If you believe the anecdotal evidence, ice cream first emerged from the chilled mists of culinary prehistory in the seventh century A.D. when Chinese Emperor King Tang is said to have sent runners to the nearby mountains in Shang province to procure ice and snow, which was then mixed with milk to create a cool, refreshing treat. Western explorers in the Far East eventually encountered Tang’s concoction, and Europeans began to produce their own variations of iced indulgences: parfaits, granitas, gelatos, sherbets, sorbets, and Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream.
Summertime is made for ice cream and its many variants, particularly in our sweltering hot, humid clime. Here, local chefs with a ready supply of fresh seasonal ingredients and a surfeit of imagination dream up new takes on the age-old standby every week — yet they also serve it just as it’s been prepared for centuries: with a bowl, a spoon, and a smile.
Ice Cream Sundae
Ye Ole Fashioned Ice Cream and Sandwich Café
Downtown. 306 King St. 727-1227;
Goose Creek. 209-A St. James Ave. 553-8833;
Mt. Pleasant. 1502 Hwy 17N. 849-3698;
North Charleston. 6554 Rivers Ave. 797-7760;
Summerville. 602 Old Trolley Road. 871-7859; 1205 Main St. 871-7880;
West Ashley. 474 Savannah Hwy. 766-4854; 2204 Portside Way. 763-7958
Call individual stores for hours
Local ice cream chain Ye Olde Fashioned has carved out a rock-solid niche by sticking strictly to the fundamentals: 32 flavors, 18 toppings, and an infinite number of ways to induce head freeze. Consider the creamery’s most reliable stalwart: the hot fudge sundae. Three giant scoops of Good Humor brand French vanilla piled into a 16 oz. styrofoam cup, drowned in Hungorford Smith Old Fashioned Chocolate Fudge Topping, assaulted by a crush of walnuts. It’s topped with heavy whipped cream squeezed from a pastry bag, drizzled with a temptation of chocolate syrup, punctuated with a day-glo-red maraschino cherry, and finally impaled with a plastic spoon that looks altogether insufficient to the challenge.
“During the day we serve a lot of food, but at night it’s all ice cream,” says the West Ashley store’s general manager Shannon Parish. “At night the lines are out the door. And at least 70 percent of those are getting a sundae. Or they want vanilla on a cone. Vanilla, you know? We have 32 flavors and they all want vanilla. But you can’t go wrong with it. At least it’s French vanilla.”
Paolo’s Gelato Italiano
Downtown. 41 John St. (843) 577-0099
With their lighter, less dairy-focused take on iced delights, Italians have won converts the world over for gelato, their homegrown version of ice cream. A softer, less firmly frozen, more intensely flavored and colored creation, gelato — as served by Paolo Dalla Zorza at his bustling authentic Italian gelateria on John Street — is a dairy-less taste of the Mediterranean. Armed with fresh ingredients and essences of fruits, flowers, even wines and vegetables, Paolo mixes and freezes flavors like his Jasmine gelato with water or skim milk but no cream, resulting in a frothy, smooth, pastel-colored, low-fat delight that practically floats on the tongue. Gelato is also churned at a higher temperature than ice cream — 55 degrees Fahrenheit, as opposed to 32.
“It’s similar to ice cream, but with different ingredients,” Zorza explains in what he calls his “lab” in a back room. “Ice cream uses corn sugar. But there’s no corn sugar, not much sugar at all in gelato. Which makes it much richer, less gummy. We use skim milk and no cream. That’s why it’s so much lighter, and it doesn’t make you thirsty.”
Zorza’s lab is filled with fresh fruits, cans of thick pastes, and alchemical bottles of pure extracts that help flavor a line of vegetable gelati (avocado, celery, carrots, green tea, olive oil, and rosemary) and even floral-flavored (violet, carnation, rose, jasmine, orange blossom). “I do everything from scratch. It’s the artisan way,” he says. “It’s all fresh-made. We make only eight batches a day; I don’t do leftovers.”
