March 7, 2018
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The High Priest of American Ice Cream

David Lebovitz is coming over for ice cream, and I’m mortified.

The black sesame and orange scoop I’ve made a dozen times before doesn’t taste right—the orange zest is weak, and I undersalted the base. I wouldn’t serve it to my friends, let alone America’s most influential ice cream maker.

The doorbell rings. It’s too late. Time for me and my subpar flavor to face the music.

Of course, if you know David Lebovitz at all, from his many cookbooks or phenomenally popular blog, you know he’s unfailingly warm and encouraging. “Parisians make an art of deliberately not understanding you,” my Swiss uncle likes to say, but Lebovitz’s 14 years living in Paris haven’t diminished his sunny California demeanor. As we lean over the kitchen counter and talk shop and dip spoons into the ice cream, he somehow makes me feel more at home in my own home.

Lebovitz is in town to promote the updated edition of his seminal 2007 cookbook, The Perfect Scoop, which comes out later this month. Odd timing for an ice cream book, maybe, but true fanatics know that ice cream is a dessert for all seasons. And Lebovitz’s favorite flavors veer toward decidedly cold-weather cooking: vanilla, chocolate, coffee, and caramel. “I don’t love fruit ice cream,” he confesses. “I’d rather make sorbet in the summer to capture the taste of the fruit.”

I’ve invited Lebovitz over to my Jackson Heights, Queens, apartment and presented him with a Chopped-like challenge: throw my pantry cabinets open, dig through unlabeled jars of raw honey and whole spices, and whip up an ice cream on the spot. He settles on a brick of smoky raw cane sugar from Guatemala. “This kind of bittersweet is exactly what I like,” he says after sampling the goods. He chops it fine and scoops about half a cup into a saucepan on low heat. “I wonder if we’ll be able to melt it like this without burning it. Then maybe we can use it as a swirl.” The sugar, dark as molten chocolate, starts to bubble.

The ice cream world has a constellation of stars: Jeni Britton Bauer of the iconic Jeni’s Ice Cream; Meredith Kurtzman, the empress of American gelato; Dana Cree and Stella Parks, nerdy whiz kids who employ good chemistry as much as good vanilla; and Michael Laiskonis, whose in-depth writing on the subject verges on the philosophical. But no one’s inspired more home cooks to pick up a scoop and get churning than Lebovitz.

“I’m not taking responsibility for…the increase in sales of ice cream machines,” he writes in the new introduction, “but I was happy to be part of the burgeoning interest in artisan ice cream shops.” That includes places that cite his book as the ice cream bible, such as Ice & Vice in New York and Glaces Glazed in Paris. “When I’ve gone into some of them,” Lebovitz recalls, “the owners say, ‘I stole all your recipes,’ and I tell them that’s great. The ice cream community is incredibly supportive.”

We test how the molten sugar reacts to a scoop of black sesame ice cream; it seizes instantly and sloughs right off, not what you want from a supple swirl. “Okay then, how about we use this to flavor the base instead.” We cool the sugar down with some cream, then guess-pour a couple cups of plain custard base. Like all desserts, ice cream is finicky when it comes to ratios and technique. But once you understand those basics, you can turn pretty much anything you want into something scoopable and delicious.

Since The Perfect Scoop was published, writers and home cooks inspired by Lebovitz’s straightforward introduction to the form have taken increasingly technical approaches to churning a better, creamier batch. Now you can read lengthy blog posts on how aging your base overnight improves air-bubble stability by allowing fat crystals and globules to partially coalesce; you can even plug your ingredients into a butterfat calculator to determine the exact fat percentage of a new recipe. Scoop shops have made big business out of liquid nitrogen ice cream, promising smaller ice crystals than you could ever achieve with a conventional machine.

Lebovitz is in awe of all this progress and contributes his own findings online whenever he can—along with tales of enviable countryside meals and deep dives into French desserts and bread baking. But he’s a little bemused by some cooks’ drive to not just understand ice cream but “optimize” it on the road to perfection. “Readers want to know everything now,” Lebovitz notes with a touch of weariness. “Can I freeze this? How long will it last? What happens if my caramel gets lumps? It’s made writing more vanilla—you spend your whole time anticipating questions rather than actually writing. And to be honest, I love little lumps of caramel in my ice cream. I like little ice crystals, too, that taste of cold.” Lebovitz may be the Internet’s on-call ice cream perfectionist, but his favorite desserts are rarely “perfect.”

