23 July 2010

It's It! Sweetly Sandwiched San Francicso Style

Alannah and I recently set out on a mission: To represent San Francisco in Paris. The reason is two-fold.

First, as San Franciscan transplants with an inferiority complex, we're sick and tired of anything remotely American here being described as "New Yorkais." Local writers have recently described a chef from Chicago, a coffeehouse owner from Washington and freakin' burritos as New Yorkais. Dubya. Tee. Eff.

Secondly, we don't really know of many people reppin' the Bay. There's Andy at our local favorite sushi joint Rice and Fish who's doing it right, and there's... uh... wasn't Alice Waters supposed to open a restaurant next to the Louvre some time back? Then you've got your French folk like Loic Le Meur (Seesmic, Sarkozy spokes-ass) and Benjamin Tremoulet (H.A.N.D.) who spent - judging by their products - about four hours in California and decided to build their businesses around their (in)experience and trust funds.

So we've got some projects in the hopper, hoping to bring real streetfighter SF culture to the old-school dining mecca. We talk a lot of shit, but we also put our money where our mouths are. And right now we're finding a lot more shit than places we want to put our mouths.

In the meantime, if we wanna make a wave, we've gotta work on desserts! And we're starting by perfecting a premium, locally-sourced-as-possible version of It's-It ice cream sandwiches, also known as "A San Francisco Experience since 1928." Basically, it's one scoop of ice cream, two oatmeal cookies, and dark chocolate.

Alannah's quite good with dessert. Especially baking. She's gone sans oven for the last torturous month (which is about how long it takes a landlord to replace a faulty appliance 'round here...) and she's finally back in action. The "cowboy cookies" she's been making since childhood will serve as the bread in this dessert sammy.

I, on the other hand, blow fucking donkey dicks when it comes to baked goods and confectionery.

It's-It style ice cream sandwiches, take two: Not an epic fail,
but not great. You don't even want to see Round 1.
This wasn't the case nearly two decades ago. As a young punk, I used to sling out cakes and ice creams to Bay Area yuppies like it was going out of style. I'd spend a good chunk of my summer days inside a walk-in freezer, sculpting melty sugary materials that'd otherwise disintegrate in the ambient temperature. It was a good time, and I loved my customers, from local Ladies Who Lunch to firefighters to Apple and HP execs who'd sneak in between meetings for a sweet treat. One of the more distinguished among them had a particular favorite that I was proud to make: The clown cone.

That's right, I was ice cream slinger and faux-pastry chef at a fucking Baskin-Robbins. Despite being the confectionery equivalent of the guy manning the fryolator – see, any asshat blogger can puff up his irrelevant culinary past – I could write the preamble to the Constitution on the face of a half-sheet cake in buttercream, make waffle cones that could stand up to four gigantic scoops of ice cream plus hot fudge, and most relevant to our mission here, I could turn out a perfect ice cream sandwich in 20 seconds flat.

That was then. This is now. I no longer have the ability to properly hold an offset spatula let alone put a tip on a piping bag. Which is exactly what our first attempt at homemade It's-It called for. We tried the recipe and technique we Googled on Gastroanthropology. And it was a big bag of fail.

This is not to knock Gastroanthropology's technique. In fact, it's not only well-researched and professional, but if we had a proper setup it would probably work. But in a sweatbox of an apartment with merely an icebox for a freezer, it just wasn't meant to be. Ice cream soft enough to be piped out of a pastry bag would actually continue to melt faster than it could re-freeze in our piddly little freezer. And it did. We disappointingly opened up the freezer to find cowboy cookies frozen into a flat puddle of ice cream. At least the oatmeal discs were perfectly round, using the biscuit cutter technique from the above recipe.

Round 2 was much better (see photo above), but it still wasn't quite right. Instead of softening ice cream and piping it out of a bag, we smoothed a bunch of it out into a tray and froze it overnight into a sheet; much as I did back in the day to create full-sheet ice cream cakes. I then punched out discs of ice cream using the same biscuit ring so they'd be the same diameter as the cookies. So far, so good. we then dipped them in melted dark chocolate and put them back in the freezer to set. Only they wouldn't fully set. Cutting or biting into the sandwiches would result in the ice cream smooshing and the chocolate breaking off in chunks.

