Don't wait until summer to visit Del Ray Dreamery, or you will be missing some of the best homemade treats -- frozen and otherwise -- in Northern Virginia.
While owner Liz Davis's frozen custard and sorbet shop regularly draws a crowd on hot summer days, far fewer people seem to know that in the off seasons, Davis remains busy, crafting goodies such as homemade marshmallows (cinnamon, lemon and strawberry are among the flavors), strawberry-rhubarb pies, gooey fruit cobblers and big, chewy cookies made with freshly grated ginger.
"The most important thing about this shop is that it's a small business as a form of self-expression," Davis said. "This is why I have this place -- so I can make things and see what people think."
Davis, a pastry chef, said she got tired of working in restaurant kitchens, turning out elaborate, expensive desserts and never knowing whether customers enjoyed them. So two years ago, she decided to open her small shop on Mount Vernon Avenue, billing it as a place for frozen custard and "nostalgic treats."
A native of Wisconsin, Davis makes the kind of frozen custard -- smooth and luscious -- for which the state is famous. She is forever educating customers who are under the mistaken impression that frozen custard is higher in fat than ice cream. While frozen custard may contain more egg yolk (1.4 percent by USDA regulation), it also calls for more milk and less cream than some premium ice creams, she said. Frozen custard has less air beaten into it than ice cream, providing its dense and silky texture.
But it is more than just the method of producing custard that sets Del Ray Dreamery apart from many other ice cream parlors. While Davis has vanilla on hand every day, she also offers a rotating selection of inspired flavors, from homey to exotic.
On Christmas Eve, for example, she offered Gifts of the Magi, with saffron, pistachios and Davis's homemade candied cranberries. This month's featured flavors include cherry blossom, orange chocolate truffle, pineapple upside-down cake and sweet potato pie.
There are also plenty of classics, such as buttered pecan; chocolate ice box cake, which is chocolate custard mixed with vanilla chiffon cake; and chocolate Heath bar.
Davis's sorbet selection is equally inventive. In fall, the offerings might includeroasted pear or apple butter; in winter, pomegranate. Recently, a featured flavor was apple snow, inspired by a dessert that Davis remembers having as a child. The combination of apple, lemon and white wine produced a sorbet refreshing and tart, with just a hint of sweetness. I liked it almost as much as the bracing pink grapefruit sorbet with aromatic bitters.
She even sells frozen pops for dogs, made with plain yogurt, bananas and peanut butter.
Davis's personal touch is evident not only in the sweets she whips up in the Dreamery's kitchen but also in the front of the shop. She is a fervent supporter of independent businesses, one big reason that she chose Del Ray as a place to live and locate her shop. The neighborhood remains, by some miracle, free of chain stores.
Davis has worked hard to build her shop into a neighborhood magnet. A Scrabble game in progress and an unfinished puzzle laid out on a picnic table silently entice customers to sit and play.
The "nostalgic treats" extend beyond homemade fig bars, moon pies and frozen custard cakes to the jukebox filled with songs, whose titles all have the word "dream" in them, and the bulky white wringer washer that occupies one corner.
Davis can almost always be found behind the counter or in the kitchen. She has one employee in addition to her son, Rob, who helps at the store, and her daughter, Nora, who maintains the Web site, www.delraydreamery.com.
In winter, Davis hosts monthly "brat" nights, on which she serves bratwurst, sauerkraut, German potato salad and root beer brewed in Wisconsin. The dinner, accompanied by live accordion music, has the convivial feel of a church basement supper.
Davis said she was inspired by "The Great Good Place," a book by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, which discusses the importance of neighborhood gathering places in promoting a sense of community and fostering relationships between people.
Her efforts appear to be paying off. "Folks bring me flowers from their yards and pussy willows that they think will took nice in the shop," Davis said. "I have a number of customers who simply volunteer because they like the place. I think they have a sense of ownership, too."
Got a restaurant recommendation? E-mail Domenica Marchetti at email@example.com.