The Best, Worst & Most Unique of 2015

The year 2015 treated me well. It was a challenging year in some regards, but I’m heading into 2016 stronger and happier. Highlights of the past year included ringing in the new year with K and my in-laws in Australia, watching my sister Ava graduate from UCONN, salmon fishing in Alaska, finally visiting the McRae homeland in Scotland, and a “family weekend” in New York City this fall. In August, K and I celebrated a successful first year of marriage. And in December, I officially entered my 30s. There’s a heck of a lot to be grateful for!

Not surprisingly, many of my favorite memories from 2015 involved ice cream. Here is a recap of the best, the worst, and the weirdest ice creams I experienced in 2015. I hope you enjoy!

All-Around Best Ice Cream:
Magic Bar at FoMu Ice Cream (Jamaica Plains, MA)

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Best New Recipe:
Toasted Oat Ice Cream (no-churn!)

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Best Atmosphere:
Lapp Valley Farm (New Holland, PA)

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Worst Ice Cream:
Millions at Waltons Traditional Sweet Shop

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Most Unique Ice Cream:
Chocolate Chip at Greedy Goat (London, U.K.)

Bottom scoop: Chocolate Chip; Top scoop: Salted Caramel

What was your favorite ice cream from 2015?

FoMu Ice Cream — Not Just for Vegans

Summer has officially arrived on the East Coast. After a rough winter in Massachusetts, my parents and sisters are welcoming the warmer weather with open arms. I’m also thankful for warm weather, as it means that more people are in the mood for ice cream!

Speaking of sisters, one went vegetarian a few years back and also avoids dairy. Her (usually meat-eating) boyfriend recently introduced her to FoMu, which sells vegan ice cream (coconut-milk based) and baked goods at their stores in Allston and Jamaica Plain. Since then, they have both urged me to visit FoMu. Specifically, they raved about “Magic Bar” flavor. Remember those treats, also known as “seven-layer bars”?

A couple weeks ago, the stars aligned and I had the FoMu experience. I was at home for a long weekend and had plans to visit my friends’ new baby. According to Google, FoMu’s Jamaica Plain location was a mile or so away from their house. It’s a well-known fact that one should bring food when visiting new parents, so swinging by FoMu to pick up some pints was what any good friend should do (or so I told myself).

IMG_7769IMG_7770FoMu is located on a busy street in Jamaica Plains. I imagine that it could be difficult to find parking on the weekends, but I had no problem on a Monday afternoon. The store has the welcoming vibe of an earthy coffee shop, with its light wooden floors and counter. And true to this vibe, FoMu offers a full espresso menu.

IMG_7771The real attractions here are the baked goods and ice creams. The baked goods are proudly displayed behind a glass case; everything is vegan and many options are gluten-free, but you’d never know by the look of them! I spotted cookies, brownies, and the infamous “Magic Bar.” That golden brown crust, the gooey center filled with chocolate chips, nuts, butterscotch chips, and toasted coconut? I could hardly believe the nice guy behind the counter when he told me that they were vegan and gluten-free.

IMG_7772I finally turned my attention to the ice cream flavors listed. Sadly, unlike the baked goods, the ice cream is kept hidden in covered tubs. So you have to go on flavor name and descriptions, although FoMu happily provides little samples to any customer that asks. And there are so many flavors to choose from!

IMG_7773My stomach was growling at this point, so I decided to order a cup of ice cream for lunch. But I could not decide between the recommended Magic Bar and the Avocado (which sounded like a nice “healthy” lunch flavor). We all know that I can be indecisive, but this decision felt even harder than others. So when I saw the small cup sizes, including a “kids” cup, I reasoned that they were small enough for me to order two ice creams without looking ridiculous. This was lunch, after all!

My small cup of Magic Bar cost me $4.15, whereas the kids cup of Avocado set me back $3.29. I also picked out two pints for my friends; one Magic Bar and one Roasted Banana Cinnamon (the new mom adores banana in her morning oatmeal). Each pint cost around $8 — definitely pricey, but no more expensive than other fancy vegan ice creams I’ve seen at Whole Foods.

IMG_7774The verdict? This ice cream is the stuff that dreams are made of… even for non-vegans. The Avocado not only looked beautiful, but it tasted wonderful as well. FoMu must have used perfectly-ripe avocados, as the flavor was almost fruity (yes, I know avocado is a fruit, but it doesn’t always taste like one!). This flavor stuck a perfect balance; sweet, but not overly sweet. Thick and rich, but not too coco-nutty (like many coconut-based ice creams are). I thought it couldn’t get any better than the Avocado, but then I tasted the Magic Bar. Holy COW, this flavor is, well,  magical! The traditional coconut milk base was the perfect canvas for the plentiful chunks of Magic Bar. Each bite of this cup entertained me with different textures and flavors: toasted coconut bits, mini chocolate chips, butterscotch, and cookie crumble. Imagine my surprise when I had no difficulty polishing off both cups 🙂

P.S. My friends tell me that the Roasted Banana Cinnamon was also delicious. I’ll have to confirm that myself next time I’m in town!

