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Cookbook Review: Just How Cool Are 'Big Gay Ice Cream' and 'Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream'?

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Ten years ago, food writer and cookbook author David Lebovitz was teaching a cooking class, and asked his students, "How many people make ice cream at home?" Recounting the story not too long ago, he said, "A lot of hands shot up. And I found that surprising." It was 2006, and Lebovitz, previously the longtime pastry chef at Berkeley's iconic Chez Panisse, had just published his third book and was trying to come up with an idea for the fourth. His students' enthusiasm for ice cream inspired him. "So I went home and Googled ‘ice cream cookbooks,'" he said. "And at the time, there were only two general ice cream cookbooks, and they were both softcover."


That was all it took. The next year, Ten Speed Press published Lebovitz's The Perfect Scoop: Ice Creams, Sorbets, Granitas, and Sweet Accompaniments and it landed with a bang on the best-seller lists. A paperback version is still in print; the book remains a hit more than a decade later.

An ice cream cookbook is a very specific thing. Unlike most other cookbooks, it assumes — and often requires — that you own an appliance that most people don't consider necessary. For most recipes, a knife and fire suffice; for traditional French, Italian, and American-style ice cream, a cook needs either a machine, or a lot of elbow grease.

There's also the matter of the ingredients: milk and sugar, sure, but no one keeps quarts of heavy cream and dozens of egg yolks lying around. You have to want to make ice cream, and if you invest in both an ice cream maker and an ice cream cookbook, you have to want to — or you have to convince yourself that one day you will want to — make it on some sort of regular basis. All this despite the availability, low cost, and convenience of high-quality ice cream on almost every corner, at markets, gas stations, carts, trucks, and grocery stores.

You have to want to make ice cream, and you have to want to make it on some sort of regular basis

Churning ice cream at home is a hassle. Even the fanciest machines rarely spin more than a couple of quarts at once, and the standard home machine will churn just a quart at a time, and that's only after you freeze the insert for 24 hours. Two new books dedicated to the frozen confection aim to make the case that all of this — even with the ease of getting pre-made ice cream, even in the Lebovitz's bible and others that have come after it — is a worthy use of time and effort. In the name of this summer's two major new ice cream cookbooks, Big Gay Ice Cream: Saucy Stories & Frozen Treats: Going All the Way with Ice Cream and Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream, I churned up 16 quarts of the stuff. Was it worth it?

The oldest ice cream cookbook on file at the Library of Congress, a French book titled Art de bien faire les glaces d'office, dates back to 1786. The first recipe for ice cream in an American cookbook was published in The New Art of Cookery in 1792. And until the 1990s, ice cream cookbooks were mostly written by home cooks or non-specialized chefs. They were general instructional manuals, not too different from the paperback booklet that comes with every countertop ice cream machine.

Then the trend in ice cream books shifted. Though Ben & Jerry's — trailblazers in all things sweet and frozen — published their namesake cookbook all the way back in 1987, the ice cream cookbook as monograph arguably didn't begin to become a genre until 1999 when New York Times columnist Melissa Clark published the Ice Cream Machine Cookbook. In the early aughts, mirroring the rapid rise of the celebrity chef, the ice cream-only volume became an exciting niche among dessert cookbooks. Over the course of that decade, the ice cream cookbook evolved from instruction manual into an anthology of an author's unique theories about how to make the frozen treat. Call it the celebrity ice cream chef cookbook — or at least, the celebrity ice cream shop cookbook.

The ice cream cookbook evolved from instruc­tion manual into an anth­ology of an author's unique theories about how to make the frozen treat

2011 was a big year for ice cream cookbooks, New York City-based pastry chef Christina Tosi published the long-awaited Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook, containing recipes for all sorts of sweets, but notably spilling the secrets of her famous soft-serve. That same year, Ohio-based ice cream obsessive Jeni Britton Bauer published Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home, providing recipes for the best-loved ice creams from her eponymous shops and retail line.

