By now, ice cream enthusiasts in the San Francisco Bay Area know about most of the best artisanal ice cream spots, some that are long-time institutions and some that have burst onto the scene more recently: Smitten Ice Cream, Bi-Rite Creamery, Ici, Humphry Slocombe, Mitchell’s, Mr. & Mrs. Miscellaneous, Three Twins, Tin Pot Creamery, and I’m sure there are many more. All of these places possess qualities that make them unique and popular in their own right. BUT… there is a new name that will undoubtedly take its rightful place on the lists of “Best Ice Cream in San Francisco” very soon: Lottie’s Creamery in the East Bay suburb of Walnut Creek, nestled in the foothills of beautiful Mt. Diablo, about 25 miles east of San Francisco.
Celebrating the 100th anniversary of its incorporation into Contra Costa County this year (on my birthday, no less!), the Walnut Creek of today is an idyllic town brimming with tree-lined streets, restaurants, upscale shopping, buzzing pedestrians, and suburban charm. Much as I love a pretty downtown area, it has been rather disconcerting to see the opening in recent years of stores like Tiffany and Neiman Marcus, as the local clientele lately resembles a gaggle of Kardashians rather than the more down-to-earth folks that I knew growing up. These days, businesses come and go in Walnut Creek’s competitive retail climate; however, one of the throwbacks to the days of yore is Lottie’s Creamery. (Now, if you want to get really technical, in the wayback days of yore, walnut groves and wild walnut trees were plentiful in Walnut Creek, but that was well before my time…) It hearkens to a time of playing outside until sunset, of eating real food rather than today’s food-like products, and of conversing with others in person rather than on glowing little screens. Lottie’s opened a little over a year ago, and it just feels like it belongs right there on Main Street, next to buildings that have been there forever.
The owner of Lottie’s, Deb Phillips, named the shop after her grandmother (a baker), and it embodies the warmth and simplicity of that nostalgic time in the past, before Walnut Creek was overtaken by dollar signs. The shop is modest with an off-white interior lined with wood panels, black and white photos hanging on the wall, and vintage milk bottles and ice cream scoops serving as décor. The menu is written daily on a simple chalkboard (and posted on social media), and happy ice cream goers can sit on the large wood window seat to enjoy their cones. It feels very much like a retro “malt shoppe”– not that I’ve actually been in one, but it’s how I imagine one would feel…
After completing college and the culinary program at Diablo Valley College, Deb left her career in the non-profit sector to work at Ici in Berkeley, where she honed her knowledge of ice cream science. She could not be deterred from her vision when she started 5+ years ago, and she remains committed to her passion for creating the best possible small-batch ice cream. It’s not all puppies and rainbows though; she did not necessarily foresee the financial challenges, the long hours, the sometimes monotonous work (chopping marshmallows might sound fun, but after 6 hours it starts to lose its appeal…), and the sheer exhaustion of being responsible for all of it, along with her business partner. Like many small business owners, it sounds like a good idea “at the time”, and the vision is, in fact, a beautiful thing; the realities are much more complex, and much less glamorous– it has been a huge learning experience. Yet, the moments spent with customers gleefully licking their cones make all the struggles worth it.
