Brian Smith didn’t exactly take a conventional route to making some of the country’s best ice cream. Well, if such a thing as a conventional route to ice cream-making exists. Struggling as a screenwriter and audiobook producer, he had a fantasy of opening an ice cream parlor — a place for community members to hang out and come together in his Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Heights while enjoy high-quality frozen treats. The fantasy became the real deal. But only after some serious work and dedication to the creamy craft.
More than three years after opening — a process he describes as “terrifying” — Smith is running one of NYC’s most beloved ice cream shops. Ample Hills Creamery serves up small-batch, all-natural flavors made from local, organic ingredients to an increasingly large cult following; they’ve even expanded to a kiosk in Brooklyn Bridge Park, with a few more locations around Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood slated to pop up after Memorial Day. Smith even co-authored a just-released cookbook, chronicling his journey to scoop stardom and revealing stories and secrets from the shop. We recently called him to talk homemade ice cream, crazy flavors and what it’s like for him to be the most popular parent at his children’s school.
Straight up: What is different about Ample Hills ice cream?
We make our ice cream from scratch, right here. Most ice cream shops use a dairy mix to make a bag of ice cream. They’ll add flavoring to that “homemade ice cream,” but they’re basically starting with a prepackaged mix. For our pretzel-infused “Munchies” flavor, we take 10-12 pounds of mini hard pretzels and steep them in milk, which makes the pretzels mushy and infuses the milk with flavor. Then we strain the pretzel mush out and pasteurize the milk with cream, egg and sugar to make an ice cream that tastes like pretzels. It’s something you couldn’t do if you were buying a dairy mix. We also make 97% of the mix-ins in our ice cream from scratch. We really have a passion for trying to create complicated flavors.
Let’s switch to the home kitchen. What are some tips for making great ice cream?
One of our secrets is to use a skim milk powder that absorbs the water and gives you more milk solids and less ice. The other thing is that we recommend finding a hand-crank ice cream maker. You can’t find them in stores, but you can find them online. The reason is the rock salt, which lowers the freezing temperature of the ice that surrounds the canister that the ice cream is in. The colder the process is when you’re making the ice cream, the fewer ice crystals will grow.
What are some common mistakes people make at home?
You can have too high of a ratio of milk to cream. Ice cream is very forgiving, though. It’s like soup – it’s hard to make a terrible batch that you can’t consume. And that’s what’s fun about it. If it’s too sweet or too salty, you just add a little more of this or that. You can taste it along the way and adjust it.
What is your most popular flavor right now?
It has never changed. It’s the salted crack caramel — from the beginning of time to the end of time.
What inspired that flavor?
It came together from a culinary mistake. I don’t have a culinary background and making caramel is a complicated thing to do correctly. Ultimately, our salted caramel ice cream started out as burnt caramel ice because I didn’t know how to make it not burnt. Then, I discovered that the passion people felt for our salted caramel ice cream was because we were making a burnt caramel ice cream.
It has a polarizing effect — my wife finds it gag-inducing and a lot of people have a gag reflex because of how bitter and burnt it is. Regular caramel ice cream is generally liked by more people, but I don’t think it creates as much of a passion. I think that passion comes out of a culinary mistake from the beginning, that we now love and can replicate and will never change.
What would you say is your most creative scoop?
Right now, we have a new flavor that we call Snap, Mallow, Pop! Basically, it’s a deconstructed Rice Krispie Treat. What I love is that the Rice Krispie Treat is no culinary wonder, but when you take it and turn it into a flavor of ice cream, something magical happens.
Are there any flavors that just didn’t work out?
Bubble gum was one of the things that I was most excited about when we opened, but it was that last flavor left, the one that didn’t sell out at the end of the season. Another one that we made like a year ago that wasn’t quite right was Beer Munchies. Basically, we took a bunch of cheese bits and cheese puffs, broke them down and created a crackly cookie, cooked it down with butter and salt and a little bit of sugar, and mixed that into an apple lambic beer ice cream. We thought that beer and apples would go well together. But it just didn’t quite work.
What’s it like for your kids to have their father run an ice cream shop?
I think it’s pretty wonderful. At the end of the day, a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old don’t know what it means to have their dad be a screenwriter or an audio producer, but they know what it means to have their dad make ice cream. It’s really profound and fun for me, and it definitely is for them. I take them to the shop all the time, and it’s a challenge for them to not eat ice cream every single day. But they’ve been very helpful taste testing along the way.
And you are the most popular parent at school, obviously?
Yes, I like to think so. There are some pretty popular parents at school, though.
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