The next several years saw an explosion in volumes from high-profile, media-darling ice cream shops: LA's Cool Haus, San Francisco's Humphrey Slocombe and Bi-Rite Creamery, and Brooklyn's Ample Hills Creamery all came out with gorgeous, full-color hardcover books filled with recipes for signature flavors, toppings, and combinations. Taken together, these books are as much an exercise in small-business theory, branding, and lifestyle as they are recipe books, and they sold well both because their namesake shops had legions of fans, and because their ice cream chef-authors are beloved local celebrities. But it's hard to say whether the books sold people on actually making ice cream at home.

Big Gay Ice Cream and Van Leeuwen grew out of the same milieu as Jeni's, Milk Bar, and the rest. Both started as trucks roaming the streets of New York City, both came of age in the mid- to late aughts, when the modern food truck phenomenon hit its peak. It was a brilliant pairing of recession-proof concepts: food trucks and their low overhead costs, ice cream and its high bang-for-your-buck payoff to customers.

What the two brands' trucks lacked in twinkly music they made up for in per­son­ality and precision, but that's where the similarities end

What the two brands' trucks lacked in twinkly music they made up for in personality and precision, but that's where the similarities between the two businesses end. Big Gay is all about the psychedelic go-go flamboyance of tongue-in-cheek, raunchy fun, while Van Leeuwen is the ultimate Brooklyn hipster, all bold-rimmed Ray Bans and tastefully ripped jeans, lounging in an austere coffee shop with a hardcover Baudelaire. Both brands are cool. And both brands are beloved in New York, where being too cool is the ultimate social status symbol.

But there's one more similarity: Both of them published books this year. If the books' goals were to be a physical, paper-and-glue encapsulation of their respective brand identities, they each pulled it off without a hitch. If the goals were to teach a novice how to make a batch of ice cream, both books managed to do this as well. But if the goal was to teach home cooks how to make ice cream representative of the brand — how to make ice cream at home that tastes and feels like it could only have come from Van Leeuwen or Big Gay — only one of them hit the mark.

Big Gay Ice Cream: Saucy Stories and Frozen Treats

Big Gay Ice Cream, written by founders and partners Bryan Petroff and Douglas Quint, along with food writer Rebecca Flint Marx, is a book for the Big Gay Ice Cream world's ultrafans, groupies, and celebrity friends. It's colorfully structured like a high-school yearbook, the content is one part story of the trucks and shops, and one part fan-fiction, with some decent recipes thrown in.

BONUS VIDEO: Big Gay Ice Cream's salty pimp sundae

I live in New York, so I was able to do a side-by-side comparison of the recipes in the book against their real-life counterparts. I tried the basic flavors and sundaes from both the shop and the book on the same day, and wound up surprised: even using a standard ice-cream maker instead of a soft-serve machine, it was more than the mouthfeel that was different. The standard vanilla soft-serve offered at Big Gay's shop in New York's East Village isn't as milk-forward as the vanilla ice cream recipe in its book; it's sweeter, stickier, and lacking in the recipe's rich vanilla flavor. This might be the first time that a cookbook recipe makes a far better version of a dish than the one sold at the source.

But no one really goes to Big Gay Ice Cream for the actual ice cream — the lines that form outside its shops and trucks are full of people looking for the inventive things Petroff and Quint do with the ice cream once it exists. And the book, for the most part, delivers: You'll learn how to make some great sauces, build excellent floats and shakes, and how the Big Gay guys put together one of their inventive sundaes. But there's a notable omission: nowhere in the book will you learn how to make Big Gay's best-selling, most famous item, the Salty Pimp. This is because the Salty Pimp — vanilla soft-serve, dulce de leche, salt, and chocolate magic shell — is an ice cream treat served in a cone, and Big Gay Ice Cream is pointedly cone-free book. (The book does have a Salty Pimp Sundae, but the innuendo of licking a Salty Pimp out of a cone is so much of the treat's appeal.)

This conelessness is odd, given how central cones are to Big Gay's identity, and how easy it is to find ice cream cones at the average grocery store. Except for a note about how Big Gay's employees line each cone with some of the sauce that goes into every signature creation (that's a brilliant tip for the at-home cone-filler) there is no mention of cones in the recipes for Big Gay's signature items. You will learn how to make magic shell; you will never be instructed to actually dip an ice cream-topped cone in magic shell. (The recipe for magic shell contains this line, "Ladle over your choice of ice cream and watch the magic happen." I did this. There was no magic; there were clumps of chocolate magic shell.)