Lottie’s features rotating flavors daily, some staples and some seasonal. Every day there is a combination of classic flavors and a couple of more unusual ones, including a non-dairy sorbet. Vanilla Salted Almond Toffee (“VSAT” for short) is by far her best seller, offered almost daily. Her more adventurous flavors, such as Basil or Star Anise are made in smaller batches; Deb has found that Walnut Creek is not as adventurous as other parts of the Bay Area. The shop also sells brownie ice cream sandwiches and ice cream cakes (more on these later), decadent sundaes, vintage sodas and floats, and Blue Bottle Coffee. And by the way, you can take home Deb’s ice cream by the pint. (If you’re anything like me, this is a highly dangerous proposition…)
One of the things that I especially love about Lottie’s is that everything is homemade, natural, and mostly organic. (Not that this is surprising, given the painstaking care that Deb takes with regard to, well, everything in her shop.) And truly, everything TASTES real: vanilla beans, pumpkin, strawberries, spices, etc. You can taste the difference, and it sets her ice cream apart. For example, I am not generally a huge fan of strawberry ice cream, but hers tastes like she picked the berries this morning and magically conjured them into the form of ice cream, grabbing their bright essence and aroma like no other that I’ve ever tasted. And yet, this was not achieved by actual magic. Instead, she roasts the strawberries to deepen their flavor and remove moisture, purées them, and strains out some of the seeds. Finally, this deliciousness is added to vanilla ice cream base. (In other words, it’s pretty much as good as magic.) My favorite way to eat it is topped with Deb’s praline peanuts– think PB&J in a cup!
I have a confession to make… I interviewed Deb back in October for this blog post. In my typical fashion, it’s taken me way longer than planned to produce the final written piece! However, the advantage of this is that I’ve now tried so many of her flavors– R&D is a long and arduous process… 😉 The first flavor I ever tried was Caramel Crème Brûlée, which has shards of caramelized sugar mixed into the caramel ice cream– I knew I was in love. Over these many months, I have sampled Chocolate, Vanilla, Vanilla Salted Almond Toffee, Strawberry, Pumpkin, Peanut Butter Cookie Dough, Ginger Green Tea Toffee, Cinnamon Oat Crunch, Lemon Marshmallow, Crème Fraîche Carrot Cake, Crème Fraîche Brownie, Orange Fudge, Brown Sugar & Cream, Rosemary with Candied Pistachios, Thai Iced Tea, Malt Chip, Chipotle Cinnamon, Brown Sugar Apple, and probably several others. Some, I could eat by the pint (VSAT, Strawberry, Malt Chip, Brown Sugar & Cream…), while others are best savored in small doses (Rosemary, Ginger, Thai Iced Tea)– every one of them is rich and intense, and filled with passion. I have yet to catch some all-important ones like S’mores and Crème Fraîche Fig Swirl, but fortunately, summer is just beginning…
Clockwise from top-left: Caramel Crème Brûlée, Malt Chip, Lemon Marshmallow, Cinnamon Oat Crunch, Crème Fraîche Brownie, Crème Fraîche Carrot Cake.
What sets Lottie’s apart on the technical side of things is that it is the only ice cream shop in the Bay Area to make ice cream base in-house– I had no idea how complicated this is. I’ve often wondered what the big deal is; I’ve made ice cream base at home– it’s not that hard (milk, cream, sugar, tempered eggs). As I learned from Deb, doing it in a commercial capacity involves complex equipment and chemistry of precise heating and timing. The health department has extremely strict and specific regulations about pasteurizing: floors have to be sloped for drainage in a specific configuration, special wall materials are required, and meticulous records must be kept of times and temperatures for each batch of ice cream base.
Failure to comply with these rules leads to felony conviction. Over ice cream. So, says Deb, that’s why no one else takes the time to do it. The alternative is to buy it ready-made, then customize it to make one’s own flavors. Most high-quality creameries seem to use the organic base made by Straus. Deb says there are trade-offs– in retrospect she’s not sure if she would do it this way again because of the challenges. However, making her own gives her the freedom and flexibility to create and tweak flavors to her heart’s content. Pre-made ice cream base has set amounts of fat, sugar, and eggs, so customization must accommodate those unchangeable ratios, which can limit creativity. This is especially tricky when making something like caramel or honey ice cream, in which the sugar source is integral to the final flavor. Making one’s own base means the maker can reduce or even eliminate the sugar from the ice cream base, then add honey, molasses, or other types of sweeteners at a later stage of the process to create the desired flavor profile.
Ice cream is a very delicate balance of fat, sugar, air, and flavorings; the science behind artisanal ice cream is much more complex than I could have imagined, and every little tweak affects the finished product, whether in texture or flavor. Some flavors are added when the ice cream base is warm, such as lavender, cinnamon, or cardamom (heat “blooms” the spices), while others are added when cold, including vanilla extract, fruit purées, crème fraîche, and booze.
