These days, ice cream shops are going beyond the trifecta of vanilla-chocolate-strawberry with flavors like basil, lobster roll and — yes — even cicada, turning the treat into a vehicle for so many local flavors.
“Today’s generation is growing up with ice cream shops that are pushing the boundaries of what can be a delicious flavor, and that’s truly exciting to me,” said Gabrielle Carbone, co-owner of The Bent Spoon, a small-batch ice cream shop in Princeton.
Carbone and long-time friend and fellow ice cream lover Matt Errico opened the shop in May of 2004. Since then, The Bent Spoon has made over 650 different artisan ice cream flavors.
“We try to use as many in-season ingredients as possible,” said Carbone. “Right now, we’re doing a blueberry-corn ice cream that people go crazy for in July. We get local, organic corn, and must husk it and cut it ourselves. Our process involves a lot of front-heavy labor, but it’s 100% worth it in the end.”
For Carbone and Errico, coming up with flavor combinations comes down to being in tune with what’s happening in nature.
“During tomato season, peaches are also in their prime, so a tomato-peach sorbet is an amazing blend,” Carbone said.
Recently, the Princeton-based shop caused a stir with their cicada ice cream. Princeton is a heavily wooded area with many older trees, so it was no surprise that the town was used to the cyclical swarm. But there was something even more extraordinary about it to The Bent Spoon: Brood X first appeared when the shop had opened 17 years ago.
“We really felt connected to that brood because of our ‘anniversary’ bond so it was an opportunity for us to make a statement through our ice cream,” said Carbone. “The cicadas were not just a shock value flavor. We also wanted to show people that, if prepared right, cicadas can be a sustainable protein source around the world.”
“Everything has a story. It’s not as if our main goal is to make the craziest thing for people to Instagram. There’s a reason why we make it,” she added.
Oftentimes Carbone and Errico develop relationships with other producers, like the local farmers who grow the oats and produce or small breweries for their alcohol. Carbone said it gives them the opportunity to share other people’s stories and weave it into a larger community narrative.
Collaboration seems to be one of the most viable routes for flavor ideation. WooHoo Ice Cream in Beach Haven, owned by husband-and-wife duo Shuan and Megan Kilroy, partnered with the local seafood shop Mystic Lobster Roll Company to create their signature lobster roll flavor.
“We sampled the variety of lobster rolls they sell, discussed the ingredients and decided what would work best for ice cream. Then Megan used her ice cream chemistry knowledge to adapt the ingredients to make two great flavors of lobster roll ice cream that really surprise people by how good they are,” said Shaun Kilroy.
Some recipes involve more scientific research, like the cannoli ice cream or alcohol-based ice cream.
“When you’re working with things like real cheese, which we use in our cannoli and cheesecake flavors, or alcohol, you need to figure out percentages and the best way to treat them — i.e. cook, boil or add things like sugar — so they work in the ice cream,” said Shaun Kilroy.
“We’re always inventing stuff,” he added. “Whether it’s new flavors, vegan options, baked goods, cookies or house-made toppings. This season, we started making our own hot fudge and chocolate syrup.”
One trend that inspired a WooHoo flavor was Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy. Popular among wine and spirits drinkers, the combination of beer and lemonade has grown to become the summertime drink of choice for long days and warm nights. The Kilroys had already been churning out beer ice creams, and when the shandy craze hit, they knew they had to get in on it.
“Jersey Blues and Barbeque was a limited-edition flavor of ours a few years ago. It included fresh Jersey blueberry ice cream with caramelized barbeque bacon bits,” said Shaun Kilroy, “definitely inspired by the bacon craze that was stirring at the time.”
He pointed out that while they never latch themselves onto any one fad in particular, they do tap into what’s popular to add excitement. To stay relevant, it’s important to maintain integrity in their core product, he said, which is rich and creamy ice cream made with real, high-quality ingredients, but it’s okay to give in to the whims of the world every now and again to try out something cool for a while.
Many ice cream shops are seeing dairy-free ice cream break through this year, as well as plant-based, gluten free, and other allergy-friendly options.
Ice cream creators at The Bent Spoon and WooHoo Ice cream agreed that the more technology intertwines with health food (or ice cream, in their case), the broader their imaginations (and customer’s palates) will become.