The content of Big Gay Ice Cream makes for a great set of recipes, but the results of this book aren't representative of the ice cream you actually get at Big Gay. Some of this might be due to a simple fact of ice cream science: In its trucks and stores, Big Gay Ice Cream sells soft-serve — a type of ice cream that's physically impossible to make at home without a soft-serve ice cream machine. Unfortunately, nowhere in Big Gay's psychedelic swirl of a book do they suggest the home cook purchase a soft-serve ice cream maker. Three-quarters of the way through the book Petroff and Quint specify which ice cream makers they used to test the recipes in the book, and both are traditional spinning wheel ice cream makers (in which a cylindrical container keeps the ice cream base cold and a central paddle or divider churns the mix as it chills): the Cuisinart ICE-3BC and the Breville BC1600XL Smart Scoop.

Soft-serve ice cream machines for the home cook are readily available online, though they're not nearly as popular as traditional, churned ice creams. (Do you know someone with a soft-serve ice cream machine? That person probably also has a pony in their backyard, and too much money in their bank account.) What the book suggests then is that you make traditional ice cream with a traditional ice cream maker — which is not what you'll get at any Big Gay Ice Cream shop. There is a recipe in the book that imitates the texture of soft-serve in which one folds softened, store bought vanilla ice cream into softly whipped cream. It works, but it's also a cheat.

Do you really need a book to tell you to buy ice cream from the store and top it with store bought cereal, nuts, fruit, and saba? That's what Pinterest is for.

I've never met Petroff or Quint, but after reading their book it's clear that they are unafraid of the cheat. The book is full of little cheats, and that's part of a recurring laissez-faire posture that Big Gay projects. It's not my favorite thing about the book, though.

"Don't worry, just make it fun," I can hear Petroff and Quint saying while pretzels, Trix cereal, dulce de leche, peanuts, and chocolate sauce fly through the air. And who can fault that? Ice cream, at its core, is about fun. From the trucks that play twinkly melodies on hot summer days to the banana-split dates you had in high school, ice cream comes wrapped in that hottest of goes-down-easy commodities: nostalgia. And with their focus on shortcuts, toppings, and having fun, Big Gay acknowledges that unlike most other desserts — cookies, say, or brownies — it's a pain in the ass to make ice cream at home. So, sure, cheat a little. The question is: Do you really need a book to tell you to buy ice cream from the store and top it with store bought cereal, nuts, fruit, and saba? That's what Pinterest is for.

Then again, Petroff and Quint's enthusiasm is infectious, and it's that kind of enthusiasm that might get you to invest in an ice cream machine, buy quarts of cream, and separate a dozen eggs. Reading this book makes you want to make ice cream and invite Petroff and Quint over for drinks, and maybe a joint. There's irreverence and personality here; you know they won't judge you (to your face). Historian and author John T. Edge, quoted in one of the yearbook-style messages that pepper the book, says it best: "Sure, the BGIC boys serve up as much shtick as they do soft-serve. But I admire that shtick."

Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream

In contrast to Big Gay Ice Cream's looser take on recipe authenticity, Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream founders and co-owners Laura O'Neill, Ben Van Leeuwen, and Pete Van Leeuwen (working with writer Olga Massov) have written a book that teaches the home cook exactly how to make Van Leeuwen-style ice cream in a home machine. It's an impressive collection of well-tested recipes, and a familiarity with Van Leeuwen's brand is not essential to understanding the book, though a little prior knowledge helps take some of the edge off of the trio's obsessiveness. There's a three-page section exclusively about technique, followed by several pages of ingredient descriptions, a few paragraphs about variable yield (something ice cream cookbooks rarely note, fascinating though it can be), and pages and pages about the equipment you'll need.

Based on their writing, it seems that Pete is the most fanatical of this very detail-oriented bunch. His byline is on multiple (and multiple-page-long) ingredient spotlights on flavorings like vanilla, gianduja (hazelnut-flavored chocolate), palm sugar, and ceylon cinnamon. He's the kind of guy that makes seventeen batches of ice cream with seventeen different kinds of cinnamon just to find his favorite. And then, bless his heart, he writes all of the best combinations down.

