Artisanal ice cream — or whatever you call the product that costs $9 or more a pint — is too much. Too much cream. Too much sugar. Too many eggs. Too much stuff in it — from butter cake to birthday cake, to peanut butter cups. This is true in the winter but even more true in the summer: a conclusion I came to following a sampling of at least 14 different ice creams at the Eater offices in Lower Manhattan. By the time it was over, I sat slumped in a chair, my stomach leaden with dairy fat.
A colleague from Polygon, Vox Media’s video game vertical, swung by and dipped her spoon into a few pints. She frowned. I remarked that these ice creams didn’t feel summery, and she replied that “it’s kind of a bummer when ice cream makes you want to drink an entire bottle of water.”
Summer ice cream means being able to eat more ice cream without going into a food coma. Maybe that means sacrificing a little depth of flavor, and maybe that means passing on the hand-spun pistachio ice cream with the texture of fancy nut butter and instead opt for the pale green stuff pumped out of a machine, heady with artificial extract.
And that’s okay, because sometimes the best summer ice cream is the edible equivalent of a wine cooler — something slightly sweet that you can keep consuming without too many ill-effects. If you want something a bit more decadent, well then gelato, with its dense and often custard-free base, will do brilliantly.
The following list isn’t meant to be comprehensive; it’s a collection of desserts I find both satiating and refreshing (if I wanted only refreshing I’d have sorbet or water ice). I did not go out of my way to explore new ice cream shops because summer ice cream shouldn’t require a hot trip on the subway. Summer ice cream should draw you across the street or perhaps a block or two out of your way. I mention this to mentally prepare you for why McDonald’s and Milk Bar beat out your overpriced Brooklyn ice cream shop. Enjoy.
The Two Best Summer Ice Creams
1. Grom’s yogurt gelato: Packs such a brilliant balance of electric tanginess and restrained sugars that the tongue vibrates as it does with a perfect Spatlese Riesling. And while the treat packs more pucker than commercially-strained greek yogurt, its texture never approaches the density of that product. It is that rare frozen dairy treat that is simultaneously refreshing yet complex. Pair it as a milky analogue to apricot sorbet and there’s your summer evening right there.
2. Milk Bar Cereal Milk soft serve: So ubiquitous that describing it would be like explaining a McDonald’s hamburger. But for the record: This is a mildly-dense soft serve infused with the flavor of corn flakes. I’ve occasionally criticized Christina Tosi’s elevated junk food for employing levels of sugar that make you wonder if anything is elevated and whether it’s really just junk food, but this soft serve is decidedly savory, with distinct notes of salt and caramelized bran. If that sounds too intense, the flavor disappears as quickly as an artificial water ice. And so you continue to eat.
3. Il Laboratorio del Gelato Rose: Walk inside the giant commissary on Ludlow Street and the first thing you notice is the temperature: It’s air conditioned like a meat locker. Simply being here will cool you off. And while the 300 plus flavors rotate on a regular basis, Il Laboratorio is one of the few institutions I know of to currently offer the edible perfume that is rose gelato. Like most gelati here, the rose is egg free. The texture is dense and smooth, with no ice (not something that can be said of all the offerings here, alas), and a floral aroma that is distinct but never overpowering. I wish more New York ice cream shops consistently highlighted herbal ice creams like this, laced with orange flower, lavender, and perhaps jasmine.
4. Superiority Burger: Brooks Headley, the ex-Del Posto pastry chef, dropped egg from his gelato base a few months ago, and the resulting current product barely has more weight on the tongue than low-fat cottage cheese. It’s really something else: you can eat a fully-loaded veggie burger, finish off with a cup of salted caramel gelato, and you feel energized.
5. McDonald’s Soft Serve: Milk, sugar, cream, and enough cellulose gum and guar gum to ensure that your cone won’t drip while you savor your entrees. Don’t expect depth of flavor or heady vanilla accents here: McDonald’s soft serve essentially serves as an affordable delivery mechanism for cool deliciousness in an air conditioned space with dodgy wifi. Keep in mind that the chain’s soft-serve machines tend to break down occasionally. Worst case scenario, that might be a Chick-fil-A nearby, but maybe read my review before you go?
6. Shake Shack Float: Shake Shack’s frozen custard soft serve is on the rich side for hot weather consumption, but if you insist on an eggy experience during a heatwave, allow me to recommend the root beer, or even better, purple cow floats, which take advantage of soda’s carbonic power to temper the lusciousness of custard. Note that if you’re here just for sweets, there’s often a separate, faster line.
7. Van Leeuwen Mint: Just one of two egg and cream-heavy selections on this list and the only chocolate-chip entrant. Van Leeuwen uses a strong, sharp peppermint oil that keeps the voluptuous custard from going overboard. And the chocolate chips are more finely ground and judiciously used than elsewhere. The single variety cocoa accents the dessert without overpowering it with tongue-drying tannins.
8. Morgenstern’s Raw Milk: Light, tangy, maybe even a touch funky, depending on the batch: Now don’t get me wrong I don’t actually recommend you drop by Morgenstern’s, where there will likely be a 45 minute-long line (and just a single cashier) but if you live in New York it’s entirely likely an obnoxious friend will insist on going here (omg it’s the best). So if you get dragged here, get the raw milk.