The Stats:
FoMu
617 Centre Street
Jamaica Plains, MA 02130
– or –
481 Cambridge Street
Allston, MA 02134
http://www.fomuicecream.com

A Taste of Boston at Toscanini’s Ice Cream

A couple weeks ago, I finally made it to one of America’s top ice-cream destinations: Toscanini’s Ice Cream & Coffee.

I’ve been hearing about Toscanini’s Ice Cream (or “Tosci’s”) for years. I believe the first person to tell me about it was my friend Phil, an amazing volunteer for the organization I work for. And ever since Phil put Toscanini’s on my radar, I’ve noticed the name popping up all over the place… in conversations with locals, in Boston-area food blogs, and heck, even in the New York Times! So when my sister suggested that I meet her for dinner and ice cream in Cambridge after landing at Logan airport, I was MORE than game. As it turned out, her boyfriend and our youngest sister were also up for the adventure.

Home to Harvard University and MIT, Cambridge is a unique part of Boston. It’s hip, eclectic and a true representation of the cultural diversity in the city. We started the evening with a lovely dinner at Cuchi Cuchi, which featured an extensive cocktail list and small plates from around the world. But we soon found ourselves ambling down Main Street to Toscanini’s. It was a gorgeous night, and there was plenty of people watching to be had. We knew we must be getting close to Toscanini’s when nearly every other person we passed on the sidewalk was clutching a cone (or cup) of ice cream. The word is clearly out!

Toscanini’s storefront is nearly all windows, and you can peer into both the store and the kitchen from the sidewalk. Nothing much was happening in the kitchen (it was nearly 8:30pm on a Friday), but there was plenty of action going on in the main shop. And since Tosci’s has been around for over thirty years, I was surprised to see minimalist, modern wood-based decor and furniture when I walked through the door. Nothing about the place seems outdated – and least of all their menu of flavors! I’d read that Gus and his employees like to experiment a lot, so the flavors are constantly changing. And these were some of the most unique and appetizing flavors I’ve seen: Turkish Mocha, Saffron Khulfee, Malted Vanilla, Ovaltine and Cambridge Lime Pie were just a few that caught my eye. As did the interesting flavors of ice-cream cakes!

The line to the ice-cream counter was long, but we needed the wait time to mull over our choices. I’d emailed owner and “Ice Cream Maker in Chief,” Gus Rancatore, earlier to inquire about his favorites. Gus told me that the insanely rich-sounding B3 (brown butter, brown sugar and brownie) is the best seller, but his own (current) favorite was the Mango sorbet. And while I couldn’t try the gluten-full B3, I sure knew I couldn’t leave without tasting the Mango. When I got to the front of the line, the person serving me obliged when I requested a sample. And, boy oh boy, the Mango was deliciously refreshing and chock-full of that sweet tang of the fruit. In the end, we ordered five flavors among the four of us (from left to right): Ginger Snap, Green Tea, Burnt Marshmallow, Cocoa Rum Raisin and Fluffernutter.
Prices are a bit higher-than-average at Tosci’s, but the scoops are generous. And I’d gladly pay nearly $6 for a double-scoop of small-batch artisan ice cream than $4 for frozen yogurt at the mall (although I do that, too!). And to those price sensitive or the light eaters out there, have no fear! Toscanin’s offers a baby size (pictured below) to satisfy your sweet tooth and budget.

The verdict? Overall, Toscanini’s ice cream is among the best I’ve ever had. What sets this ice cream apart from the rest is its FLAVOR. Ice-cream maker Gus Rancatore is a master at creating insanely-flavorful ice cream. Every scoop we ordered was a playful punch to the taste buds and perfectly lived up to its name. As a novice ice-cream maker, I kept asking myself “How did he DO this?” Flavors like green tea and maple sometimes have a hard time breaking through the sweetness of butterfat and sugar, but Gus has figured out the perfect ratio of unique ingredients to the traditional base ones. Biting into my scoop of Burnt Marshmallow was like chewing on a smoky marshmallow straight off the campfire. But Gus uses enough milk and cream to retain that creamy, velvety texture of the best premium ice creams. The same devotion to intense flavor was evident again in the Green Tea, which was so strong that only true green-tea aficionados could eat a whole pint. The Ginger Snap, however, went down very easily! Carolyn was very happy with her choice, and I can only imagine how great it would be alongside some apple pie. Classic New England flavors!