Fried Ice Cream
Downtown. 460 King St. (843) 724-3490
At Basil, King Street’s ever-popular go-to Thai standby, our server suggests following a meal of spring rolls and shrimp-tossed prik king with the traditional fried ice cream, long a dessert staple of Americanized Mexican and Asian restaurants. But Basil chef Suntorn Cherdchoongarm has stamped his version with the restaurant’s unique idiom, she says. Five minutes later she delivers, with a flourish, a baseball-sized batter-covered gemstone of green tea ice cream deep fried till the coating is crisp and the light green goodness inside still well chilled. Settled proudly in the middle of a plate, it’s drizzled with a raspberry coulis, topped with a dollop of fresh custard and a maraschino cherry. The crunchy shell, we’re told, is a batter of egg yolk and — who knew? — crustless white Wonder Bread crumbs. The frozen ice cream is rolled and battered then re-frozen ahead of time, and flash fried for each order.
Downtown. 167 East Bay St. (843)727-0111
At Cypress, pastry chef Kelly Wilson wants to help foodies find the adventurer in their palates. With a recent summertime special she calls a “Margarita Granita,” Wilson dipped into a current culinary trend that has chefs slipping savory flavors into finishers and pairing them with fresh fruit. The granita, or “ice,” is essentially a Cuervo Gold margarita that’s been refrozen and scraped for texture, then placed atop freeze-dried, concentrated watermelon squares. The dessert also features an uncommon avocado sorbet: puréed avocado, lemon and lime juice, salt, lime zest, and simple syrup. “Then I send it through the ice cream machine,” she says. “That churns it, which just adds air and freezes it.” A quenelle of this pistachio-colored heaven goes on top, which is then drizzled with a tequila reduction and skewered with flash-fried Japanese rice paper rolls for texture and visual accent.
“I was looking for textural and temperature contrasts with this one,” Wilson explains. “I wanted something people are familiar with but I also wanted something a little more savory. It’s a very refreshing dessert. It has no dairy in it, it’s very high in acid from the citrus, and it really cleanses the palate after a meal.”
The Big Chill
Downtown. 2 Unity Alley. (843) 577-0025
The first thing you’ll see upon walking into the kitchen at McCrady’s, where Chef Sean Brock is a local pioneer in the enigmatic, explosive style of cuisine known as molecular gastronomy, is a hot-water-heater-sized stainless-steel tank labeled “Liquid Nitrogen.” For Brock, there’s just as much fun to be had cooking with the high temperatures on the other side of the zero — -320˚ F — as at the traditional upper numbers. While pastry chef Winburn Carmichael fills a styrofoam cooler with a few inches of the supercooled element, Brock pours a pint of room-temperature vanilla ice cream into a Home Depot Power Painter. He aims the paint sprayer into the cooler and squeezes. Amid the resulting racket, what looks like smoke billows up into a cloud that nearly obscures him. After a moment, he pauses to dip a strainer into the cooler and withdraw a scoop of buttermilk-colored stuff roughly the fineness of baking flour. How would you like your vanilla ice cream powder? Would you prefer olive oil or balsamic vinegar? No problem. Stand back.
Using a “top secret” ingredient that tricks the brain into ignoring sweets and sugars, Brock’s also imbued ice creams and sorbets with savory characteristics. The result: buttered popcorn ice cream, beet sorbet, “everything you can imagine,” he says, “from tobacco to bacon to fried chicken ice cream.”
Combining the two methods can yield unheard-of delights. Brock takes a scoop of mint sorbet and punches a wooden skewer into it, then drops it into the cooler. After a few moments, he withdraws it and rolls the now rock-solid ball in a bowl of melted milk chocolate, then sets it aside and waits. As the chocolate hardens, the sorbet melts. When it’s finished, he has a liquefied treat inside a crusty frozen chocolate shell. “It’s like a chocolate and liquid sorbet lollipop.”