The spring blossoms have already dazzled, and dropped their petals into the breeze, leaving behind a bright sea of green, hovering above our heads. Memorial Day is around the corner, signaling the turn into the home stretch sprint to summer. Before we know it, our beaches and parks will be covered with millions of living blobs of human flesh sprawled out on colorful towels, soaking in the hot, nourishing light of our sun, all simultaneously thinking one deafening primal summer thought: “Ice cream.”
Cupcake wizards Allison and Matt Robicelli, not the types to ignore an opportunity to both delight the masses and indulge their own culinary whims and obsessions in one fell swoop, are doing their part to save summer by rolling out a limited-batch line of seasonal ice cream sandwiches at their Dekalb Market shop.
We spoke with Allison about the project. (If you prefer cartoons to interviews, take a look at Allison’s illustrated rendition of the tale: ‘Let’s Bake the Whole Thing Off: Episode Three – Ice Cream Oopsies!‘)
So – you’ve officially debuted Robicellis ice cream sandwiches. Has this been in the works for a while?
Oh, forever. Ice cream sandwiches are my favorite food ever. If there are ice cream sandwiches in the house, I can’t eat just one. I have to eat them all. It’s a problem.
When I was a kid, they sold Flying Saucers from Carvel in the cafeteria at my school, PS 185. They were a dollar. If I got a good grade or something I was allowed to buy one, but other than that my mom wouldn’t give me money for them. So I’d constantly look for change, on the sidewalk, in the street. I’d save all the change I found and when I had a dollar, which was usually every few weeks, I’d buy an ice cream sandwich. So ice cream sandwiches taste like victory to me.
We started talking seriously about doing our own ice cream sandwiches last year. It was mostly for selfish reasons. I just wanted to make ice cream sandwiches so I could eat them. Most of the things we develop are for selfish reasons. We’ll come up with something and think, “Oh God, I’d like to eat that.” So we make it. It’s an entirely, entirely selfish pursuit. It’s all about things I want to eat. So, no raisins.
There are a lot of really good ice cream sandwiches out there right now. It’s a good time to be eating ice cream sandwiches. I just wanted to put our spin on it.
Actually, there’s another reason we’re doing ice cream sandwiches. I’m really good friends with Gabby Carbone from The Bent Spoon in Princeton, New Jersey. I think they make the best ice cream in the world. Seriously. We were like, “We have to do something with this ice cream.” It’s so good that we drive down there at least once a month for ice cream.
We were trying to come up with a way to get her ice cream into New York City. We were on a mission. I was going to drive down there twice a month, load up a cooler and drive back. But it became a logistical nightmare. She was going to try to deliver to us, but we couldn’t figure it out. I was going to buy coolers and go down there to pick it up, but it’s over an hour’s drive, and when we were trying to make it work, we were in the middle of a really hot summer – there was no way I was going to go down there and have a thousand dollars worth of ice cream melt in my car while I was sitting in traffic.
We couldn’t figure it out, but by that point I was really invested in the idea. We weren’t going to make our own ice cream, so we started talking to the Laboratorio de Gelato guys. They don’t do ice cream, they do gelato, but they’re definitely like the Bent Spoon of gelato. They’re amazing. We love them.
They opened on the Lower East Side about ten years ago. I remember being a chef and being really aggravated because we didn’t have an ice cream machine. There was no room and no budget for an ice cream machine. And I remember sitting down with Jon from Lab and going through this list of flavors he was making, and it was insane. There were like forty flavors, and they were all flavors you would never have imagined. And on top of that, he said he’d make you whatever you want. It was ridiculous. And inspiring.
If they have so much to work with and it’s all so good, will you stick to the catalog or do you think you’ll take them up on their offer and develop some custom flavors?
We’re going to start with their catalog, but the catalog is ridiculous. It’s not a limiting factor for us not to be making our own ice cream. It’s better. We can riff on the amazing flavors they do with their gelato by pairing it with the cookie part of the sandwich and various toppings that we’ll do. You look at the Lab catalog and ideas just start shooting out of your head. Matt and I are at our best when we’re coming up with ideas. I think we already have about fifteen pages of ideas for ice cream sandwiches. We’ll probably do ten varieites this year. It’s endless.
I love collaborating. It’s fun working with friends and it’s fun working with outstanding product. It’s liberating and inspiring. And when Lab says, “I can make you anything you want,” it’s like talking to Santa. If I want jelly bean anchovy ice cream, I can have it. The possibilities are endless.
So what are some of the sandwich varieties you’ve come up with?
