Food & Wine

Ice cream innovator offers stories in a scoop

salt straw eliza
Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier 
Salt & Straw's Tyler Malek visited Palo Alto to launch a new location for the ice creamery, and December's holiday flavors. 

A special source, ingredient or pairing can transform a recipe from food to story. During the holiday season, people pay tribute to family or faith when they dust off an ancient cookie recipe or heat oil for the sufganiyot. Tyler Malek, the ice cream creator for Salt & Straw, mused on the idea of storytelling in the kitchen in an exclusive Town Crier interview at the innovative ice cream shop’s new Palo Alto location, which opened three weeks ago. 

 In addition to a menu of regional specialty ice creams, Salt & Straw offers five new flavors each month that follow the seasons and the chefs’ whims.

December’s ice cream story is “about nostalgic, heartwarming, intriguing flavors,” Malek said. The shop at 250 University Ave. is serving scoops of Peppermint Bark Cocoa ice cream, as well as a dairy-free Cinnamon Coconut Eggnog made with rum-infused almond milk and coconut cream.

The Gingerbread Cookie Dough ice cream uses Malek’s grandmother’s molasses cookies, swirled into a rum royal icing ice cream. The Apple Brandy & Pecan Pie scoop oozes with sticky toffee pie filling and brandy in the vanilla base.

Malek invented this reporter’s favorite, the Sugar Plum Fairy ice cream, with a nod to ballet's influence. He took the idea of folklore, traditionalism and a magical place and mashed it up with the notion of a high-class treat, enjoyed at fancy tea parties. How do you translate all of that into a single recipe? After a few false starts, he settled on this: Assam black tea from Portland’s Steve Smith, steeped in cream. Add swirls of fluffy homemade marzipan and a homemade plum jam heavy with cinnamon, orange and a glittering of nutmeg and mace.

You can taste the holiday flavors until January, when a slate of five variations on “indulgent nondairy” take over the specials, followed by a tribute to Bay Area chocolatiers in February.

“We always joke, if there is a harder, more expensive way to do something, we will find it,” Malek said. “It’s fun – it’s what keeps us excited and energized.”

He’s looking for flavors that feel “new, intriguing and genuinely important,” a high bar to set in the world of cooking. But seen in light of his holiday menu the approach gains context – if you want to feel fired up about your holiday cookies, with a story to tell as you pass the platter, why not experiment with different ways to frame a favorite ingredient?

Malek and his co-founder and cousin, Kim Malek, started the ice creamery in 2011 and have expanded to more than a dozen west coast locations in Burlingame, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Los Angeles. He was just enrolling in culinary school, having already completed a business degree, when they dreamed up the idea. Malek moved into Kim’s basement and began studying not just the craft, but foodways from other industries entirely, from craft distillation to cheese making. The results are evident on the menu, which makes whiskey into sorbet and triple cream cheese into an ice cream flavor.

Sarah Masoni, who heads up research and development at the Oregon Food Innovation Center, advised the Maleks on the development of their core ice creams. Four of its most classic flavors appear in every city, but most of the menu has been developed by region. Seattle has Ellenos yogurt and Elm coffee while Cowgirl Creamery’s cheese and Acme’s bread appear only in the Bay Area.

“We really lean into being inspired by the region as much as possible,” Malek said. He took an experiential approach to the task, visiting Portland’s brewers, bakers and chefs to study the flavors and techniques of other food disciplines and then reflect a range of local tastes in a new format.

“I was soaking it all in and learning how to tell that story through ice cream,” Malek said.

In the Bay Area, that translates as offerings including an olive oil ice cream made with a single-varietal Arbequina oil produced on a family farm in the North Bay. A collaboration between Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam cheese, Acme fruit and walnut bread that has been toasted and candied, and a swirl of sour cherry and apricot jam makes up another famed local menu item.

The ice creamery tracks the ingredients in its sometimes baroque flavors so that servers can help a customer work around an allergy or seek out the non-dairy options that Salt & Straw is increasingly developing as a niche.

Salt and Straw’s production kitchens are divided between Portland and Los Angeles, developing flavors based on where they’re sourcing the ingredients and how they want to distribute them. The fruit flavors and swirls you’ll find in the Palo Alto shop provide a peek into a delicate arm of the food production system. Spent berry skins in the honey lavender ice cream provide the only food coloring you’ll see in the Palo Alto shop right now. Cold brew extraction for the Sightglass coffee aims to preserve the fruity notes of the coffee bean, which Malek pairs with a cashew praline.

