A few years ago, a friend of mine who was a personal trainer told me, "If you want to eat ice cream, than eat ice cream — just don't have it all the time, and when you do, get only the best."
Sound advice, especially for those of us past age 12, when any mention of snagging the frozen treat at birthday parties, post-athletic celebrations, and off the most important vehicle on the street, the ice cream truck, sent us into a kiddy-crazed commotion akin to a pack of screeching hyenas tearing into a zebra. With adult ice cream consumption comes adult ice cream reality, namely this hard truth: Whatever gastrointestinal magic that kept the pounds off and the guilt at bay in our youths ain't there anymore. Like missing the ice cream truck, all we can do is stare longingly as it disappears, the sound of its bells fading into the distance, the jingling coins in our pocket unspent.
If that sounds like "all hope is lost," think again. With adulthood also comes our most-human cognitive ability to "game the system." And if that means eating only the best ice cream less frequently, understanding what "the best" means equals memories of our chill-filled childhood uninterrupted. Color me included.
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Enter Shannon Dufresne, ice cream purist and owner of Crave Artisan Ice Cream. Dufresne makes the best ice cream; she can't help herself. After to moving to the Valley in 2005 from Ventura, California, Dufresne graduated from culinary school and worked under celebrated local chef Tracy Dempsey. She quickly started making a name for herself, offering samples (along with a questionnaire) of her still-favorite signature salted caramel to neighbors and setting up shop at local farmers markets. It wasn't long before chefs at top-notch restaurants throughout the Valley started calling on Dufresne, with requests that her ice cream creations become part of their dessert menus. In 2009, she founded Crave.
"A lot of places say their ice cream is homemade, but when I ask them if they make their own base, they'll say, 'Oh, no, we don't do that!' That's when I get pissed off," she says, laughing. "I even yell at the TV food shows when I see that. Just ask my husband."
"The base," says Dufresne, is the key to making the best ice cream, and it consists of essential ingredients like milk, sugar, cream, and egg yolks. If you're into cutting corners (and labor costs), you buy your base as you would a bread mix: ready-made and likely filled with high-fructose corn syrup and other undesirables. If you're Dufresne, you use only the natural stuff, spending hours in a delicate dance, heating and mixing the ingredients to achieve the ultimate ice cream infrastructure.
After the base comes the fun part — the flavors. In the world of the best ice cream — adult ice cream — gone are the trumped-up forgeries of classics like vanilla, strawberry, and mint, their tastes based on artificial ideas, their bright, nearly neon-like colors glowing from inside the cooler alongside other kid-enticing concoctions like bubble gum, cotton candy, and something called "Wild 'n' Krazy." The best ice cream means all-natural ingredients and zero coloring, and, for Dufresne, it's where she can make her cold, creative mark.
After she whipped up Crave's signature flavors — like fresh mint chip, ripe strawberries and cream, and roasted banana toffee (the toffee is homemade, as well) — Dufresne partnered with chef Justin Beckett of Beckett's Table to create a cream cheese citrus ice cream to complement his fig and pecan pie, and with the Andalusian-inspired fine-dining restaurant Prado, where her anisette ice cream, a cool creation of black licorice and alcohol, was featured at this year's Devoured Culinary Classic.
"When I was working with Tracy Dempsey," Dufresne says, "we did a lot of ice creams. I'd watch a food show about Mexican cooking and text her, 'Wouldn't a sour cream ice cream be good?'" She then dishes, "My Holy Grail flavor would be a chocolate pretzel. I love the salty and sweet combination, but it's difficult to keep the pretzels from getting soggy."
A homemade base, natural ingredients — what's left to finding out what makes the best ice cream? It's as simple as the air we breathe. In fact, it is the air we breathe.
The technical term is overrun. A process in which air is blended into the mixture of ingredients until its volume increases by approximately 20 percent. Those tubs of run-of-the-mill ice cream that Mom so easily scooped into soft dollops at your 10th birthday party? High overrun. That pint of Häagen-Dazs you need to let sit out for a few minutes until you can even begin to think of stabbing a spoon into it? Not so much.
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"Most ice cream has a 100 percent or more overrun." Dufresne says. "The more air they can put into it means they can charge more for less. Sometimes they even call it low-fat."
Crave ice cream has a mere 25 percent overrun, which, Dufresne says, is because she uses a gelato machine. The denseness makes the difference in the taste and holds the goodness together.
We love ice cream. We want ice cream. We can't, or shouldn't, have it as frequently as we did when we were kids, but we should eat the good stuff when we do. And though the best ice cream may be harder to find and cost a few dollars more, isn't it worth it? Aren't we worth it? Shannon Dufresne seems to think so. And though she makes the top-of-the-line stuff, she confesses she still has a penchant for Baskin-Robbins peanut butter and chocolate (a favorite of mine, as well).
"Once in a while I'll get a scoop of it," she confesses, "but my husband stays in the car; he never gets any. I guess he'd rather have mine."