SAN FRANCISCO — Forget chocolate vs. vanilla, how about a dish of ale and bacon ice cream? Or maybe you'd rather stay old school and order some rocky road — but made with homemade marshmallows and a sprinkling of sea salt, of course.
The inside scoop on ice cream this summer is classic meets culinary avant garde.
Take Salt & Straw Ice Cream in Portland, Ore., which just opened with an ice cream pushcart (a scoop shop's opening later this summer). Not only are they offering an ale and bacon ice cream, it's a farm-to-cone concept using local ingredients. So the beer is from Portland-based Laurelwood Brewery and the bacon from Olympic Provisions.
Not artisanal enough for you? Other beer flavors (made from the offerings of various breweries) will include pear with blue cheese, lemon basil with sorbet, and sea salt with ribbons of hand-made caramel.
By the way, salted caramel is hot in the world of ice cream; it's popping up at creameries everywhere.
Another big trend in ice cream is soft-serve. But we're not talking the pale, bland swirl of tonsil-chilling sweetness you may remember from childhood.
At Bi-Rite Creamery in San Francisco, soft-serve flavors include vanilla, of course, but also spicy Mexican chocolate, and balsamic strawberry. They also have salted caramel, which marketing director Kirsten Bourne said is "the most popular flavor by far."
The Creamery added soft-serve to its ice cream offerings last year after realizing that the shop, with its retro-vibe, was the perfect setting for the classic dessert. Just like the scooped ice cream, the soft serve is made from Straus Family Organic Dairy products.
The two daily soft-serve flavors, based on seasonal, local ingredients, can be combined in a swirl. The popular Kris's Combo features vanilla soft serve with blood orange olive oil and Maldon sea salt.
The dream of a better ice cream extends to restaurants.
Candace Rowan, pastry chef at A16 restaurant in San Francisco remembers working in Bay area restaurants 20 years ago and having ice cream brought in. These days, chefs are churning out their own creations.
Rowan likes to use whatever is in season when making her sorbets and gelatos. A specialty is spumoni made with layers of chocolate, cherry and pistachio. "I kind of had to wait until cherries came into season and they've been really good for the past week and a half, so I've finally got to make spumoni gelato," she said.
She likes to experiment; a recent creation was a Marsala (a sweet fortified Italian wine) date gelato, a new take on rum raisin ice cream.
But she's not into choosing ingredients for shock value. "I've done a basil gelato," she said. "It was OK."
Her favorite thing is to take a beautiful ingredient, like a perfectly ripe peach, and turn it into something that still tastes like a peach. "Apricots. I had some great apricots and turned it into a beautiful sorbet with a little bit of honey," she said. "Once it came out of the machine you couldn't tell if it was a gelato or a sorbet. It was great. Sometimes, I'm just like, 'Wow, I can't believe I made that,'" she added with a laugh.
Some frozen dessert data from the International Dairy Foods Association:
— 1.52 billion: Number of gallons of ice cream produced in 2009.
— Vanilla, Chocolate, strawberry, chocolate chip, butter pecan: Top five individual flavors in order of preference.
— 90: Percent of households in the United States where ice cream and related frozen desserts are consumed.
— California: State producing the most frozen dairy desserts, at 169 million gallons in 2009.