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Churning Back Time

Ice-cream artisans transform childhood treats into a thoroughly adult affair.


Smitten / Toni GauthierAt Smitten in Lafayette, kids press their cheeks against the glass to watch subzero vapor rising from the “Brrr” machine—a gadget that uses liquid nitrogen to make ice cream to order in less than two minutes.

This is far removed from my youth, when rock salt and a hand crank were wondrous technology. My brother, sister, and I would take turns churning a canister seated in salty ice, opening it every 10 minutes, hoping it had become scoopable.

But the truly wondrous thing about Smitten ice cream is that it is made from scratch, using fresh, local, and organic ingredients. And that is what the modern ice-cream movement is all about: harnessing deep childhood memories while appealing to our current sophisticated tastes.

“Adults are as excited as kids are,” says Smitten’s head of quality control, “Brrrfectionist” Alex Lenarsky.

It’s not just Smitten that’s tapping into this cool craze. A host of gourmet ice cream parlors—Tara’s, Lush, Lottie’s—is popping up in towns near you. And you can get your treat on a stick or between two cookies, in a sammie. All with farm-fresh foodie goodness.

Smitten: The “Brrr” machine makes ice cream in just two minutes. / Toni Gauthier

Check out the chocolate chipotle at Tara’s in Berkeley and Pleasanton. Or the caramel balsamic at Lush Gelato in Berkeley and Oakland. And definitely don’t miss the crème fraîche with brownie chunks at Lottie’s Creamery in Walnut Creek. One of the most popular flavors in all of the stores is mint—steeped with fresh mint leaves—and folded through with artisanal chocolate.

Lottie’s owner, Deb Phillips, says most of her customers are adults, and the far-and-away best-selling flavor is vanilla salted almond toffee.

“The salt makes it grown up,” says Phillips, “but everything else about it is super kid friendly. We transport adults to their childhoods.”

And what could be more transporting than the warm cookie ice-cream sandwiches that are such a hit at Cream (Cookies Rule Everything Around Me), which opened a store in Walnut Creek last year and recently opened another store in Livermore. The ingredients may not have foodies swooning, but they’re over-the-top rich in memories.

Nostalgia aside, today’s ice-cream philosophy mirrors the sustainable food movement that began in Berkeley. So when a new customer at the Lafayette store suggests a motto for Smitten, Lenarsky jumps on it.

“Cattle to Cone—I love that,” says Lenarsky. “That’s what we’re doing. There are restaurants that say ‘farm to table,’ and we’re the same way.”


Lottie’s / Quentin Bacon

Deconstructed: Vanilla Salted Almond Toffee Ice Cream

Adults and kids alike flock to Lottie’s for this candy-laced flavor.

“We sell about a third of our ice cream in this flavor. It’s our classic vanilla bean ice cream studded with house-made bits of buttery toffee, and buttered, salted, roasted almonds,” says Lottie’s owner, Deb Phillips.


Lottie’s combines organic milk and cream from happy, pasture-grazed cows from the Straus Family Creamery in Marin, with organic cane sugar, cage-free local eggs, and real Madagascar vanilla beans that are individually split, scraped, and steeped in an ice-cream base overnight.


Toffee bits: Lottie’s makes them weekly in-house with sugar, brown sugar, and organic butter. The bits partially dissolve in the surrounding ice cream, leaving some crunchy bits and some perfectly melty toffee streaks throughout.
Salted almonds: California-grown Nonpareil almonds are chopped-in house and roasted with organic butter and a generous sprinkling of kosher salt.


Lottie’s uses local organic Giustos flour, organic cane sugar, organic butter, local cage-free eggs, vanilla extract, and almond extract. Then, they bake the cones individually and hand roll them one at a time.


Tom James

Three Questions

With Tara Esperanza of Tara’s Organic Ice Cream.

Q: How did your love affair with ice cream start?
A: I grew up in Massachusetts, and in summer, Mom would take me to a local dairy farm that had a small creamery. We ate our ice cream in the parking lot, overlooking the cows in the pasture. I have been thanking cows ever since.

Q: Did you have a favorite flavor?
A: Peanut butter—and if I could get banana, that was a heavenly combo!

Q: Your flavors seem so grown up.
A: I wanted ice cream that was less sweet. I wanted organic and interesting flavors. I couldn’t buy what I craved, so I taught myself how to make it. The chocolate tarragon is one that has brought customers to tears.

Q: How does your ice cream appeal to both kids and adults?
A: With flavors that are bold and pure.

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