The green tea and raspberry ice cream sources matcha from a North Bay import company, and plans ahead to buy individually quick frozen black raspberries at their peak from a northern Californian farm. When they’re ready to make a new batch, Malek macerates the raspberries in sugar and then bakes them for 45 minutes to condense the intense tart/sweet flavor and get a touch of caramelization before freezing them into a icy-textured swirl paired with the soft, mossy green tea ice cream.

Malek’s flavor combinations are only a starting off point – inventive customers can mix and match flavors in their scoops, and he offered an exclusive tip for the Palo Alto store - his current favorite combination is the rye sorbet paired with a scoop of vanilla or coffee ice cream.

“It’s so boozy on its own, with the fat it really blossoms,” Malek said. He’s developing a cookbook, due out in April, with 120 recipes for readers to try at home. Although they do not require the excesses that are standard at Salt and Straw – including separating skittles by color, or candying grasshoppers and mealworms for a Halloween bug ice cream – some of them are grand endeavors.

Malek shared his grandmother-inspired gingerbread ice cream recipe with Town Crier readers, below. In addition to teaching the basics of making a high end ice cream, it might prove food for thought as you reimagine your own family recipe. You can taste test the original version in the shop or order it online until Dec. 27.

Gingerbread Cookie Dough Ice Cream

From the forthcoming Salt & Straw cookbook

Makes about 2 1/2 pints

Special Equipment:

-A 1½-quart ice cream maker (bowl frozen for at least 12 hours)

-Freezer-friendly containers

-Parchment paper

To assemble the ice cream:

3 cups Ice Cream Base (see below)

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 teaspoon almond extract

1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon dark rum

1 cup Gingerbread Cookie pieces (see below)

3/4 cup Gingerbread Cookie Butter (see below)

Turn on the ice cream machine and pour the ice cream base into the ice cream maker, add the salt, almond and vanilla extracts, and rum. Churn just until the mixture has the texture of soft serve, 30 to 40 minutes, depending on the machine. Use a spatula to gently fold in the gingerbread cookies to the ice cream so they’re well distributed.

Alternate spooning layers of the mixture and drizzling on about 1 tablespoon of the cookie butter in freezer-friendly containers. The goal is ice cream that has a perfect ratio of ice cream and cookie butter in each scoop.

Cover with parchment paper, pressing it to the surface of the ice cream so it adheres, then cover with a lid. It’s ok if the parchment hangs over the rim. Store it in the coldest part of your freezer (farthest from the door) until firm, at least 6 hours. It keeps for up to 6 months.

Ice Cream Base

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons dry milk powder

1/4 teaspoon xanthan gum

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

1 1/3 cup whole milk

1 1/3 cup heavy cream

Combine the sugar, dry milk, and xanthan gum in a small bowl and stir well.

Pour the corn syrup into a medium pot and stir in the whole milk.

Add the sugar mixture and immediately whisk vigorously until smooth. Set the pot over medium heat and cook, stirring often and adjusting the heat if necessary to prevent a simmer, until the sugar has fully dissolved, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Add the cream and whisk until fully combined. Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate until well chilled, at least 6 hours, or for even better texture and flavor, 24 hours. It can be further stored in the fridge for up to 1 week or the the freezer for up to 3 months.

Gingerbread Cookies

Makes about 15 cookies

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed

2 eggs

2 tablespoons molasses (not blackstrap)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/8 teaspoon ground ginger

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

Pinch freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 350F. Spray a standard size loaf pan with non-stick cooking spray.

In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment or using a handheld mixer, cream the butter and brown sugar by beating on medium speed until the butter mixture is slightly lighter in color and greater in volume. Add the eggs and molasses and mix on slow speed until completely incorporated. In a separate bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients. Add the dry mixture to the wet one, and mix on medium-low speed just until combined.

Spread batter in the bottom of the prepared loaf pan in an even layer all the way to the corners and edges. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Invert the cake to unmold while it's still hot. Cool on a rack and store covered at room temperature for up to 1 week. Cut into ½-inch pieces before adding to the ice cream.

Gingerbread Cookie Butter

Makes about 1 cup

1/2 cup Gingerbread Cookies, coarsely crumbled

1/2 cup evaporated milk

1 tablespoon light brown sugar, lightly packed

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

In a food processor, pulse the gingerbread cookies to the texture of fine breadcrumbs. Add the evaporated milk, brown sugar, butter, and lemon juice,then process until smooth. Transfer to an airtight container and store in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

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