Van Leeuwen's ice cream recipes are as a whole lot more expensive to make than Big Gay's, and the ingredients are more difficult to source. Both books recommend starting with the highest-quality dairy possible, but when the Van Leeuwens tell you to do it, you really listen. Ice cream base recipes can be wildly different; Van Leeuwen's versions average between 20 and 30 percent higher in saturated fat than the recipes in Big Gay, which makes for a creamier end result and a longer freezer life. You might cringe when you put the $16 quart of organic, locally-sourced heavy cream in your grocery basket, but if you truly follow the gospel Van Leeuwen is preaching, you believe in your heart of hearts that it will be worth it. You believe.

Though O'Neill and the Van Leeuwen brothers can often read like borderline neurotics straight out of a Portlandia episode, they wrote a really amazing set of recipes. And the recipes are also right on the money compared to the professionally churned versions. This is largely because Van Leeuwen is one of only a handful of ice cream shops in New York State that makes its own ice cream base. The base — the mixture of milk, cream, sugar, and emulsifier (usually egg yolks but sometimes cornstarch or an artificial emulsifier) that is cooked and blended into a liquid custard before being churned into ice cream — is the key to a unique flavor, texture, and quality level, and so because Van Leeuwen uses their own recipe in their retail operation, they have an easy reference for converting it for home ice-cream makers. (Big Gay uses a custom-made base in their retail operations, but they don't blend it themselves the way Van Leeuwen does.)

If you truly follow the gospel Van Leeuwen is preach­ing, you believe in your heart of hearts that the $16 heavy cream will be worth it

With its almost neurotic focus on technique and ingredient details — including useful tips, like how to avoid curdling your custard — this is a book that eliminates the possibility of failure. If you believe the effort and expense is worth the trouble and time, if you love richly flavored, full-fat ice cream and are an obsessive sort of cook, this is your ideal book. The flavors are clean and clear, and the texture was excellent, even after sitting in my freezer for a week. All nine recipes I tested — vanilla, cardamom rose, chocolate, rhubarb crumble, blueberry, masala chai, vegan chocolate, vegan pistachio, and vegan mint chip — produced some of the best ice cream I have ever made at home.

If you've never made ice cream before, pick up a copy of Big Gay's new book. It's less intimidating and the ice cream recipes, while not representative of what you'll find at the company's shops, are good, solid examples of the form. Do you over-analyze everything in your life and kitchen? Do you want only to make the best, richest ice cream and sorbet possible? Van Leeuwen's book is for you.

At a little after 6 a.m. one recent weekday morning I was standing at my kitchen counter with two quarts of cardamom ice cream before me, both of which had been churned the night before. One had nearly five times the amount of cardamom as the other, and I could barely tell the difference. That's the beauty of ice cream — once frozen and churned, it's an ingredient wholly transformed. And the only way to experience this alchemy is to make ice cream for yourself.

Big Gay Ice Cream: Saucy Stories and Frozen Treats

by Bryan Petroff and Douglas Quint
Clarkson Potter, May 2015

SKILL LEVEL: Beginner to intermediate; everyone but an expert will learn something from this book
WHO THIS BOOK IS FOR: Big Gay Ice Cream lovers, friends, media fans, your pre-teen niece and nephew
WHO THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR: Anti-gay bigots, people without a sense of humor, people who hate fun
BUY IT ON: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream

by Laura O'Neill, Benjamin Van Leeuwen, Peter Van Leeuwen, and Olga Massov
Ecco, June 2015

SKILL LEVEL: Beginner to advanced; this is a book for those who want to take their ice cream making to the next level
WHO THIS BOOK IS FOR: Serious ice cream nerds, ice cream obsessives, vegans
WHO THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR: People afraid of fat, anyone on a low-calorie diet
BUY IT ON: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Header and interstitial photos: Shutterstock
Big Gay Ice Cream spreads courtesy of Clarkson Potter
Van Leeuwen spreads courtesy of Ecco

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