COMMENTARY

Zhoosh up your summer ice cream game like a pastry chef

You won’t need much more than pantry staples to do it

By Maggie Hennessy

Published June 21, 2022 5:00PM (EDT)

Various Ice Creams At Market Stall (Getty Images/Stefan Cristian Cioata)

If you pop by my house on any given night, you'll probably find at least one of the following ice cream flavors in my freezer: mint chip, pistachio or chocolate. I've yet to hear complaints from company when an unadorned scoop or two appeared before them to end their meal. But we can all stand to gild the lily every now and then. Georgia Wodder, executive pastry chef of Mel's, Al Coro and the forthcoming Discolo in New York, assures me that bougie ice cream is possible with a few pantry add-ons — several from the savory shelves, no less. 

"My go-to in most aspects of dessert and gelato is finishing with really nice olive oil and good sea salt," says Wodder, whose upmarket gelato sundaes round out the nostalgic pizzeria menu at Mel's, which opened in March as part of chef Melissa Rodriguez's reconcepting of the former Del Posto. "I think with gelato it's about having different components to it — texture and crunch, and making sure the flavors are balanced."

Related: This addictive soft-serve ice cream has only three ingredients, one of which is optional

At the restaurant, Wodder cascades salted caramel over fior di latte gelato and tops it with dehydrated crepe toffee and cinnamon butter cookie crumbles. She swirls chunks of flash frozen strawberry sorbet and fresh strawberry pieces into vanilla cake gelato, recreating strawberry shortcake in sundae form. She layers a fudgy brownie slice with a fat scoop of mint chip ice cream laced with chocolate ribbons, which she caps in a hard shell made of dark chocolate and finishing olive oil then sprinkles with dehydrated brownie crumbs. 

Said shell sauce is as simple to make at home as a quick fudge sauce, by the way, and undeniably bougier; "because it's chocolate and oil, it makes a magic shell situation when it hits the cold ice cream," she says. 

Simply break up the darkest chocolate bar you can find (70 to 80% cacao), and microwave it in 30-second increments until melted. Whisking the chocolate constantly, stream in an equal amount (by weight in ounces) of your best finishing olive oil. Keep whisking until combined, then season with a generous pinch of salt to taste. Just before serving, pour the sauce over ice cream and marvel at the magic of food science.  

Up your sundae game (Peter Marquez)Wodder's brownie crumble is even simpler, requiring little more than leftover brownies or brownie scraps. Set them on a sheet pan, bake till crisp in a 275-degree oven and break them into crumbles.

On the other hand, where our resident pastry chef might garnish ice cream with housemade semolina shortbread (as she does with her rhubarb-ginger mousse), we can easily mimic those buttery, sweet-corn flavors by crumbling some toasted store-bought cornbread over berry or dulce de leche ice cream. 

"It gives a little buttery bite and a texture contrast to the silky gelato — just makes it interesting," she says. "You always want to make sure you have enough crunch in there."

When it comes to fruit mix-ins and toppings for ice cream — especially as we enter peak berry and stone fruit season, Wodder almost always prefers fresh fruit purees. Whereas frozen fruit lends an icy, chalky texture and compotes or preserves run too sweet, pureed fresh fruit's sweetness is tempered by natural acidity — which she'll often bump up with a squeeze of lemon. 

Sweet, red fruit-based sundaes also are an ideal place to consider a drizzle or two of Wodder's other favorite savory pantry staple: balsamic vinegar. "I really love it on fior di latte or simple vanilla, too," she adds, "just a touch to bring the sweetness down and add interest."

If you're expecting company, Wodder suggests thinking like a banquet chef — setting your mise en place like crumbles and purees in bowls and pre-slicing brownie and cake slabs if you plan to layer them on the bottom. Most importantly, if you're hosting a crowd and don't want to serve soup, pre-scoop the gelato. Set a parchment-lined plate or tray in the freezer for 20 or 30 minutes — "make sure it's frozen!" — then scoop the ice cream directly onto the parchment (so you can pluck it off easily), keeping it frozen until serving. 

Wodder likes plating sundaes in smaller bowls for maximum impact; "that way, people can also have seconds and not feel bad about it," she adds.

If at the end of all the cookie crumbling, fancy oil drizzling and flaky sea salt bedazzling, something is still missing, Wodder has one more trick up her sleeve. "I will not eat ice cream at all without rainbow sprinkles," she says. 

Though in this instance, she has zero interest in the bougie sort. "The cheaper, the cardboardier, the better. The nice ones are too hard; I like the ones that have been on the shelf for 10 years at ShopRite."

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Maggie Hennessy

Maggie Hennessy is a New Mexico-based freelance food and drink journalist and chef, and the former restaurant critic for Time Out Chicago. Her work has appeared in such publications as Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Taste, Eater and Food52.

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