And yes, air (yup, the very same stuff we breathe) is extremely important in ice cream making. Most commercial supermarket brands incorporate so much air into their ice cream that it dilutes the flavor and compromises the texture. Deb works about 30% air into her mixtures, which creates an ice cream that is dense, creamy, and extraordinarily flavorful.
During my “backstage” visit, I was lucky enough to get a tour of the kitchen facilities, and I learned more than I could have hoped about the commercial ice cream making process. Ice cream goes through several precise steps before it lands in your cup or cone:
- The ice cream base must be pasteurized in a time- and heat-controlled vat (affectionately nicknamed “Louis” for Louis Pasteur). There is a sweet cream base for “white” flavors (vanilla, pistachio, etc.), an “alternative” sugar one (honey, caramel, etc.), and a chocolate one where melted chocolate is incorporated right into the base.
- The base is then steeped with the first layer of flavorings (if applicable), including such delicacies as lavender or spices.
- Finally, the base is cooled in the refrigerator with ice “wands” to speed things along.
- Flavorings such as vanilla extract, fruit, or alcohol are mixed into the cooled ice cream base.
- Next, the ice cream will be spun/frozen in the Emery Thompson machine. Called a “batch freezer”, this is sort of like a home ice cream maker, but has a horizontal barrel, and of course a much bigger capacity. It has a spinning arm and scrapers that scrape really thin layers of ice cream as they freeze along the sides of the spinning barrel. The goal is to have the tiniest possible ice crystals– they should ideally be imperceptible. The constant scraping and spinning incorporates the newly frozen crystals back into the batch of cream until it is all frozen. (You will find no crunchy ice crystals at Lottie’s!)
- The ice cream mixture comes out of the machine about the consistency of a milkshake, and then any add-ins (nut crunches, brownie bits, caramel shards, etc.) are folded in.
- The fully-flavored ice cream is then poured into pans and placed in the freezer at least overnight (-10°F to -28°F), where it gets quite solid.
- The last step before putting the pans in the serving case is to place them in a “warm freezer” to soften to a scoopable consistency.
As Deb was explaining this whole process and showing me the different stations in the back, I got to sample a couple of test batches of experimental “alternative” ice cream base, one with molasses (I found it a little strong) and one with pomegranate molasses, which was lovely. Sweet and tart at the same time, it was very unique, and I hope she’s able to create some interesting flavors around it!
Another thing that attracts me to Lottie’s ice cream flavors is that Deb uses lots of mix-ins like nut brittles and other crunchy/chunky elements to create interesting textures, which is something I like to do when making cookies. I integrated this technique into my baking repertoire thanks to the influence of the Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook. Christina Tosi, pastry chef and mastermind of Milk Bar, incorporates all sorts of whimsical items into her treats, and they are some of the most interesting pastries on the American culinary scene. I found out that Deb, too, was smitten by Ms. Tosi’s techniques and use of unusual flavor pairings, adapting them beautifully to the domain of ice cream.
Not only did I get the VIP ice cream tour, I also got a glimpse of waffle cone- and ice cream sandwich-making. Lottie’s cones are house-made with pure vanilla and almond extracts and of course real butter– and they are amazing. Where many cones taste like cardboard, Deb’s waffle cones and bowls burst with flavors of butter and childhood. (Bonus: they are rolled thickly at the bottom, so your ice cream will not drip out!)
