Last winter, my son and I found ourselves facing a packed street corner in San Francisco. Behind a velvet rope a lengthy queue had formed, and I couldn’t quite believe that all these people were after the same thing we were: ice cream cones. Yet, this was the case. The shop was the Bi-Rite Creamery, an extension of the famed Bi-Rite Market, and the line was normal. I got salted caramel, which was dense and satiny, and not as sweet as many premium ice creams; my son got mint chip, which he said tasted “real.”
I have had the good fortune to test recipes from a number of ice cream books over the years, and I’ve observed a trend toward edgier, stranger mixtures that sting, shock, or inebriate. Bi-Rite Creamery’s new book, “Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones,” is a throwback. These are mostly ice creams showcasing just one or two signature notes, and most of them use a flavor palette that, while sometimes innovative, can’t be mistaken for anything but dessert. There is no bacon ice cream here, no beer or vodka ice cream, no celery sorbet. So thrill-seekers, seek elsewhere. Everybody else, jump right in.
The secret of the rich, texturally irresistible Bi-Rite formula seemed pretty clear to me after a single glimpse at the recipes. The proportion of yolks to liquid is high, with no more sugar than absolutely necessary. Recipes typically use four to six yolks to produce a scant 1 quart — really, closer to 1½ pints — of simple, scrupulous ice cream.
The full Bi-Rite effect is displayed in a straightforward buttermilk ice cream. This is a 5-yolk miracle, with buttermilk stirred in at the end, after curdling, so that it won’t curdle the base. It’s slow to set, and even when it does it’s easily parted with a spoon, revealing a perfectly smooth and grain-less interior. To taste buds weaned on sugar, the creamy tartness of the first taste seems wrong, but soon reveals itself as a lingering freshness, discreet enough to marry perfectly with summer berries, or even less-sweet blueberries.
In a bold switcheroo, malted milk completely replaces sugar in Bi-Rite’s version of chocolate chocolate-chip ice cream. Although for years I’ve wondered why malted ice creams always taste overly sweet, it never occurred to me to just drop out the sugar altogether. With the sweet toned down, the ricey, earthy barley taste of malt shines right through the milk chocolate base and bittersweet chips, to devastating effect.
Almond fudge ripple ice cream is almost as hard to resist. A dousing of toasted chopped almonds gets a little bump up to prominence with just ¼ teaspoon of almond extract — minuscule but necessary. The ripple doesn’t ripple naturally, so you have to drizzle it in between layers of still-soft ice cream as you’re readying the base for storage.
Honey-lavender ice cream has a thrilling floral aroma when it’s still a warm custard base, with pretty purple buds infusing the skillet. That dissipates considerably by the time it’s strained, cooled, and spun into ice cream. The final product tastes richly of honey, but if I did it again I might double the lavender for a stronger effect.
Of course I had to try the memorable salted caramel, to see if it lived up to my recollection. I’m happy to say that it did, yielding a small batch of coffee-colored confectionery that swoons on the tongue. Especially helpful are step-by-step directions, which prepare you for the alarming behavior caramel sometimes exhibits in the pan: lava-like seething when you pour in the cream, cracking and hardening as they blend. Simply persevere as instructed; the rewards will be great.
My only real trouble with the book came in the homemade ice cream cone recipe, which was fussier than making a tuile. I made the ice cream mold (cardboard and tape filled with raw rice) as instructed, whipped up the batter, spread it on a silicone mat. I tried it thick, I tried it thin, but the circular cookie either sticks fast or cracks into pieces when you try to move it.
It’s easy enough to buy a pack of cones. But my advice is to skip the cones altogether and eat it out of the bowl, the better to appreciate the justly lauded Bi-Rite texture and feel you’re making the most of those 400 calories. Plus, afterward you can lick the bowl. Not that I’m speaking from experience.