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Scoop, perfected

(article, Caroline Cummins)

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Based on his blog and his dessert cookbooks, David Lebovitz is one chatty guy. The introduction to his latest book, The Perfect Scoop, is some 2,000 words long and begins this way: "I'd like to start this book with a nostalgic tale." A few soft-focus paragraphs later, after a bout of pretty word-painting about lazy summer afternoons and hand-cranked ice-cream machines and sentimental grandparents, Lebovitz writes, "That would indeed make a lovely story. If any of it were true."

Nope. Instead, as Lebovitz relates, his ice-cream world was actually defined by a manic summer job scooping ice cream at a soda fountain. "We gave unreasonably huge scoops," he writes. "Absolutely enormous. Completely out of proportion to the fragile sugar cones we were constantly breaking as we tried to pack as much ice cream on as possible."

Too much, Lebovitz decided, could never be enough. He became a pastry chef and worked at Chez Panisse before moving to Paris to give "culinary tours" and blog about Parisian shopping, food, and cultural confusion. The Perfect Scoop, as touted on his blog, is a dip into the Lebovitz world of sugary treats and teasing indulgence:

bq. What a barely-there string bikini, high heels and world peace have in common with mango sorbet . . .
(page 108)

bq. Further evidence of why I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer . . .
(page 57)

bq. My exacting frozen revenge on a childhood bully . . .
(page 96)

Ooh la la. If ice cream is a soap opera, Lebovitz is happy to tune in.

Fortunately for the rest of us, his book is both sensibly sized (less than 250 pages and  firmly bound) and solidly written. If you don't feel like reading the oft-goofy intros to each recipe (that mango sorbet was inspired by an idle afternoon spent watching the Miss Martinique pageant on TV), just get to work following the refreshingly simple instructions for each confection.

[%image "ice cream" float=right width=425 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/vorakorn" caption="The satisfaction of homemade ice cream."]

Lebovitz follows his introduction with a chapter called "Basics." Many cookbooks have little chapters like these, typically buried at the back and including a hodgepodge of "basic" recipes for sauces, doughs, and the like. Not The Perfect Scoop. Lebovitz fills 18 dense pages with instructions on making custard (the basis of most ice-cream recipes), tips on buying and using essential ingredients, and explanations of the various types of ice-cream machines and other useful equipment. 

Only then does Lebovitz begin slinging recipes. He starts, in traditional fashion, with the basics: vanilla and chocolate. If you judge an ice-cream book by such staples, then these recipes alone are worth the cover price. His Vanilla Ice Cream calls for an entire vanilla bean on top of vanilla extract, but the rich results validate such profligacy. And the chocolate is indeed a perfect scoop, a exact balance of creamy and chocolatey.

From here the book spirals outward into more than 70 ice-cream recipes, more than 50 sorbets, sherbets, and granitas, and entire chapters on sauces and toppings, mix-ins, and vessels. Lebovitz's concoctions range widely, from America (Tin Roof Ice Cream) to Asia (Green Tea Ice Cream) to Italy (Zabaglione Gelato) to France (Crème Fraîche Ice Cream) to his own eclectic territory (Anise Ice Cream). 

Like all cookbooks, some recipes in The Perfect Scoop are better than others. Basil Ice Cream, which pulverizes basil leaves in a blender, is intensely herby; a more delicate version would simply soak whole leaves in cream. Coffee Ice Cream, strangely, stirs fine coffee grounds directly into the finished dessert; the result is unpleasantly gritty. And keep in mind that Lebovitz likes his sugar spiked; the two cups of wine in the Raspberry-Rosé Sorbet recipe, for example, can be cut in half and still produce a very boozy dessert.

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But when Lebovitz is good, he's very, very good. Try his Anise Ice Cream, which tastes nothing like licorice and, as he promises, is unexpectedly satisfying when slathered with chocolate sauce. Or the Lavender-Honey Ice Cream, which is elusively evocative of ginger. And if you don't feel like making ice cream at all, warm up a batch of Creamy Caramel Sauce; it's delicious over pretty much anything.

Helpful, too, are the lush, full-page photos by Lara Hata, which are more than just pretty recipe faces; they show how a swirled ice cream should look, for example, or how small to crush ice crystals for a granita. They also remind readers that a scoop of ice cream doesn't have to be supersized to be satisfying. After all, most home ice-cream machines don't produce massive quantities of the frozen stuff, so the sooner you eat one batch, the faster you can make the next one. Less, it seems, really is more.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is the managing editor of Culinate.

*Also on Culinate: An article by David Lebovitz on summertime desserts.


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