It’s been a rather manic winter here in New York, occasionally bringing days of spring-like warmth mixed with chilling snow (“Storms” as Pace University would have us believe. To this New Hampshire native these were in fact not weather emergencies but just a fair amount of frozen precipitation). This has thrown my cravings out of whack. One day I’ll be thinking of a warm piece of pie while looking out at the fallen snow, the next I’ll wanna be strolling in the sun with an ice cream cone. I feel pulled in every sweet treat direction.
Sometimes it is the days where the craving does not match the weather when everything aligns. This was the case one cloudy afternoon when I was in an ice cream mood. It’s been quite a while since visiting an artisanal ice cream shop, and my body was telling me that it had in fact been too long. Chill be damned, it was time for a frozen treat!
I decided it was time to knock of a location that had long been calling out for a visit: Ample Hills Creamery. In both its physical location and flavor creations there is a Ben and Jerry’s quality to Ample Hills. As a long-time Ben and Jerry’s connoisseur, this is a major positive. There is a familial, fun-loving care in their brand that makes one feel welcome with the energy of a warm summer day in ones youth. At their Gowanus scoop shop their brick walls were painted with natural scenery and playful colors. There is also a good amount of seating with booths and tables that allow you the time to truly sit and savor the ice cream, which I find is often missing from many ice cream establishments that tend to be a more get-it-and-go situation. While I understand that, I am quite simply a messy person. To really get to know my ice cream I gotta sit for full control of my cone.
The crown jewel of this shop though is, of course, the ice cream case. It meets you immediately as you walk in and stares up at you in all its multifaceted glory. This is where one sees not only the aesthetic similarities to Ben and Jerry’s, but those present in product. There is a wide variety of flavors that are packed with glorious gobs of cake, crushed up cookies, marshmallows, honeycomb, pretzels, M&Ms, and potato chips. The one mix-in that I did not see that has eternal hold of my heart was cookie dough. For me, cookie dough is an essential ice cream addition. If I could build my own ideal ice cream flavor it would certainly contain some dough. However, with the wide variety of unique options I couldn’t feel disappointed.
This abundance of options lead to extreme indecision. I spent a solid amount of time scanning the tubs and reading the descriptions over each flavor (Which was greatly appreciated. I hate when places have cutesy names that don’t describe the flavor at all and then have no description, so you have to ask for each one). One flavor in particular caught my eye. Salted Crack’d Caramel is an ice cream with a burnt caramel base filled with “Deb’s famous crack’d cookies: saltine crackers cooked in butter and dipped in chocolate”. Sounds a little like the beloved chocolate crack of my youth covered in my crack pie exploration, no? Clearly it was necessary to give it a try. Another undeniable call came from the Chocolate Milk and Cookies. It’s hard to go wrong with cookies and cream items, being one of the few popular flavors that capitalizes on the beauty of real crushed up cookies mixed into ice cream. What made this so enticing though, was the chocolate base. While this flavor and chocolate chip cookie dough are solid foundations of American society, I find that their one fatal flaw is being commonly made with vanilla. Any time I’m at scoop shop or my grocer’s freezer case and I see an option that Is classically vanilla that’s substituted with chocolate I simply must jump on the opportunity. Now what I would really love is exploring even more than the vanilla/chocolate binary with these classics. Cookie dough with cinnamon ice cream? Cookies and cream with a caramel base? I’m intrigued and I want to see more.
While I had chosen my two flavors (As I find two flavors the optimal ice cream cone situation. You have variety, exploration, options, but are able to give each one time to cherish it. Three can get overwhelming. And filling. And melty.) it was time to determine their container. While I was naturally going to get a cone, I had a range of options there as well. Not only did I have sugar, cake, and waffle to decide between, but there were flavored cones of pretzel and birthday cake. These fancy flavors naturally cost a little extra, but that is the price I pay for food exploration. While a pretzel cone sounded great, I worried that the salt of the cone mixed with the saltiness of the Salted Crack’d Caramel would be too much. I therefore went with birthday cake. I ended up with a cone that had all the makings of a good party: snack of chocolate crack on top, cookies right below, and cake holding it all together.
I went in for my first taste of Crack’d Caramel with the visceral taste memory of chocolate crack in mind. I was overjoyed when I was met with that taste’s frozen equivalent. The flavor of the burnt caramel gave me layers to explore with its initial buttery wave, quickly giving way to the darker tinge of burnt-ness occurring in the back of the mouth. While something being burned generally comes with negative connotations, especially when talking about confection making and caramel, this is not the case at all here. Instead, it has an effect similar to charring vegetables. The caramel has simply been brought to a new level of flavor that is in a different world from its its less-cooked brethren. There’s more complexity. A fuller flavor. All this is enhanced with the perfect amount of saltiness. Just as it does in savory dishes, the salt worked to enhance the well-built flavors already pleasant and topped it all off with a little kick, without overwhelming the mouth and taking over. This was the flavor of my memory. I got the butter and brown sugar melding into one, I got the time in the oven bubbling and intermingling with the saltines. This base had enough legs to stand on its own.
This flavor was all made possible by the outstanding texture. It was smooth yet light with no grainy over-frozen bits. Substantive and creamy and perfectly holding every bit of crunchy chocolate-saltine goodness. These mixed-in morsels of “crack’d cookies” were just what I was looking for in the midst of all the caramel. There was a fair amount sprinkled throughout the base, but not so much that it was overwhelming and making it impossible to taste, but not so little that you had to search through it to find some crunchy goodness. Each one offered a delicate burst of saltine with a fair nibble of good-quality chocolate. They brought just enough crunch and chocolate to round everything out to perfectly create a de-constructed frozen version of the chocolate crack of my youth.
Once all this nostalgia was consumed, I was met with the joy of chocolate milk and cookies. The texture was just as well executed, and the chocolate the quintessence of milk chocolate ice cream excellence. Its flavor was not so great that I would want a scoop of it on its own as a basic chocolate, but it served perfectly in tandem with the cookies to create an experience akin to Oreos with good quality chocolate milk. In this scoop I could have done with a few more chunks of cookie to enhance this, but on the whole this was another prime example of a flavor made better by a chocolate base. The bits of cookie that were there were also of a goodly size. There can sometimes be issues with flavors such as this of grinding the cookie into too fine crumbs that are not able to be fully appreciated. Conversely, they can also be too large and hard making it difficult to get an ideal bite with ice cream and cookie mixed together. These bits were just right and able to be consumed in well-constructed ice cream/cookie combination. I also commend my choice of combination as the salty caramel complex goodness kicked the cone off with a bang and transitioned with an ease to the classic grounding chocolate.
This was all brought together with the birthday cake cone. Just a slight waft of distinctly birthday cake flavor encased the edge of each cone laden bite. It didn’t try to make itself the star of the show, but it added just a little extra bit of fun flavor to this “cone of nostalgia” that was constructed.
Ample Hills brought out a childhood joy in me from its décor to its product. It made me feel like I was back in a small town shop, hanging with cast-mates in a booth after a long night of rehearsal, or closing night of a show. There was no New York City rush and hustle. It was a haven of frozen delight with something to satisfy everyone’s inner child. With multiple locations throughout the city’s boroughs (Even Jersey City, LA, and Florida) and a unique flavor that can be found at each one, there is always a new adventure to be had at any one. Wherever it is, this NYC based shop brings a sense of nostalgia and community to the big city.