Some of them are going to be interpretations of our cupcakes. We’re doing an ice cream sandwich version of our Dark Chocolate Dolce cupcake. It’s a dulce de leche gelato with sea salt and dark chocolate ganache between two brownie cookies.
We went with the Dulce de Leche first because it seemed easy, but it wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be. The dulce gelato is super-sweet, and the brownie cookie is sweet. Everything was sweet. So to balance out the sweetness and make it more interesting we use a dark chocolate ganache and sea salt, so when you take a bite it’s sweet, but that salt comes in and wakes up your whole palate, then you get the bitterness of the dark chocolate and the bitter cocoa we use in the brownie, so there’s a range of flavors that hits you, wakes you up and gets you involved in the experience.
Everyone who ate them last weekend at Dekalb Market was just standing there eating them with their eyes closed. It wasn’t one of those ice cream experiences where you’re walking around not even really being conscious that you’re eating ice cream…you’re definitely aware that you’re eating one of them.
We’ve also done the Maltz, which has cupcake and brownie versions too. The Maltz is all about bacon, bourbon, and chocolate. In the ice cream sandwich it’s chocolate bourbon gelato between two brownies baked with bacon.
We did the Irish Car Bomb as an ice cream sandwich too. Lab has a Guinness gelato flavor. It’s amazing. Really malty. It actually tastes like beer. It’s not sweet. It just tastes like Guinness. It was bitter and luxurious…
I don’t drink. I haven’t had a drink in ages and one of the things that I really miss is Guinness stout. I tasted that gelato and I was like, “Oh my God this is everything that’s good about Guinness and I can enjoy it without having to take my top off!”
For the ice cream sandwich we made brownies with Bailey’s Irish Crème, spread them with a whiskey ganache and put a big scoop of the Guinness gelato in the middle. It was amazing. I don’t know how well the Car Bomb really works in terms of balance of flavors, but when you eat those flavors together, they really work.
And we’re looking forward to using a lot of stuff from the markets this summer. I love blackberries. I can eat them all the time. We’re going to do a blackberry cabernet reduction on top of a ricotta gelato inside a brownie cookie.
You know, it’s been really interesting for us to work with frozen stuff. When you eat something cold it tends to taste much sweeter than if you eat it at room temperature, because the taste buds on your tongue are numbed by the cold in a way that lets the sweetness through but that kind of blocks perception of other flavors. Like our brownies – if you eat them at room temperature, they’re not very sweet at all. That’s what makes them stand out. But if you eat them frozen, they taste super-sweet because you don’t taste the bitterness of the dark chocolate. So it’s been fun for us to figure out how to balance that.
With the blackberry one, when we thought about the way the cold amplifies the sweetness, we decided to pretty much eliminate the sugar from the blackberry cabernet compote completely, and to even add a little acidity to it to really boost the blackberries’ natural flavor. The ricotta gelato is smooth and creamy, you get your sweetness from the brownie, and we adjusted the blackberry cabernet compote to amplify the tartness and acidity of the blackberry, to balance it. So it won’t be just sweet. When you take a bite you taste a lot of different things. If you want balanced flavors in something cold or frozen, you really have to reduce the amount of sugar and increase the amount of everything else.
We don’t want our stuff to be just sweet. We want it to be interesting and surprising.
Sounds like you’re having fun working with something new. Do you ever get tired of cupcakes?
Definitely. People ask me all the time, “What’s your favorite cupcake?” I tell them, “I hate cupcakes!” I have personally made close to two hundred thousand cupcakes, and I can’t enjoy them anymore.
As a chef you’re constantly breaking everything you’re making down in your head and analyzing – being hyper-critical of your work. I can’t help automatically dissecting them in my mind every time I eat them, and that’s not fun. What makes cupcakes so good to eat is that reckless abandon of shoving them in your mouth and just eating them and letting the flavors hit you. I can’t do it anymore wit cupcakes.
So for me, it’s great to actually get to really enjoy eating something we’re making again.
Where are can the ice cream sandwich lovers of Brooklyn get these things?
We’ve had them the past few weekends at our shop at Dekalb Market, and by Memorial Day we plan to have them available every day there. Flavors will rotate, depending on whatever whim we happen to be indulging or what’s in season at the markets at any given time.
So this is all going to be a wild, freewheeling experimental ice cream sandwich ride?
We are making everything up as we go along. I can’t emphasize that enough. When I see something shiny I like to chase it. That’s how we work.
You can find Robicellis ice cream sandwiches at their shop at Dekalb Market, at 138 Willoughby Street at Flatbush Ave in Downtown Brooklyn.