On a late August Sunday, Roberto Escobar is one of a dozen foodpreneurs enticing crowds with some kind of ice cream at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
He plates a thick round slab of his piney-scented “Mastica,” then sprinkles it with crushed pistachios. I dig in with the edge of my wooden spoon and chew it as we chat. Even as my shoulders burn and perspiration mists the back of my neck, the Mastica stays unimaginably firm.
The world of frozen confections includes a wide variety of melting points and textures. Escobar’s chewy ice cream is a fresh take on an established tradition and it’s finding its way onto American palates.
In Turkey, it’s called dondurma. The traditional Middle Eastern ice cream could pass for Haagen Dazs or Edy’s from a distance, but once it hits your mouth, it’s a whole different experience. It’s elastic and chewy.
Stretchy Turkish dondurma went viral in video a few years back. Playful Istanbul vendors bent giant globs, pulling it like taffy and fooling tourists with cones of the simultaneously sticky and solid-appearing dessert.
While American style ice cream is thickened by eggs, dondurma uses salep, the flour from the tuber of a young orchid plant, as a stabilizer. Salep blends with the milk, cream and sugar to make a frozen, but not-quite-melting ice cream. With the high temperatures in the Middle East, the higher melting point makes sense. So does excluding eggs.
When egg custard forms the base of ice cream, it creates a mesh that supports the ice crystals and proteins of frozen milk. Since sugar and fat from cream break up those crystals and lower the melting point, sweeter richer ice cream needs the eggs for structure. It’s a choice. For comparison, faster-melting gelato tends to be lower in eggs and is served with a softer consistency. Dondurma would never make it over 100 degree F heat without an extra stabilizer to keep its firm shape.
As wild orchids become harder to come by, even traditional producers are turning to natural starches and gums to provide the traditional texture.
So, too has Brooklyn–based ice cream maker Escobar. This year, he launched Lezzetli (delicious in Turkish), a line of what he calls “Mediterranean” ice creams that are flavored with fragrant ingredients inspired by the east and lean toward the texture of the salep-based treat.
Escobar’s first five flavors include an elegantly floral Chocolate with Orange Blossom, a exotically seasoned Spiced Date and an almost-savory Mastiha, enriched with evergreen-scented mastic, the traditional ice cream flavor of Syria, Lebanon and Greece. They’re sold in upscale grocers around New York and by mail via Goldbely.
Each bite is satisfying and strange, and I stop chewing to suck on a chunk, releasing the aromatics in the unusual flavor before letting it slide down my throat. I like it. And it doesn’t feel heavy like egg-based ice cream.
Good thing. I’ve still got room for the Unicorn Ice Cream Churro Sandwich for sale right across the way.