Now. We need to have a serious talk about ice cream cakes. With all due respect, whatever notions you have of what an ice cream cake is, or should be, need to be discarded immediately. You may be thinking something along the lines of the cloyingly sweet behemoth stacks of cake and ice cream and frosting from the likes of Baskin-Robbins or Coldstone Creamery. And I’m not here to tell you that these cakes have no place in society, but let me avail you of any long-held beliefs that this is the best one can hope for from an ice cream cake. Enter: Lottie’s Creamery. My concept of “ice cream cake” was radically transformed when I laid eyes on this Vanilla Salted Almond Toffee beauty. It consists of a single, thick VSAT ice cream layer over a smaller layer of chiffon cake, topped with a grid of caramel sauce, and the cutest little mini ice cream cone that you EVER DID SEE. (Some flavors also have a hidden cookie layer in the middle—GAH!) Those other ice cream cakes remind me of jumbo-sized cupcakes, which I dislike—they seem too sweet, too overloaded with stuff, and just too much. Blech. Lottie’s ice cream cakes are the antithesis of these bloated sugar bombs; the flavors and textures are perfectly balanced, and you feel like you’re eating a proper and elegant slice of cake. (Which you are.)
The funnest part of my visit was watching Alex, Deb’s sous-chef, expertly cut and assemble ice cream sandwiches. Even this is more complicated than I would have assumed; I mean, if I made them at home, I would sandwich ice cream between two cookies and be done with it, right? Well… not so fast. Most cookies and brownies would be rock-solid if you were to freeze them, and who wants to eat that? Deb’s magical brownies (uhhh, not THOSE kind of brownies) possess the perfect balance of softness and texture when frozen.
When you bite into these brownies, the ice cream doesn’t squish out between two hard disks and there’s no iciness at all. Giant brownie sheets are baked and then frozen in sheet pans, and the same pans are used to freeze thin layers of ice cream for the filling. I watched with childlike glee as Alex used a blowtorch to warm the bottoms of the sheet pans, measured the ice cream and brownie slabs with a ruler (seriously), and cut them precisely to make perfectly portioned squares. The vanilla sandwich that I had was ethereal— the ice cream was creamy and dense with a strong vanilla presence, melting in my mouth in perfect harmony with the brownies… Just thinking about it makes me twitch a little because I can’t have one right now.
Whenever I’m in Walnut Creek, I make time to stop at Lottie’s. Sometimes, I will make overarching, ridiculous excuses for why I need to go to Walnut Creek… and hey, as long as I’m there, I’ll grab some Vanilla Salted Almond Toffee. 😉 And yes, I am totally comfortable with these justifications. In fact, I make it my business to bring as many people here as possible to get schooled on the merits of good ice cream. Last summer, I noticed that C.R.E.A.M. had recently opened a few doors down. For those not familiar, it’s a chain that makes ice cream sandwiches to order, which sounds like a good idea, but when I visited their Berkeley shop a few years back, it looked and tasted like supermarket ice cream and cookie dough scooped from buckets. Their website says they use home recipes and premium ingredients, but frankly, it’s nothing like Lottie’s. My purpose is not to bash them; I’m simply calling attention to the superior quality of Lottie’s. I have been dismayed to see long lines snaking out the door on several occasions when I’ve driven by, compared to the more modest line down at Lottie’s, and I just have to shake my head. It’s true that Lottie’s costs a little more, but the quality is incomparable– Everything there is REAL and the flavors burst on your tongue; there is nothing special at C.R.E.A.M., sorry. Lottie’s embodies the yester-years of downtown Walnut Creek, and I hope with all my heart that it will become a Main Street institution over time. Deb is patient; she and her staff believe in her vision and her quest to make the most authentic artisan ice cream. There is already a following of regulars, growing steadily; she believes that it will be a “slow burn”, and that Lottie’s is here to stay.
At the end of the day, it’s all about making people happy. Ice cream brings people joy, and Deb loves nothing more than seeing the smiling faces of children and families enjoying the fruits of her labor. Good ice cream is a craft, an art; I’m confident that the good people of Walnut Creek know something special when they taste it, and I hope that they appreciate the craftsmanship and love that go into everything made at Lottie’s Creamery. For those not in the immediate WC vicinity, it’s worth a trip, I promise you. I have no doubt that Lottie would be so proud of her granddaughter.
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2014.