When I was a kid summer meant, among other things, finishing dinner and then pedaling four miles from our house in Milford, New Hampshire, to Jake’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream near the town center for dessert. As a child who preferred winning at things to savoring nuanced flavors, I’d get the bubblegum ice cream and see if I could get my name on the chalkboard for landing the most pieces of gum in my sundae. Like trying to win in the backward skating competition at one of 1990s NH’s other institutions, Roller Kingdom, the dream was better than the execution.
Today I’m interested in ice cream flavors I can revel in rather than count, and thankfully we’re in a golden age of that kind of stuff in New York. In the past three years, there’s been a cool dairy renaissance. At places like Ample Hills, Davey’s and Morgenstern’s, proprietors are perfecting the craft of making ice cream. (Actually, some are making ice cream, which by definition has an egg content of less than 1.4 percent, and some are making frozen custard, with an egg content greater than 1.4 percent — but colloquially, it’s all ice cream). And at OddFellows, a shop with locations in Williamsburg and the East Village, Sam Mason might just be making the best scoop of frozen custard in the city.
Sam Mason is the man behind the ice cream at OddFellows in New York. He’s the former pastry chef at wd~50, the landmark and now-closed modernist (or molecular gastronomy) restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and was nominated for a James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef while working there.
Mason making your ice cream is something like Harding Meyer sketching your portrait for a few dollars on a street corner. He’s the former pastry chef at wd~50 and Tailor, known for bringing pastry-based techniques to savory dishes for some really progressive desserts. And while there’s some of that whimsy at OddFellows, what makes the ice cream so special is Mason’s technical expertise. Although the customer might see “raisin toast” ice cream and assume it’s just ice cream with toast bits and raisins thrown in, that’s not what’s happening.
Whereas some ice cream parlors make or buy an ice cream base and then add ingredients to it, Mason creates an original base for almost every ice cream flavor. He can do this because he pasteurizes right at the shop, a step required by law for adulterated dairy. So, for example, the cornbread ice cream that goes into one of his summer sundaes isn’t made the way it would be elsewhere. He makes cornbread from Jiffy cornbread mix, breaks it up and toasts it, covers it in milk and cream for three hours and painstakingly squeezes it out, resulting in cornbread-flavored milk. That milk goes in the pasteurizer and then gets blended with the other ingredients (sugar, dextrose, egg yolks, etc.), cooked for about 30 minutes, and cooled down before going into the batch freezer.
“So it’s cornbread ice cream with no particulate”, Mason says. “It just tastes like cornbread, and I like the texture, the toothsome chew that flour provides. I think that’s more interesting than a bunch of cornbread thrown into ice cream, which is what someone would have to do if they weren’t doing their own pasteurization.”
At the Williamsburg location, Mason serves at least 14 flavors at any given time — many of them, like “pecan pie” and “raisin toast”, with their own original bases, plus composed dishes, or sundaes. There is, in other words, a lot of elbow grease and mad science going into the 100 gallons or 2,000 scoops of ice cream going out the door of the Brooklyn shop on a typical summer day. “I guess, conceptually, it seemed like an easier format [than making pastries]: one medium, simple, focused”, Mason says. “It’s not.”
We asked him to give us his take on a summer sundae (allowing for the fact that it wasn’t quite summer). His solution: an olive oil ice cream sundae with strawberry compote, thyme-infused whipped cream and chocolate pearls. The flavors were pure, euphoric, and simple, even if the process behind them wasn’t. It may sound overwrought and a little too complicated for a comfort food — but it certainly doesn’t come across that way on the spoon or in the stomach.