Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream
By Laura O’Neill, Ben Van Leeuwen, Pete Van Leeuwen with Olga Massov
Suzy Chase: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast with me, Suzy Chase.
Ben Van Leeuwen: I'm Ben Van Leeuwen, and my cookbook is Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream.
Suzy Chase: I was so excited to get this cookbook because one of your latest ice cream shops is a mere three blocks away from me in the West Village, and I'm there all the time. Ben, take me back to the moment when Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream was born with your partners, Pete Van Leeuwen and Laura O'Neill.
Ben Van Leeuwen: We started Van Leeuwen back in 2008 with one ice cream truck. Our goal was to do really amazing ice cream off of a truck, which wasn't done then. To us that meant making ice cream with just milk, cream, sugar, and egg yolks, and meticulously sourcing pretty straightforward flavors to start from small producers all over the world. We found chocolate from Michel Cluizel in France, who only sources directly from seven biodynamic plantations with deliciousness as the goal always, pistachios from Sicily, hazelnuts from Piedmont. At that point, we were using a really special vanilla extract that we had made by aging the bourbon and Tahitian beans in oak barrels. We launched the business from our first truck, and the first location we ever did was SoHo on Green and Prince Street. It was super exciting. I vividly remember the first day, my brother Pete and I and Laura were driving around and weren't really sure where to park, if anyone would come and buy ice cream. We pulled up to the corner of Green and Prince, and people started lining up.
Suzy Chase: Ice cream making at home is one of the more intimidating tasks for home cooks. How does your cookbook demystify ice cream making for the home cook, and what equipment do we need?
Ben Van Leeuwen: It's pretty simple. You just need an ice cream maker. You can get a really good ice cream maker for $40, so it's not a huge investment. If you want to make ice cream, definitely worth it. In terms of the process of ice cream making, I've never seen an ice cream cookbook for the home cook that's as detailed, or even industry, commercial book, that's as detailed as our book. The recipes are basically failure-proof because we put so many precautions into each recipe that prevents you from overcooking the egg yolks, or getting too much of aberration and it becoming too sweet. If you read our book and follow the recipes, you'll not only be able to make amazing ice cream from our recipes, but you'll very quickly become an awesome ice cream maker and be able to make your own recipes and really understand the science behind ice cream making, which is creating a balance of fat, sugar, solids, and water.
Suzy Chase: Let's talk about vanilla, which is a staple in everyone's pantry. What are the differences in vanilla's flavor characteristics? From your book learned that there are different tastes of vanilla depending on the geography, the terroir.
Ben Van Leeuwen: Absolutely.
Suzy Chase: Can you talk about that?
Ben Van Leeuwen: Vanilla is such an interesting flavor. It's indigenous to Mexico, and it was brought throughout the world by the Spaniards after they conquered Mexico. One of the first places it was brought was Madagascar, which at that point was called the Bourbon Islands. It's actually the seed pod from an orchid flower, one of the only edible orchids. They brought this flower to the Bourbon Islands in Madagascar and started cultivating it there. They also brought it to Tahiti. Those were the first two places outside of Mexico that it was cultivated. Because of that, those two strains have become the universal strains. They call some vanilla Bourbon vanilla, and some vanilla Tahitian vanilla.
Bourbon vanilla compared to Tahitian has more of a classic vanilla flavor. It has a lot of vanillin, which is one of the 230 compounds that make vanilla taste like vanilla. Tahitian vanilla has a lot more of the floral compounds, so it's a bit more delicate, lighter. We always use a combination of both vanillas for the book because sometimes it's harder to find both. I think we recommend using either or you could use half and half. Aside from the Bourbon and Tahitian being these two different varieties because of where they were cultivated, the terroir will also affect how vanilla tastes. If you were to grow a Bourbon vanilla in Tahiti, it would taste different than a Bourbon vanilla grown in Madagascar.
Final thing that really affects the taste of vanilla is both how fresh it is and how it was cured. There's basically two ways to cure vanilla. You pick the pod off of the orchid. It's this green seed pod, almost looks like a green bean. This is usually growing in pretty hot places, so they have big canvas mats that they lie out on the ground. They, sort of like grapes turning into raisins, let the pods age in the sun and they turn them over. It's a slow process. Then they shrivel up, and the sugar compounds come up, and they become brown, and delicious, and fragrant.
The other cheaper, because it's a faster way to do it, is to actually fire cure the vanilla. They tend to do that more in Indonesia. That traditionally is seen as a lower end vanilla product, but because smoke flavor is very en vogue right now, it's cool if you can get your hands on that vanilla. They've stopped doing it, so it's hard to find. The last time I found any was actually in Indonesia. In Bali we bought some from a vanilla plantation, and they were still smoking their beans. It was really cool. Vanilla is a delicate flavor, so the smoke definitely mutes some of the nuance of vanilla, but it's cool to find that, too.
Suzy Chase: What is your favorite recipe from the book?