Our base is coming along, but it still needs something. Not vanilla, we agree when adding a drop to a test spoon, but a shot of Japanese whisky turns out to be just the thing to brighten the smoldering taste of the sugar. We chill the base down and set it to churn in my Breville countertop machine.

These days, getting to cook purely on instinct is a rare treat for Lebovitz. When he’s not traveling or writing, he’s answering reader questions on his blog or on Instagram. He still enjoys it, but he can’t help reminiscing about the days when food writers like Madeleine Kamman could focus on telling stories rather than solving problems. “Blogging used to be so much of the moment, but now even if I post a dish from a street cart on Instagram, people say, ‘Recipe, please!’”

Which is one of the reasons he still enjoys making ice cream. “It’s a mechanical process. You get your setup and follow the same steps and just work. People start to overanalyze it, but if you respect the process, you’ll get something good.”

The ice cream’s a little soft because of the whisky, but we can still paddle stretchy bits of it into a bowl. As any experienced maker can tell you, ice cream never tastes better than it does in the first few minutes after you pull it from the churn, which is how Lebovitz and the pastry team at Chez Panisse—where he cooked on and off for 15 years starting in 1983—served it to customers back in the day.

We splash a little more whisky on top. “I love that taste of raw alcohol on top of fresh ice cream.” The spoonful dissolves into tropical caramel, leaving behind tiny pebbles of sugar that I chew with my teeth.

It’s perfect.

Photos by Ed Anderson.


  • Ice Cream
  • 2½ cups homemade labneh or plain Greek yogurt
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 6 tablespoons good-flavored honey, slightly warmed
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • Pinch of kosher or sea salt
  • Pistachio-Sesame Brittle
  • ¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons shelled pistachios
  • 3 tablespoons sesame seeds
  • ½ cup sugar

I’ve been eternally fond of Middle Eastern food ever since my hippie-dippie days of spreading hummus on honey-sweetened whole-wheat pita bread topped with alfalfa sprouts. Once I discovered the cookbooks written by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, Anissa Helou, and Claudia Rodin, I realized that Middle Eastern cusine is a spectacular world of vibrant foods seasoned with herbs like za’atar, sumac, and saffron; drizzled with olive oil or nutty tahini; and served with tangy labneh (a heavenly dive into a thick cloud of housemade cheese).

I’ve been fortunate to visit the Middle East, but you can get a taste of the region’s signature flavors just by visiting your nearest Middle Eastern grocer. Most sell labneh, which is soft enough to spread on bread (and is especially delicious with olive oil and za’atar) but is sometimes rolled into tight, bite-size rounds. Because store-bought labneh varies in thickness and richness, for this recipe I advise you to make your own, which is easy.

  1. To make the ice cream, whisk together the labneh, cream, honey, sugar, and salt. Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator.
  2. To make the pistachio-sesame brittle, line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or grease it lightly with vegetable oil. Mix the pistachios and sesame seeds in a small bowl.
  3. Spread the sugar in a medium, heavy-bottomed skillet and cook over medium heat, watching it carefully. When it begins to liquefy and darken at the edges, use a heatproof spatula to stir it very gently, encouraging the liquefied sugar around the edges to moisten and melt the sugar crystals in the center.
  4. Tilt the pan and stir gently until all the sugar is melted and the caramel begins to smoke. Once it has a deep golden color, remove it from the heat and immediately stir in the nuts and seeds. Scrape the mixture onto the prepared baking sheet and spread it with a spatula into an even layer. Let cool completely. Once cooled, chop the brittle into bite-size pieces with a chef’s knife. Store in an airtight container until ready to use.
  5. Freeze the labneh mixture in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Gianduja Gelato

Gianduja Gelato

1 quart


  • 1½ cups hazelnuts, toasted
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • ¾ cups sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
  • 4 ounces milk chocolate, finely chopped
  • 5 large egg yolks
  • ⅛ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

On my first visit to Torino, Italy, I arrived in rabid pursuit of gianduja, a confection made from local hazelnuts ground with milk chocolate that is a specialty of the Piedmont region. I was also looking forward to having gianduja gelato at the source. Needless to say, I did not leave disappointed: every bakery, chocolate shop, and gelateria offered jars of gianduja for spreading, traditional triangular tablets for nibbling, and by the scoop for licking. I was in hazelnut heaven.

