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Teach Kids About Flavor by Making America’s Wildest Ice Cream

In a new cookbook and interview, the mad scientists at Salt & Straw reveal how ice cream can open new frontiers in your kitchen.

CaramelIceCream
Photo by Andrew Thomas Lee

Tyler Malek, cofounder of the West Coast ice cream brand Salt & Straw, covers one wall of his office with kids’ art: a messy, tacked-up collage of crayon-fueled exuberance. Every September, Malek and his cousin/cofounder Kim ask school kids to come up with flavor ideas—the weirder the better. That’s led to breakthrough ice creams like “The Great British Rhubarb Ginger Crumble” and “Tacocat.” (The latter involved Mexican vanilla, crumbled Mexican chocolate, chili powder and cinnamon.) The Student Inventor Series has also helped Salt & Straw devise never-before-seen ice cream ingredients—like a crunchy candy brittle made from kale.

It’s all part of Salt & Straw’s larger mission to turn ice cream into a medium for wild and fun food experiments.

Recent S&S menus include inventions like “Wildflower Honey with Ricotta Walnut Lace Cookies” and “Orange Blossom Sorbet with Edible Flowers.” The brand is notorious for using bone marrow, insects, turkey, and ham. But for all the zany creativity, Salt & Straw’s method is simple: they make a few basic ice creams, then add the coolest ingredients they can find in inventive combinations. (That’s where the kale brittle comes in. At S&S shops, it became part of an ice cream called The Kail Creeasheon—concocted by a first grader!)

The Maleks’ new Salt & Straw Ice Cream Cookbook offers an inside look at how they work their magic—and how you can do it, too. We sat down with Tyler to talk about why ice cream is the perfect way to discover new flavors—for all ages.

Salt & Straw’s unusual ice creams are now legendary. How did you come up with your experimental approach to a dessert that’s usually so … vanilla?

I love the idea of using ice cream to tell stories—and to sort of ease people into hearing them. We start with relatively approachable flavors. It’s strawberry with this little twist, or it’s what we call the “new vanilla,” which uses an olive oil that’s produced here in Oregon. You can kind of get your head around those options without too much trouble.

But then, every single month, we change our menu beyond those basics. We start a year out; we think about what stories we want to tell. If we’re talking about chocolatiers that month, you come into the shop, and you’ll see their chocolates. Easy. Approachable. Then you’ll read on the menu about this amazing chocolatier and where they’re from. Then you taste the ice cream, and you’ll discover their flavors.

It’s not like there was an obvious market for bone marrow ice cream. Why do you think your approach worked so well? 

Ice cream has this really cool power. It’s approachable, it’s safe, it’s family-friendly. I mean, it’s very approachable. It’s the only restaurant-style place where you can go in and say, can I just have a sample of that? You can’t do that at a fine-dining restaurant—you can’t say, hey, can I just sample that bone marrow dish? Just a spoonful? You can do that with ice cream.

So it’s really eye-opening for people. Why not try eating bugs for the first time in your life? It’s just ice cream. It’s freeing for a lot of customers, and for our kitchen team members. Why would you have rules around it? We think about the stories we want to tell, and what we want to provoke in people, in a really free way.

How do you hope the book translates that sense of discovery to the home kitchen?

Not to sound too lofty, I want it to be a source of inspiration. I want people to see new flavors around them. We tried to make it more of a blueprint: how to think about flavors in a different way, rather than “get these exact ingredients and make this exactly this way.” I would love it if someone who read the book could walk through the farmer’s market in Minnesota, see something, and think about how they could sub it into our recipe that’s based on this cool ingredient from Los Angeles.

You can play with your food. Ice cream is a really safe space for that—have one or two foundational recipes, and just go for it. Put it in the ice cream maker. It’s either going to be a good ice cream, a bad ice cream, or a sweet soup. You can eat all three.

Right, homemade ice cream. Don’t people assume that’s sort of hard?

