Hot or Cold, They're All Cool
Ice Cream Sandwiches, No Longer Frozen in Time
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
To celebrate the first softball game of the season, Aaron Adkins surprised his Washington team with the quintessential summer-in-the-city treat: ice cream sandwiches. Sweet and nostalgic, the frozen dessert did more than just erase the sting of their loss.
"We sat on the Mall eating the ice cream sandwiches and watching the sun set," the congressional staffer says wistfully. "We felt like little kids again, from 32 going on 7."
Much like Pop Rocks and Yoo-hoos, ice cream sandwiches have that retro-regressive effect. One bite into cookie, then ice cream, then more cookie and you're back in pigtails or cowlicks, racing after the ding-dong truck. Plus, there's that sugar buzz.
"Who doesn't love cookies? And ice cream?" asks Cheryl Irby, an assistant at Moorenko's Ice Cream Cafe in Silver Spring and McLean, which sells house-made ice cream sandwiches. "They are a combination of two of America's favorite things."
Though most urbanites and suburbanites fondly recall the ice cream sandwiches of their youth -- typically vanilla ice cream between two rectangular chocolate-cakelike pastries -- today's versions are hardly a frozen relic from the Good Humor Age. Innovative professionals and home cooks are experimenting with gourmet ice cream flavors (honey lavender, green tea, etc.) and unexpected cookies (ginger, lemon) that seem to have redefined the genre.
"I was never an ice cream sandwich fan," says Adkins, who grew up in Southern California, "but I was always a fan of really good cookies and homemade ice creams in interesting flavors." Hence, for his softball opener Adkins ordered a case to be shipped from Oregon's Ruby Jewel Treats that included double-chocolate cookies with peanut butter ice cream, and ginger cookies with pumpkin ice cream.
The confection had a humble beginning -- so humble, in fact, that "no one claimed the ice cream sandwich," says Ed Marks, an 81-year-old ice cream historian from Lititz, Pa. "It's not like the banana split; it just kind of evolved."
Early references date from the late 1890s, around the time two inventions were introduced: a utensil that easily sliced off slabs of ice cream, creating uniformly shaped sandwich fillers, and a mold that pressed ice cream between two wafers. "Ice cream sandwiches were one of the first novelties," Marks says.
The International Dairy Foods Association attributes the snack to late-19th-century New York City vendors who placed ice cream between two wafers to create a portable street snack for the masses. Soon after, the populist treat went upscale, appearing between macaroons and fancy cookies at tea time. Meanwhile, on the opposite coast, George Whitney of San Francisco put vanilla ice cream between two large oatmeal cookies and dunked the whole shebang in dark chocolate. Today, his 1928 company has expanded the It's-It line with chocolate, mint and cappuccino ice cream sandwiches, the Big Daddy (vanilla ice cream between chocolate wafers) and Chips It (vanilla ice cream between chocolate chip cookies).
Lisa Herlinger, the 33-year-old founder of Ruby Jewel Treats, was inspired in part by It's-It, which she snacked on during her California childhood. "I think of a dessert and turn it into an ice cream sandwich," Herlinger says. "Like put a snickerdoodle cookie with mixed berry ice cream and call it a cobbler." That recipe, by the way, is still sitting in the ideas folder of her Portland-based business, which, besides operating an online store, supplies West Coast farmers markets and groceries. Ruby Jewel does make espresso ice cream with cinnamon cookies, a combo based on her favorite Mexican mocha coffee drink, and honey lavender ice cream with lemon cookies. "I love putting lavender in everything," she says.
Erin McKenna, the 31-year-old founder of Babycakes, a vegan bakery in New York City, constructs her "ice cream" sandwiches with animal-free frozen vanilla frosting or blood orange sorbet (the former is matched with chocolate chip cookies, the latter with chocolate wafers). Locally, Cafe Gelato in Bethesda pairs more than 20 gelato flavors with chocolate chip cookies.
Few rules govern the "bread" portion of the sandwich. The tops and bottoms can be store-bought or made from scratch; oatmeal or chocolate; peanut butter or gingersnaps. In fact, they don't even need to be cookies: Try brownies, ladyfingers, waffles. "I'm not proud to say it, but in a rush, I have made chocolate ice cream sandwiches with unfrosted strawberry Pop-Tarts," says Bruce Weinstein, co-author with Mark Scarbrough of "The Ultimate Frozen Dessert Book" (William Morrow, 2005).
Moorenko's takes an almost literal approach to ice cream sandwiches, using handmade brioche as the bookends to every flavor. Owner Susan Soorenko discovered the concoction during a visit to Sicily, where locals eat the treat morning to night. Among her American crowd, the most popular ice cream sandwich flavors are Danish sweet cream, pistachio and salted caramel with pralines. "You need a dense ice cream: something meaty, like amaretto, salted caramel or butter pecan," Irby says. "It has to have more to it than vanilla or chocolate chip."
Home chefs with a yen to make their own ice cream sandwiches need to keep a handful of fundamentals in mind, starting with the all-important selection of the main components. Soft and chewy cookies with rich, dense ice cream -- each with relatively simple flavors for better pairing possibilities -- can make for a delectable confection that doesn't dissolve into a crumbly, drippy mess.
Of course, even a crumbly, drippy mess can be delectable. In the end, your taste meter is the best -- and final -- judge. "It's all personal," concedes Weinstein, he of the ice cream Pop-Tart sandwich. "There really are no mistakes -- even garlic ice cream with oatmeal cookies."