Ice cream in the wintertime? Yes, ice cream always. Though we'd gladly eat the cool dessert at any given moment, we believe that there is a special art to concocting ice cream that is tempting even in the coldest of winters.
Popular Portland-based ice cream joint Salt & Straw has done just that, swirling the very essence of the holiday season into several rich, complex ice cream flavors that we'd choose over a cup of hot cocoa any day (video below).
We were able to get behind the counter with Kara Jones, the manager of a Los Angeles location, and sample their wintry December menu. Each bite took us back to cozier times.
First, we really did trade in our cup of hot cocoa -- for a cone of cold peppermint cocoa ice cream, that is. The mint and cocoa base, flavored with peppermint oil, is flecked with slabs of homemade peppermint patties that taste just like a chilly night by the fire. The aromatic peppermint flavor and rich chocolate woke us up and made us feel cozy all at same time.
Next on the tasting menu was apple brandy & pecan pie, which has the same flavor sensation as if you cut a thick slice of Grandma's warm pecan pie and topped it with a scoop of melting apple brandy ice cream. Each spoonful of the brandy base has bites of dense pecan pie, and it was so warming that we forgot we were eating something cold.
After that, Jones insisted we try her favorite: gingerbread cookie dough. With its smooth almond base and molasses-heavy mix-ins, this flavor impresses with varied texture.
"This one has an almond liqueur and almond spice ice cream base, and then there's swirls of gingerbread cookie dough and actual gingerbread cookie pieces," Jones said. "This is my favorite thing ever; it's like eating a cookie wrapped in cookie dough."
Though Salt & Straw's December menu features many familiar holiday flavors, a few unique ingredients stand out. Among them is fennel, which the shop combines with eggnog for an earthier, nutmeg-rich ice cream. The pudding-like eggnog base is made with egg yolks and lots of nutmeg, and a blend of cinnamon, fennel, star anise, black pepper and cloves gives it an addictive spiced taste.
"That's kind of what you would put in a stew: fennel and nutmeg and pepper," Jones said. "A lot of people who don't like eggnog like this, so I think people are pleasantly surprised."
Last on the list was another surprising flavor: honeyed butter tarts. Before we sampled, we had to learn just what a honeyed butter tart is, and the answer did not disappoint. It's a buttery pie with a hearty crust, its smooth filling tasting faintly of spices and blissfully interrupted by dried currants. Jones described it as a spiced fruit cake within a pie crust. Generous pieces of the tart are folded into Salt & Straw's deliciously simple vanilla bean ice cream.
We tried about eight other year-round flavors, but in honor of the holidays, we ended the afternoon with a cone of fennel five-spiced eggnog and honeyed butter tarts.
Jones said Salt & Straw's ice cream is more than just a cool treat on a hot day; it's a guaranteed delicious way to try something new.
"It's ice cream, so it's going to satisfy your sweet tooth, be a comfort food and make you happy, but it's still pushing you to try something different," she said.
That'll teach us never to doubt the power that ice cream has to take us back to snuggly times with the family -- even in the dead of winter.
Check out a video of our tasting journey below.