Be sure to toast the hazelnuts well and use top-quality dark milk chocolate with at least 30 percent cocoa solids for best results.

  1. Rub the hazelnuts in a kitchen towel to remove as much of the papery skins as possible, then chop them into pieces the size of lemon seeds in a food processor or blender.
  2. Warm the milk with 1 cup of the cream, the sugar, and the salt in a saucepan. Once warm, remove from the heat and add the chopped hazelnuts. Cover and let steep at room temperature for 1 hour.
  3. Put the milk chocolate in a large bowl. Heat the remaining 1 cup cream in a medium saucepan until it just begins to boil. Pour it over the milk chocolate and stir until the chocolate is completely melted and smooth. Set a mesh strainer over the top.
  4. Pour the hazelnut-infused milk through a strainer into a medium saucepan, squeezing the nuts firmly with your hands to extract as much of the flavorful liquid as possible. Discard the hazelnuts. NOTE: Most of the flavor will have been extracted from the hazelnuts after they’re infused in the milk, but if you wish to reuse them, to add crunch to a batch of homemade granola or to mix into a batch of brownies, they can be rinsed well, spread out a baking sheet, and dried out in a low oven.
  5. Rewarm the hazelnut-infused mixture. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Slowly pour the warm hazelnut mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, then scrape the warmed egg yolks into the saucepan. Stir the mixture constantly with a heatproof spatula over medium heat, scraping the bottom as you stir, until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula.
  6. Pour the custard through the strainer and stir it into the milk chocolate mixture. Add the vanilla and stir over an ice bath until cool.
  7. Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, then freeze it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.


  • 3 large lemons, preferably unsprayed
  • ¾ cups sugar
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • Pinch of kosher or sea salt
  • 5 large egg yolks
  • 1 batch Speculoos, crumbled
  • Speculoos
  • 2 tablespoons salted butter, at room temperature
  • 3 tablespoons packed light or dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon molasses
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • ½ cup flour
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice

Belgians have their own version of gingersnaps, called speculoos (SPEC-ou-looze). They’re meant to be nibbled alongside the copious amounts of beer that Belgians drink, which was one of the many lessons I learned when I went to chocolate school there. Belgians like their beer so much that outdoor beer gardens are busy all year long, even during the freezing-cold winters. We had to brush the snow off our table to put down our glasses! The good news is that you don’t have to worry about your beer getting warm.

Back home, I found that speculoos go equally well with lemon ice cream when the cookies are crumbled and folded in. Like Belgian beer, this can be consumed any time of the year, and it’s especially good when served frosty cold.


  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
  2. Beat together the butter and brown sugar in a medium bowl until smooth. Stir in the molasses and egg yolk.
  3. In a small bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, and spices. Stir the dry ingredients into the butter mixture and mix until smooth. Transfer the dough to the prepared baking sheet and, using your hands, pat it into a circle about 5 inches in diameter. Bake for 18 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely.

Ice Cream

  1. Zest the lemons directly into a food processor or blender. Add the sugar and blend until the lemon zest is very fine.
  2. Warm the milk with the lemon-scented sugar, ½ cup of the heavy cream, and the salt in a medium saucepan. Cover, remove from the heat, and let infuse for 1 hour.
  3. Rewarm the lemon-infused mixture. Pour the remaining 1½ cups cream into a large bowl and set a mesh strainer on top.
  4. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Slowly pour the warm lemon-infused milk into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, then scrape the warmed egg yolks into the saucepan. Stir the mixture constantly with a heatproof spatula over medium heat, scraping the bottom as you stir, until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula.
  5. Pour the custard through the strainer and stir it into the cream. Discard the lemon zest and stir over an ice bath until cool.
  6. Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, then freeze it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. As you remove the ice cream from the machine, fold in the crumbled speculoos.

Max Falkowitz

Max Falkowitz is a food and travel writer for The New York Times, Saveur, GQ, New York magazine’s Grub Street, and other outlets. He’s also the coauthor of The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook with Helen You.

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