’s sturdy, yet flexible at the wide tip. Slender, yet durable. It can withstand temperatures up to 650 degree Fahrenheit.

So naturally, as you fondle the Switchit seductively, suddenly remember that you are indeed in public, you come to believe that this spatula will somehow revolutionize your kitchen duties, or at least look really effin’ pretty in your caddy.

In all honesty, I do use my Switchit nearly every day, but occasionally with some amount of distress. It’s a bit sturdier than other spatulas, which is great for cooking—especially flipping crepes—but not nearly as useful as a flimsier one for scraping bowls, ribbed cans, or the curved inside edges of a blender. And hence, that is precisely how I managed to gouge a few tiny tears in the wide end of mine. I had been trying to coax out the last dribbles of a smoothie one morning and underestimated the width of the tapered end. Under the blender blade it went to become firmly stuck. The blade had a firm chomped-down grip on my girlie little Switchit, and for a good minute I didn’t think I would be able to rescue the poor thing. I yanked. It tore, but overall, the Switchit faired really well. The damage most closely resembles the work of a teething puppy, which means I’ve declared it officially still usable.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Spotlight On: Ritter Sport

Smitten by Ritter

Dear Ritter Sport,

When our love affair first began, I thought you would be a fleeting fancy, a one-night stand. Two years later, you and I have history. We’ve been up nights together writing essays on non-standard dialects of English. I’ve secreted off in the middle of the work day to nip a taste of you. You’ve laid low in the back of the pantry where only I would know of your existing, creeping my dainty fingers to your hiding place and breaking off little snippets of love all week long.

At first, it was cappuccino seduction: like coffee ice cream, sweet and lush, mellow and creamy… the muted crackle of chocolate crunching undertooth. What joy to eat with the hands.

And lately, oh naughty marzipan, your texture is that of finely ground coconut, with hints of almond flavor, your bright white essence peaking out from between slats of chocolate dark as night.

I’ll meet you at 9 tonight.
Yours truly,
-jillduffy