Flavor of Love
, I always hope the sadness that inevitably engulfs me, rendering me incapable of laughter, sleep, and sex with strangers – or anyone, for that matter – for a length of time proportionate to the severity of the emotional damage will swallow my hunger just as it has swallowed my happiness whole. This will allow me to lose the requisite weight to which all those lucky in love feel entitled, and will allow me the confidence I need to move on with my life.
But, alas, it never does. Instead, I end up drunk and alone, night after night, with a bottle of red in one hand and a pint of ice cream in the other, both of which will be empty by the time I’m ready to roll myself into bed. I’ve come to the conclusion, then, that it’s much safer to be in love with a food item than it is to be, say, with a person.
Needless to say, when I hear Smitten Ice Cream (now open) is going to be a part of the Proxy Project – temporarily bringing a biergarten by Suppenkuche and a wood-fired pizza oven by Delfina to Hayes Valley – I contact Smitten immediately. If I can’t win my lover back, I may as well fill the void with ice cream in the meantime.
Thus, one foggy afternoon I find myself biking from my Mission abode up many hills to meet Robyn Sue Goldman in her kitchen in Cole Valley. When I arrive, I’m in a full sweat, and Robyn Sue and Smitten pastry chef, Robyn Lyn Lenzi (yes, they are both named Robyn with a “y”) are fully entrenched in the ice cream making process. Many of the necessary ingredients – milk, cream, sugar, and salt – are laid out on the kitchen counter, easy as pie – except we’ll be making ice cream, of course.
We start by making strawberry ice cream. First we measure out homemade strawberry puree, lemon juice, and salt. Then we add the dairy and the sugar. We make two different versions of the strawberry ice cream – one that includes egg yolks and one that doesn’t – a factor that affects the flavor tremendously. While Mission ice cream darlings Bi-Rite Creamery and Humphry Slocombe get their organic milk from the Straus Family Creamery, Smitten has chosen Three Twins by way of Beretta Organic Farms, which means it will come as straight from the cow’s udder as possible.
The egg yolk version is so creamy that the texture almost overpowers the strawberry flavor, while the non-egg yolk version tastes so much like strawberry that you hardly think you’re eating ice cream. Clearly, the recipe development process is a wonderfully indulgent challenge, and I have no doubt that Smitten will succeed, as it seems that Robyn Sue whose svelte figure belies none of her fondness for the decadent dessert, comes off as nothing short of a perfectionist.
Robyn Sue tells me her story. She enrolled in business school at Stanford and, disenchanted with the typical corporate angle taken by most of her classmates, decided to break away from the archetypal rat race and focus her interest on entrepreneurship and product design for ice cream. She was inspired by the pleasant memories she had as a child growing up outside Boston, eating the stuff during its notoriously humid summer months.
She began making ice cream with liquid nitrogen, an element I remember from an experiment we conducted in my junior high science class, when we froze flowers and then dropped them on the floor to watch their petals shatter into a million little pieces (which I feel is akin to what recently happened to my heart). By the end of school, Robyn Sue was known as “The Ice Cream Girl” and was catering events for students and faculty.
Upon graduating, she spent nearly two years working with a talented engineer to develop the custom-made, now-patented machine called Kelvin, which makes each scoop of ice cream to order. Since then, she has formed a core Smitten team: Robyn Lyn Lenzi, Carey Jones (chef and writer), and Andrew Shaw (chef and lawyer) are the masterminds in the kitchen in addition to being co-store managers with Robyn Sue.
Watching the silver behemoth of a machine in motion is almost as satisfying as tasting the end result, since the smoky substance swirling around the mixer makes the freezing process seem like a miracle enshrouded in mystery. Fortunately for the shop’s employees, Kelvin was designed such that the machine operator is separated – and therefore, safe – from the liquid nitrogen, which has a tendency to freeze everything with which it comes in contact, like a wintry Medusa.
Robyn Sue explains that the faster freezing rate afforded by the liquid nitrogen’s extreme cold brings about a few major benefits. First, it drastically reduces the size of the ice crystals, which results in a much creamier texture. Second, it reduces the incorporation of air into the ice cream (called “overrun”), contributing to a dense, intensely flavorful scoop. Third, the rapid freezing rate (it takes about one minute to make a scoop!), allows the Smitten team to make each scoop to order.
Since the ice cream will be consumed immediately, there is no need for preservatives, stabilizers, or emulsifiers (critical ingredients in most retail ice cream) because, unlike other ice cream providers, it’s not necessary to worry about shelf life. Without any of these shelf-life additives, the ice cream is exceptionally clean and the taste pure – like a freshly picked strawberry.
I ask about the non-dairy ingredients, and the response mirrors the Bay Area’s food mantra: fresh, local, and seasonal. Nothing is frozen (until it enters Kelvin, of course) and everything is sourced as near by as possible. The Robyns claim the small menu will change weekly and consist of flavors that are thoughtful and quirky, like butternut squash (as opposed to the more popular pumpkin) and quince in the fall and winter months.
They tell me the chocolate chunks that can be added to flavors like vanilla and mint will be supplied by Tcho, the SF-based chocolatier that both Robyns swear win the chocolate taste test. They are toying with the idea of including cocoa nibs as well, again underlining the idea that basic is best. Smitten also plans on partnering with local pastry outfit Batter Bakery, mixing its confections into the ice cream.
While I haven’t had a chance to make it to Batter’s California Street kiosk, I was lucky enough to sample one of its brownies at Ritual, which was recommended above all the other baked goods behind the glass case by one of the helpful (and handsome, heartache-reducing) baristas. The brownie proved flavorful and fudgy beyond belief – almost like a flourless chocolate cake in brownie form.
We continue on our taste-testing journey. My stomach has begun to protest, but I resolve to forge onward. As we experiment with other flavors, I discover that it’s a collaborative effort between both Robyns, with the constantly curious Robyn Sue asking an endless stream of questions, and Robyn Lyn telling her what can and cannot, in culinary terms, be done. (Robyn Lyn attended Tante Marie’s Cooking School.) We move on to mint – with the star constituent made, of course, from fresh mint that has been reduced to syrup.
The last flavor we try is brown sugar, which I am told is the most difficult flavor to get right. Even the failures are pleasing to my palate. When I leave, my heart still feels sad and empty, as I’m sure it will for quite some time, but my belly is full. Looks like I’ll have to continue this ice cream and red wine therapy until the liquid nitrogen of loss relaxes its cold grip on my heart and I’m able to offer it to someone new.
Want to see for yourself how this ice cream is made? Visit Smitten Ice Cream in Hayes Valley on the corner of Octavia and Linden, and check out the spring flavors. On the same block will be a pop-up Delfina Pizzeria and a Suppenkuche beer garden. All of this, unfortunately, will be temporary since the entire site will be located on city land, and all the buildings will be made of recycled shipping containers rather than a brick-and-mortar structures. But what a culinary paradise it is, however transient it may be.