Ben Van Leeuwen: Whoa.
Suzy Chase: I know.
Ben Van Leeuwen: What is my recipe from the book?
Suzy Chase: Or maybe favorite three.
Ben Van Leeuwen: Okay. Maybe my top favorite is the crème fraiche flavored ice cream with apple crumble. That flavor we basically are replacing all of the cream with crème fraiche, which you can either buy or make yourself. Then we stew apples with some pink peppercorn, add a splash of Calvados, and then we make a crumble.
Suzy Chase: Now, what's Calvados?
Ben Van Leeuwen: Calvados is an apple brandy from Normandy. In Normandy they have tons of apple trees, and they make cider from the apples, and then they take the dregs of the cider and make Calvados. Then the cows walk around the apple orchards eating the apples, and they make Camembert with that.
Suzy Chase: Nice.
Ben Van Leeuwen: It's this beautiful French Normandy thing. Yeah, it's like Cognac but made with apples.
Suzy Chase: I'm fascinated by your take on sugar and ice cream. It's the focal point for most ice creams, but you've chosen to focus on flavors. Talk to us a little about ingredients and how you source them.
Ben Van Leeuwen: Sure. Our sourcing of ingredients is very, very particular in part because there's certain ingredients that we won't allow into our ice cream. For example, there's never any soy in our ice cream. Other ingredients, a lot of the research happens at the start on the internet. If we want to find the best nuts in the world, we'll start researching where those are from and taste them. I guess in terms of researching new flavors, the inspiration for new flavors, we have weekly meetings where we brainstorm flavors and have a constantly evolving Google doc with hundreds of hundreds of flavors on it. We also go to the farmer's market, see what's available. I find that the best inspiration and the best flavors stem out of actually making ice cream for days on end, and being around a lot of ingredients, and tasting, and smelling, and adding this flavor to that flavor.
Suzy Chase: I like how you've included information on where the home cook can buy your ingredients in the book. That's really helpful.
Ben Van Leeuwen: Absolutely, yeah, because ingredients are so important in ice cream. We encourage people to seek out the best ingredients.
Suzy Chase: Vegan ice cream is all the rage now. How do you keep the creaminess and richness found in regular ice cream, and was this Laura's idea?
Ben Van Leeuwen: The vegan ice cream was ... Man, it's so hard to remember whose idea it was. I think we all take credit for it. Laura, half of her family are vegans and have been pretty much since she was born. A lot of it too was customer demand. People wanted a non-dairy ice cream. We started almost as an afterthought. We said, "Okay, let's throw something together, get it out there." We did a coconut-based vanilla and a coconut-based chocolate, and they were so popular. We spent about two days developing them. They were really good, but we knew we could do better. When we saw that they were popular, we were like, "Okay, let's do this." I went home, spent about three months developing recipes in my home kitchen, which is still my favorite place to develop recipes.
The goal was to not make really good vegan ice cream. It was to make ice cream that was as good as anything even though it was vegan. We had a feeling that cashews, coconuts, and cocoa butter would be the holy trinity of vegan ice cream. I actually used spreadsheets, which we do a lot in ice cream making, to figure out fat levels, sugar levels, and solid levels. On our first try, we pretty much nailed it. It was so good. Then we spent a couple more months tweaking, developing flavors. The cashews are amazing because they're really high in solids, so they give you that chew, the coconut has a really luscious fat, and then as an emulsifier we add the cocoa butter, which both emulsifies and makes more creamy.
Suzy Chase: The vegan is really good. I get the vegan chocolate all the time.
Ben Van Leeuwen: Cool.
Suzy Chase: It's really, really good. Looking back to 2008, I feel like your ice cream trucks were the beginning of the whole food truck revolution here in New York City. What are your plans for 2015 and beyond?
Ben Van Leeuwen: Wow. Our plans for 2015 are opening new stores. Right now we're building a store in Williamsburg on North Fifth and Wythe that will be our flagship, so our biggest store to date, seating for about 70 people, homemade ice cream cones, vegan soft serve, classic soft serve, a bar where you can sit at and order the ice cream and watch your sundaes being made. We're also building two stores in Los Angeles, which we're very excited about. All of this is being made possible by a new production facility that we're building in Greenpoint, which aside from letting us make a ton of ice cream, it's going to have for us a very, very big pastry kitchen where we'll be able to produce more cookies, and cakes, and brittles, and toffees that we add into the ice cream, which we're very, very excited about. We're going to be launching novelties, so ice cream bars, ice cream sandwiches. Everything we do will still remain very small scale, so all made by hand. Those are our big plans for this year.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web?
Ben Van Leeuwen: Our Instagram is vanleeuwenicecream, our website is vanleeuwenicecream.com, and Twitter is vlaic.
Suzy Chase: Thank you, Ben Van Leeuwen, for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Ben Van Leeuwen: Thank you so much, Suzy. It was great.