When I was well into my 30s, I felt a little guilty one evening about having an ice cream sundae for dinner, like I should know better. Coincidentally, I ended up talking with my mother over the phone that night and had an uncomfortable urge to admit the deed. I braced slightly for a maternal lecture about how I should really eat my vegetables first, but to my surprise she said, “You know there’s really nothing wrong with that. Ice cream is like a meal.”
Her tone was matter-of-fact and certain. “How do you figure it qualifies as a meal, mom?” I probed. “Well, there’s eggs, milk, maybe fruit in there… that’s three of the four food groups,” she justified, and the conversation ended just like that. Ice cream for dinner was officially okay, with a stamp of approval by mom.
I grew up on ice cream, and audiotapes of a small five-year-old voice colored with a heavy New York accent capture my early passion. My family and friends know that ice cream remains one of my favorite foods; perhaps this has something to do with the parental pardon.
I know I’m not the only kid in the world who was fond of the ice-cold treat and the family outings. A few local ice cream makers have had similar experiences. “There was six kids in our family and my dad would take us to ice cream. We drove on a bumpy road that we called ‘the roller coaster road’ and we got to ride in my dad’s convertible,” said Maraline Olson, founder of Screamin’ Mimi’s in Sebastopol. Like me, Olson was born a New Yorker, where homemade ice cream parlors graced the street corners throughout towns and neighborhoods.
“Of all the desserts, ice-cream was always my favorite. When I moved here (to California), I looked for that kind of ice cream shop, and they were few and far between,” said Olson, who (at the time) was known to drive long distances for good ice cream, as far as San Luis Obispo on occasion.
Eventually Olson started making her own ice cream at home, experimenting with different flavors. When her husband Kurt tried a combination of fudge, espresso and oreo cookies (what is now dubbed Mimi’s Mud), he encouraged her to set up shop—and so she did.
Screamin’ Mimi’s makes all ice cream and sorbet in small batches using local ingredients whenever possible. Their dairy products are all rBST-free (no synthetic hormones) and they make their own hot fudge, caramel sauce, waffle cones, whipped cream, cookie dough, brownies and more.
Olson still makes all the ice cream and develops the flavors. “If I’m going to make a flavor, it’s going to be the best it can taste,” she said. Finding just the right ingredient is important to her and although it may cost more and take extra time, it’s worth it. French wafers made with real butter and gourmet cherries placed atop the sundaes are details that set Screamin’ Mimi’s apart from the others. “I don’t lower the quality to save money,” said Olson.
Ice cream may take center stage but it isn’t the only component of a stellar ice cream outing—the location and décor of the shop feed right into this sweet sensory excursion that so often uplifts the spirit. Soft pastels, or bright orange painted on the walls, interesting tables and chairs, black and white floors and unique menu boards ignite a mood of childhood lightness—and whimsical destinations like Nimble & Finn’s located in Guerneville’s newly renovated Bank Club certainly have this effect.
The Gothic architecture with its grand entrance and high ceilings suggests something special awaits. Inside, visitors will find not only handmade ice cream but also pie selections made by Chile Pies Baking Co., owned by Trevor Logan. The countertop seating overlooking the ice cream-scooping and pie-slicing area is reminiscent of the old days; and preserved antiques, such as a huge walk-in vault that once held money, now serves as a photo booth that captures a wealth of memories.
Sisters Jazmin Hooijer and Leandra Beaver are the masterminds behind Nimble & Finn’s, which just celebrated its first anniversary. Hooijer, a baker by trade, was looking to employ those skills again after having kids, and she found the answer about four years ago as an ice cream maker. Together the siblings created batch after batch, gaining a following at farmers markets and other events. “We wanted a fun business that could include our families,” said Hooijer. The two couldn’t be happier about joining the Bank Club.
“We grew up going to the five and dime and the beach in Guerneville. I think the town was in need of a good ice cream shop,” said Beaver. With a crop of juvenile taste testers between them, the sisters enjoy putting their creativity to work, coming up with unique flavors.
“We are constantly bouncing ideas off each other,” said Beaver. Lavender Honeycomb, Coriander Raspberry, Brownies and Milk, Brown Sugar Cinnamon Cookie and Front Porch Mint Chip (with fresh mint, no extract) are a few of their favorite flavors but the list doesn’t stop there; it goes on and on. What they call “adult flavors” are also popular selections. Whiskey Butterscotch and Stout and Chunky (stout beer ice cream with bittersweet chocolate chunks) are blazing new trails in the ice cream world.