We put the results up on Facebook, awaiting possible troubleshooting from our foodie friends. Most of them being San Franciscans, they also know what an It's-It is supposed to be like. Our own analysis blamed not only our technique but our ingredients. In trying to make a high-quality, wholesome version of – let's face it – junk food, we just couldn't get certain things right. Using unprocessed organic oats, the cookies were too tough. Single-origin organic Peruvian chocolate? Not as easy to use for coating as the confectioners' stuff cut down with soy lecithin.

And worst of all, we had doubts about using our favorite local ice cream. I first wrote about Mary Quarta's gelato for VINGT Paris and just nabbed today's ROTD for it on Yelp (my first in over two years!) and we've been going to taste her wares at least twice a week since she opened up shop in the Haut Marais. It was the first "complex ingredient" we've decided against making ourselves (I'm even making our cheeses for an upcoming shindig) because it's so good and non-industrial, there's no point.

But gelato is a far cry in texture and structure than standard American ice cream, and it looked as though Mary's sweetness was just too soft and yielding for the type of brutality we'd put it through. We couldn't think of a non-industrial alternative, so we started thinking about how we'll make our own ice cream, solely to fulfill our desire for It's-It.

Then tonight, Round 3 happened.

Yup. Pretty much nailed it.
And we didn't have to throw Mary under the bus, either.
The difference for Round 3? A much longer freeze after sandwich assembly and chocolate coating, which itself was different. Instead of dunking and rolling the sandwiches in melted chocolate, I brushed it on thinly with a rubber spatula. Working with a nearly rock-hard sandwich to start with and making sure it went fully back to rock hard before serving made all the difference in the world. The thinner coating of chocolate didn't break off in chunks when cut or bitten, the ice cream stayed solid through most of the eating.  Alannah's excelllent cowboy cookie remained a constant. It's a bit tougher than a standard oatmeal cookie, but the taste is perfect.

Now that we've got the formula down, we're going to make a few more tweaks: The cookies will have to be slightly crisper (and possibly thinner) for easy biting. We'll have to spend even more on a high-quality nappe (coating) dark chocolate that's thinner but lecithin-free – we will NOT compromise on quality. And now having figured out how to work with Mary's super-soft gelato, we'll stick with it, but surprisingly we're going to have to find flavors even more subtle than her already subdued crème à l'ancienne. Compared to typical American "vanilla" filler ice cream, Mary's is actually too flavorful and overpowers the cookies and chocolate by just a touch.

So here's the rundown of the technique we've got down so far:

  • Spread Mary's gelato into a tray and freeze overnight
  • In the meantime, make a batch of Alannah's cowboy cookies (possibly increase butter, decrease brown sugar? She's the expert and will figure it out...) flatten using biscuit cutter as a guide, and chill/freeze 'em
  • Remove frozen gelato from tray and quickly punch out discs using biscuit cutter.
  • Very quickly assemble sandwiches, put into fridge for at least two hours
  • Double boil dark coating chocolate
  • Brush chocolate on to very frozen sandwiches (also considering dunking via wire basket if we work with a huge quantity)
  • Freeze yet again - probably overnight - in tray, sitting on parchment paper
  • Eat
It's pretty long and involved, but after blissing out on the fruits of Round 3 tonight, it'll be worth it. And the more we do it, the better we'll get at it. The material cost and the learning curve will be high, but this is going to happen. Cuz that's what it's all about, reppin' the 415: Taking the seemingly casual and humble but obsessing over quality and source, and never compromising.


  1. OMG- IT'S IT!!! Looks delish!

    Although- you know the factory is outside of SF, in Burlingame off 101;)!

    Hugs, and love you two,

  2. And now they're made in France, bitches! ;)

    Actually, I probably never would've tried It's-It as a kid had it not been for driving by the plant on 101 so many times. I insisted to my anti-junk food parents that we had to try it.

  3. pour vouses (my French is muy bien!)


    I am sure you guys have perfected these by now! :) AWESOME post!