The surprise crowd-favorite was the Fluffernutter, which my sister’s boyfriend ordered. My sisters and I were are big-time fans of the iconic sandwich (made with peanut butter and marshmallow Fluff), and Gus beautifully captured the magic flavor combination. The ice cream itself was rich yet pillowy soft, and the peanut butter and marshmallow were perfectly balanced – making for an addicting concoction!

The one and only disappointment of the night was the Cocoa Rum Raisin, whose flavor was spot-on but was served in a melted state. I’ll let the photo below do most of the talking (it was taken just minutes after we sat down), but this ice cream was so soupy that the young man behind the counter should have warned me about the problem. Not a single bite was frozen.

Anywhere else, the whole “ice-cream soup” thing would have been a deal breaker. But I’ll give Toscanini’s the benefit of the doubt because everything else we ordered was superb. I can’t wait to come back!

The Stats:
Toscanini’s Ice Cream & Coffee
899 Main Street
Cambridge, MA 02139
(617) 491-5877
www.tosci.com

Indian Pudding Ice Cream

Happy November!

It’s fitting that my mom’s birthday falls in the same month as Thanksgiving; I’m so blessed to have her in my life. My mom is one of the friendliest, happiest, and kindest people I’ve ever known. She always goes out of her way for others, and my sisters and I use her birthday as an excuse to treat her like a queen.

My mom’s passion for New England history is well-known. She grew up in the Midwest but loved visiting extending family back in Massachusetts, relishing the autumn colors, colonial history, and local flavors. In fact, she convinced my dad to move to Massachusetts soon after they married. And to this day, my mom still gets excited when she sees clam chowder (“chowdah”), Boston baked beans, or hermit cookies. But there’s one hearty New England dish that she covets above all the rest: Indian Pudding.

You may not know what Indian Pudding is, as I rarely see it on menus outside of New England. But this dessert is older than the country itself. In the 17th century, the English settlers brought with them their love of English “hasty pudding” – a sweetened stovetop porridge made by boiling water or milk with wheat flour until it thickens. But since wheat flour was scarce, early colonialists substituted it for native corn meal (which they had nicknamed “Indian flour”), which they flavored with maple syrup or molasses. Over time, early recipes evolved to include additional ingredients like butter, eggs, cinnamon, ginger, and sometimes raisins or walnuts. Though the brown and lumpy porridge isn’t exactly visually-appealing, it’s the ultimate cold-weather comfort food.

One of my mom’s favorite places to enjoy Indian Pudding is at Rota-Spring Farm in Sterling, MA. Their Indian Pudding ice cream (reviewed here) is my family’s favorite flavor, and it’s what brings us back to Rota-Spring Farm time and time again. Last month, my mom delivered the terrible news that Rota won’t be making this amazing flavor anymore. Apparently, their distributor has stopped carrying the base for this flavor. Instead of just creating the base in-house, Rota-Spring Farm told my mom that they’d be pulling Indian Pudding off their menu. My mom was really disappointed, so my sister Carolyn and I immediately began talks of creating our own Indian Pudding ice cream.

A couple weeks ago, we had our chance to try out a recipe. Carolyn was visiting me in DC, and we put our heads together to develop and try out a recipe. There are dozens of recipes for Indian Pudding online, but Google yielded just two for ice-cream versions. Using one for inspiration, Carolyn and I spent Saturday morning cooking the Indian-Pudding base. We first spread cornmeal on a baking sheet, toasting it to a golden brown. After, we boiled milk and cream with molasses on the stovetop before adding egg yokes, sugar and spices. After the mixture reached 185 degrees Fahrenheit (to ensure we wouldn’t get sick from raw egg yolks), we mixed in the cornmeal and left the porridge in the refrigerator overnight.

Carolyn and I are fans of mix-ins in our Indian Pudding, so we decided to add a popular one, raisins, to our ice cream. I’ve learned from experience that raisins freeze into rock-hard nuggets in ice cream, but soaking them in alcohol will keep the raisins soft. We chose dark rum and soaked the raisins for over an hour on Sunday morning. We then pulled the fully-cooled base from the fridge. After a quick whirl in the blender to get rid of any grittiness, we poured the mixture into the ice-cream machine. Right before the ice cream was done, we poured the raisins in. The result looked exactly like frozen Indian Pudding!