“Ice cream is an affordable extravagance,” said Olson, who is proud that Screamin’ Mimi’s is on the list of places that many locals insist that out-of-town guests must visit. But the luxury of ice cream hasn’t always been a commodity available to the public. Once upon a time, it was only attainable by those with prestige and resources, and delighting special guests with the beloved frozen dessert is no new phenomenon.
President George Washington spent $200 on ice cream during the summer of 1790, according to records kept by a Chatham Street, New York, merchant; and a strawberry ice cream creation was served by Dolly Madison at President Madison’s second inaugural banquet at the White House in 1813. President Thomas Jefferson was also a big ice cream fan. It wasn’t until 1777 that ice cream hit the streets, reaching the masses. Confectioner Philip Lenzi was one of the first to make the offer with an advertisement in the “New York Gazette” announcing that ice cream was available “almost every day.”
Luckily, in Sonoma County there’s a growing number of small-batch ice cream makers and no shortage of the frozen favorite in sight. The Noble Folk, an ice cream and pie shop located in Healdsburg, specializes in flavors that feature farm-fresh ingredients. “We try to source our ingredients within a 20-mile radius,” said Ozvaldo Jimenez, co-owner of Noblefolk Ice Cream and Pie Bar and Mustache Baked Goods.
The entrepreneurial team of Jimenez and Christian Sullberg knew they were on to something when they began selling out of an ice cream sandwich at their first location, Moustache Baked Goods in Healdsburg. An ice cream cart was the next step, enabling the duo to bring frozen creations to farmers markets, weddings and other special events. Flavors like blackberry sage, classic vanilla bean and homemade oreo keep customers coming back for more.
It’s the creative flavor profiles that the owners are most proud of and they like to “let the ingredients speak for themselves.” Seascape strawberries sourced from Preston Vineyards in Healdsburg are a vital component of a strawberry ice cream sandwich that features strawberry ice cream wedged between two cornmeal cookies made by Moustache Baked Goods. The adventurous ice cream team seems not only to appreciate the traditional flavor and methods of spinning ice cream but has a desire to explore unchartered territory as well, introducing buffalo dairy products into some of their flavors and developing flavors like Campfire Smores, with a hint of smoke.
Knowing that winters might be challenging in the ice cream business, the owners decided to incorporate a selection of heritage pies along with the ice cream offerings. Patrons of Noble Folk have the opportunity to take pie à la mode to new heights with pairings such as strawberry ginger pie and cardamom almond ice cream.
Like other local ice cream makers, a special cart has been instrumental in reaching crowds at farmers markets, events and weddings. “Brides are getting really smart about looking for ways to have their guests remember their wedding day, and an exquisite dessert bar does that for people,” said Jimenez.
Flooded with tourists and local foot traffic, there’s room in Healdsburg for multiple cafés and eateries, and the ice cream scene is no exception. The Downtown Bakery and Creamery in Healdsburg has been making old-fashioned small-batch ice cream for almost 30 years using fresh local cream, eggs, fruit and other delicacies. “We’ve been making ice cream since the beginning, and it was always part of the plan because it is something that we always enjoyed as a family,” said Healdsburg Downtown Bakery and Creamery co-owner Maya Eshom.
A seasonal summer peach ice cream is one of the most sought-after flavors offered at the Healdsburg Downtown Bakery and Creamery. Luscious Dry Creek peaches are a key ingredient. “There’s nothing like picking peaches off a tree in the morning and making ice cream in the afternoon,” said Eshom.
Generations of locals of all ages have made a tradition out of trips to the neighborhood bakery/creamery. “There is a young man I see regularly that started coming in at age 5 and now brings his own kids for the same ritual,” said Eshom, who added, “Parents ask me what’s in the ice cream and like hearing the very short list of recognizable ingredients. In a way, it’s a wholesome treat.”
So I guess my mother is not the only one who believes in the nutritional value of ice cream. Maybe someday this local dad will also give his 30-something kid the ‘green light’ to eat ice cream for dinner, but for now I’m sure it’s vegetables first. SD