NEW GLOUCESTER, Maine — Outlet Beach on Sabbathday Lake looks like a lot of Maine swimming holes: crystal-clear water, a crescent-shaped strip of sand, picnic tables under tall pines, and parents watching their kids dive off the board on the little dock or squiggle down the waterslide.
But take a look at the chalkboard outside the slightly lopsided yellow ice cream shack at Bresca and the Honeybee at Outlet Beach. The flavors are anything but typical: blueberry panna cotta ice cream with brown butter streusel; pear shiso sorbet; salted licorice ice cream; nasturtium leaf ice cream with pink peppercorn ribbon; and black raspberry chip with chocolate sea salt shell, to name just a few.
Inside, owner and chef Krista Kern Desjarlais is busy transforming local cream, fruit, vegetables and herbs into a dazzling array of ice creams and sorbets. Making ice cream at the lake is not a summer side job for Kern Desjarlais. This is her full-time gig, and she is producing some of the richest, most innovative ice cream imaginable.
She first spotted the property in winter 2013. “My husband and I were driving home and took a shortcut,” she said. “We passed the lake and there was a ‘For Sale’ sign on the shack. I thought it was the cutest place I had ever seen.”
At 43, she had just had her daughter and was spending 18 hours a day running Bresca, her highly acclaimed restaurant in Portland. She had been nominated for James Beard Awards and had fielded offers for TV shows. “There I was, in my early 40s, achieving everything I had waited my whole life for,” she said.
But the stress was getting to her: “I’d come home exhausted and see my daughter sleeping and then wake up and do it again. I couldn’t find the balance. … Once you have a child you ask yourself, ‘What am I really doing?’ As a woman, I had to make the ultimate decision: family or career? And then this sign popped into my life.”
Kern Desjarlais first worked in the food industry at age 14, starting at a catering company in Connecticut, and then slinging burgers and scooping ice cream on summer jobs. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of Southern Maine, she decided to get a master’s in medieval studies. She figured she would make a career teaching at a college and doing research.
But as a student needing extra money, she landed a job with a private chef and discovered a love of cooking. She found herself spending hours studying and then going to the grocery store roaming the aisles feeling “this deep comfort looking at different types of food and imagining what I might do with all these ingredients.”
She left the master’s program and spent the next few decades cooking in New York; Paris; Las Vegas; and Aspen, Colo. She has staged with such luminaries as pastry chefs Jacques Torres and Richard Leach, and chef Guy Savoy.
Once she decided to make the move into ice cream, things happened quickly: After a five-year run, she closed Bresca in May 2013, and opened Bresca and the Honeybee less than two weeks later. (In 2016, she also opened Purple House, a tiny bakery/restaurant in nearby North Yarmouth that has been “temporarily closed” since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.)
In her “old life,” ice cream was just one element on a menu, something to pair with cake or a tart. But Kern Desjarlais’s love of frozen desserts has always been strong. “I’ve become consumed with the endless possibilities of ice creams and sorbets, granitas and cremolatas.”
So for Bresca and the Honeybee, she hunted down a local dairy to supply fresh cream, and she connected with farmers and local suppliers to source the freshest eggs, seasonal fruit and herbs. At first, customers “only asked for the basics: vanilla, chocolate, strawberry,” she said. “But Krista the chef needed to do her thing.”
Those standard flavors earn trust with her customers. “If you make great chocolate or vanilla ice cream, people are then willing to try your olive oil ice cream or burnt honey and rosemary, or even Oxo Beer cherry ripple,” made with local craft beer, she said.
In an ironic twist, after spending months developing ice cream flavors the year she opened Bresca and the Honeybee, Kern Desjarlais discovered she was dairy-intolerant. Years later, after severe knee and joint pain, she learned she was also gluten-intolerant. To taste her ice cream these days, Kern Desjarlais has to pop a Lactaid. All of Bresca and the Honeybee’s crumbles and toppings are now gluten-free.
On a hot day in late May just before summer’s opening weekend, Kern Desjarlais was working with her sous-chef, Sherry Lai, making Key lime creme fraiche ice cream. She warms the sugar, milk, vanilla bean and salt mixture and then lets it cool before folding in Vermont creme fraiche and Florida Key lime juice.
In contrast to the jolt of sweetness that comes with most ice cream, what she’s after is balance. Is there enough salt to pop the flavors? Does the sorbet need more acid to make the fresh fruit and herbs sing? (Kern Desjarlais often adds fruit vinegars to her sorbets to add a subtle sour flavor.) And when she makes her ice cream and sorbet bases, she finds it’s important to refrigerate them overnight, then taste to adjust salt, acid or other flavorings before churning.
“When you’re making ice cream and sorbet bases, you want the flavors to be exaggerated because they always diminish when you freeze them,” she advised. “Add a pinch more salt. A touch more vanilla. A bit more fruit.”
In addition to being an ice cream chef, Kern Desjarlais is also something of a park ranger. Although the nearby Shaker community “owns” almost all the land on Sabbathday Lake, she is responsible for the upkeep on the nearly four acres of lakeside land she leases. On a typical summer day, she can be seen picking up stray garbage, sweeping pine needles off picnic tables and making sure boats are safely launched.
Her 11-year-old daughter, Cortland (“like the apple”), hangs out on the dock with a friend, jumping into the water, catching baby frogs and water bugs, looking like a happy kid at summer camp.
Kern Desjarlais never stops experimenting. Her latest creation: artichoke ice cream. Basing her technique on a French recipe that dates back to 1825, she poaches fresh artichoke hearts in a sugar syrup with vanilla, and orange and lemon zest, then purees the mixture and folds it into a sweet cream base. After the ice cream is done, she tops it with candied grapefruit and toasted pistachio. This recipe seems to meld her interest in history, food and creating flavors that few have tasted before.
Life on a pristine summer lake in Maine seems to suit Kern Desjarlais.
“The world is moving so fast,” she says. “We are all connected all the time. But cell service here is not great, so people can’t be looking at their phones all day. When you’re at Sabbathday Lake, you have to focus on where you are. This is a place you can come and forget about time. You can take a swim, stare at trees and cool off with an ice cream cone. Here, you can just be.”
Ice cream-making tips
- Make sure your base is more heavily flavored than you think it should be. When it aerates, churns and freezes, the flavor dissipates.
- Add acid such as fruit vinegars to heighten and round out flavors, even those of fresh fruit.
- Don’t skip the salt, which balances flavors, makes fruit pop and helps the sweetness shines.
- After churning but before freezing, the ice cream should be fluffy and look like soft whipped cream; it should not be firm or scoopable. Sorbet needs to be a bit firmer after churning.
- To prevent crystallizing, place a sheet of wax paper or plastic wrap directly on the surface of the ice cream before sealing it in an airtight container and freezing.
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