Indian Pudding Ice Cream with Rum Raisins
{Makes 1.5 quarts}
Adapted from this recipe

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup cornmeal
  • 1 1/2 cup light cream
  • 3/4 cup milk (I used 2%)
  • 1/4 cup molasses 
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1/4 cup white granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 cup dark rum
  • 1/4 cup raisins

Directions

  • The day before you’d like to eat this ice cream, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  • Spread the cornmeal out on a baking sheet and toast in oven until golden brown (about 12 minutes). Set aside.
  • In a medium saucepan, bring the cream, milk and molasses to a boil over medium-high heat.
  • Meanwhile, combine egg yolks, sugar, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg in a large bowl. Whisk until pale. 
  • Slowly pour the hot cream mixture into the egg yolks, whisking the entire time (my sister helped with this part). Then return mixture to the saucepan and cook over low heat until it’s thickened and reached 185 degrees Fahrenheit (about 7 minutes).
  • Turn off heat, remove saucepan from heat and transfer mixture to the large bowl. Stir in the toasted cornmeal, cover and refrigerate overnight (or at least 6 hours). When you do this, pour the raisins in a small bowl and cover with rum. Cover and keep on countertop or in the fridge.
  • The next day, pour chilled mixture into blender and blend on high setting for about 30 seconds. 
  • Pour mixture into ice cream maker and freeze per the manufacturer’s directions. If you’re using a Cuisinart, this means 1) turn on your machine, 2) slowly pour mixture in, and 3) leave the thing churn for 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, strain extra rum from the raisins. A few minutes before the ice cream is finished churning, add the rum-soaked raisins.
  • Serve immediately or, if a firmer consistency is desired, transfer to an airtight container and freeze until firm.
The verdict? Dare I say this ice cream is even more delicious than the one at Rota Springs? Because this is one of the best ice creams I’ve ever made… or even tasted. It’s silky, sweet and rich. The dark molasses and cornmeal are in perfect balance, married by the warm fall-inspired spices. The flavor is reminiscent of gingerbread, but more humble and comforting with the cornmeal aftertaste. The rum-soaked raisins adds an fancy twist to this classic colonial fare. While this ice cream was cold, each spoonful warmed my heart. This recipe may require some patience, but I promise you that it’s worth it.

Happy birthday, mom! Here’s to many more. 

Good times at Rota-Spring Farm

I just returned to Washington, DC after a relaxing weekend at home in Massachusetts. My dad is recuperating from a scary bicycling accident, so I’ve spent the last few weekends with the family at our childhood home. To us, nothing says “summer” like a post-dinner trip for homemade ice cream. So on Saturday night, we left the dinner dishes untouched and piled into the minivan for a scenic drive to Rota-Spring Farm in Sterling, Massachusetts.

Turning into the gravel parking lot, you are hit with an image straight from a Norman Rockwell painting. Large red barn with large windows, spilling warm light into the evening dusk. Cows and goats in a large pasture to the right. Kids of all ages milling around, licking generous scoops of ice cream off dripping waffle cones. To an urban professional in her 20s, the scene is shockingly serene. No honking or sirens. No pushing and shoving to get ahead in line. Kids without screens (besides the sliding ones by the register). Staff who seem to (gasp!) enjoy serving patrons. Oh – and the best part – reasonably-priced, high-quality, homemade ice cream.

Typical Saturday evening crowd at Rota-Springs

Despite our many pilgrimages to Rota-Spring, my family and I have yet to make a dent in their impressive list of flavors. Of course there are the usual suspects: vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, coffee, mint chocolate chip, and butter pecan. But how can one even think about ordering strawberry when faced with flavors like grapenut, purple cow, and cowabunga crunch?

Decisions, Decisions…

Of course, when faced with too many delicious decisions, it’s always best to team up with family or friends and order numerous flavors to share. On this trip, my parents and I decided to order a “small” cup each – which amounts to 6 scoops of the good stuff. Usually, I would insist that all 6 scoops be different flavors. But Rota-Spring is an exception. My dad can’t forgo the opportunity to load up on Banana (his favorite), and my mom and I worry that one scoop of Indian Pudding just won’t be enough. But for the two other scoops, we go out on a limb and choose 2 new-to-us flavors: Ginger and Java Lava. Here is how Rota-Spring describes each:

Java Lava – Coffee ice cream with bits of delicious toffee covered chocolate
Indian Pudding – Ice cream with molasses, cornmeal and just the right spices
Ginger – Ginger ice cream with bits of crystallized ginger
Banana – Banana ice cream with chunks of real banana
3 Small(!) Cups. From L to R: Banana, Indian Pudding/Ginger, Indian Pudding/Java Lava
The verdict? Each of the four flavors were perfect in their own way. The Banana is chock-full of authentic flavor, and it’s familiar taste is surprisingly refreshing on a hot, humid night. The Indian Pudding is just how I remember it: a heavenly, frozen version of the classic New England treat. The Ginger is potent – but in a good way. If you enjoy candied ginger, this flavor will rock your world. Last, but certainly not least, Java Lava pairs Rota-Spring’s popular coffee ice cream with bits of crunchy chocolate-covered toffee. All in all, it was hard to find fault in this solid lineup. Needless to say, the three of us polished these babies off.
Oh – I should mention that Rota-Spring Farm also sells seasonal fruits and vegetables, jams and homemade breads. But let’s be honest… I come for just one reason.
The Stats:
Rota-Spring Farm
117 Chace Hill Road
Sterling, MA 01564