For some reason, there’s a stigma. It’s so false! The book has four base recipes, and with those four recipes, you can make an infinite number of flavors. You put it in a machine, you press go, and it works. We say that no matter what you’re trying to make, it’s either going to be good ice cream, bad ice cream, or sweet soup. What’s the worst that can happen?

What have you learned from collaborating with kids?

We started working with schools after a fourth-grade teacher reached out to us, back when we really just had one cart in Portland. I met with the class, I talked about making ice cream. And they went back to class and created art, portraying flavors they wanted to see. We made the flavors, put them on our menu, and the money we raised and donated to the PTA became the seed fund that allowed Nike to rebuild their playground. So cool! It was like a cyclical thing, creating a sustainable community support system where both sides are winning. We got a menu—all these insane ideas. The school got money. The kids got to see their creativity on display.

When you do something for a few years, you inevitably start putting boundaries on your creativity. You almost know too much—oh, I’m not going to try that, it won’t freeze properly. And then you talk to kids and they’re like, I want gummy bear ice cream. They’re totally unfettered, and it’s the coolest challenge in the world. To be able to tap into that—it adds a lot to our company.

The Little Sous Kitchen Academy box teaches kids to become creative, confident cooks. Check out our subscription options—and get ready for some hands-on family fun!

Salt & Straw’s Kale Brittle

This recipe comes from the West Coast ice cream brand’s Student Inventor Series, which gathers off-the-hook inspirations from school kids and turns them into boundary-breaking ice cream. (In this case, crunchy, kale-powered candy helped realize a first grader’s vision: the Kail Creeasheon.)

Reprinted from Salt & Straw Ice Cream Cookbook. Copyright © 2019 by Salt & Straw, LLC. Photographs copyright © 2018 by Andrew Thomas Lee. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC. (Notes by Little Sous!)

KALE BRITTLE
  • Yield: About 3 cups of crushed candy

Ingredients:

  • 3 dinosaur (aka Tuscan or lacinato) kale leaves, rinsed and dried
  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus a pinch
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • cup light corn syrup
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

Steps:

  1. Step 1

    Heat the oven to 300°F.

  2. Step 2

    Tear the kale leaves from the stems, keeping the leaves in very large pieces. Discard the stems. Put the leaves on a sheet pan and drizzle the vegetable oil over them. Sprinkle with the pinch of salt, and use your hands to rub the oil into all the crevices of the kale. Spread the kale in a single layer on the sheet pan and bake until the leaves are perfectly crisp but not dark nor burnt, 10 to 15 minutes.

    Sous Tip:

    Kale-ripping and oil-rubbing make good kid missions!

  3. Step 3

    Let the kale cool to room temperature, then break it up into ¼-inch pieces.

  4. Step 4

    Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.

  5. Step 5

    Combine the sugar, corn syrup, and ¼ cup water in a medium saucepan, and stir until all of the sugar looks wet. Set the pan over medium-high heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has completely melted, about 3 minutes.

    Sous Tip:

    Heating the sugar mixture might best be left to an adult for safety reasons.

  6. Step 6

    Continue to cook, this time covered and without stirring, until the mixture has thickened slightly, about 3 minutes. Add the butter and the ½ teaspoon salt, then immediately stir until the butter has completely melted. Attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan. Let the mixture simmer away until it registers 300°F on the thermometer.

    Sous Tip:

    Check out our Kitchen Academy box “Hot & Cold” for a kid-friendly primer on candy-making and using a candy thermometer.

  7. Step 7

    Remove the pan from the heat, and quickly but thoroughly stir in the kale chips, doing your best to distribute the chips throughout the sticky mixture. Quickly and thoroughly stir in the baking soda (watch it all bubble!). Immediately pour the mixture onto the lined sheet pan, then quickly use a butter knife or a metal spatula to spread it out into a relatively even layer that’s just under ¼ inch thick. Let the brittle sit uncovered until it has cooled to room temperature, about 1 hour.

  8. Step 8

    Use your hands to break the brittle into irregular bite-size pieces. Use now or store them in an airtight container in the freezer until ready to use as a mix-in (or to simply eat), up to 3 months. There’s no need to defrost before using.