For as long as man has put scoop to ice cream, the most basic flavor that goes with everything has been vanilla. What's more basic than vanilla, you ask? Well, some chefs are stripping back the frozen treat to its most essential flavor: milk.
"A lot of people ask, 'What's milk ice cream? Doesn't all ice cream have milk?'" said Anne Specker, the pastry chef at Eric Ziebold's Kinship, which serves milk-flavored ice cream along with a chocolate chip cookie dough souffle. Ziebold said that when the ice cream is combined with the crispy-on-top, gooey-in-the-middle dessert, the effect is similar to dipping warm-from-the-oven cookies in a cold glass of milk.
For the milk ice cream that Specker makes, the end result is as much about what's not in the ice cream as what is. While many ice cream bases have egg yolks, this one does not. (A little extra heavy cream helps make up for the missing fat.) That omission, plus the addition of some nonfat dry milk powder, helps the dairy's naturally creamy and sweet flavors shine through, Specker said. "I grew up drinking skim milk ... but commercial skim milk doesn't have much flavor," she said.
"You get a lot more of that old-fashioned ice cream flavor and texture," Ziebold said. It reminds him of the simple treat that would emerge from the hand-cranked makers he'd use as a kid.
On the other hand, "I think this is in part the growing-up of desserts and pastry chefs," he said with regard to milk-flavored ice cream's popularity. Its lighter, leaner profile is a good contrast to other components of a plated dessert.
"It's super clean and refreshing and helps to balance a lot of desserts," especially very sweet ones, said chef Jeremiah Langhorne of the Dabney, where milk-flavored ice cream has shown up with the likes of sorghum custard.
The only other ingredients in the Dabney's milk ice cream, rapidly frozen with liquid nitrogen, are cornstarch, cream and sugar. "It's really dependent on the quality of the dairy," Langhorne said, so he relies on local favorite Trickling Springs Creamery.
Of course, the dairy-forward concept is nothing new. Italians have long enjoyed "fior di latte" gelato, which translates to "flower of milk," said Gianluigi Dellaccio, the pastry chef owner of Dolci Gelati. He likes its "natural" flavors. "It's more pure," Dellaccio said.
He rarely sells fior de latte at his shops, but it's the base for flavors such as cookies and cream, stracciatella (chocolate chip) and Amarena cherry. But given the milk ice cream surge, Dellaccio is considering whether it should be on offer at his shops more often. He already makes fior di latte for his catering jobs.
"It goes with everything," he said.