Line up a panel of people who take their coffee very, very seriously and it's a safe bet more than a couple of them will take umbrage at coffee as a novelty. At coffee as a flavor. At coffee as a category of ice cream flavors. But line up a pastry chef or dairy master who takes his or her ice cream very, very seriously? And you'll find an unequivocal vote for coffee as a vital vertical in the world of frosty dessert categories.
Morgenstern's Finest Ice Cream, a rising star in the finally-arrived landscape of high quality New York City ice cream purveyors, is one such establishment that holds coffee, and coffee ice cream, in the highest esteem. Alongside a full-service all-day coffee program, with beans and support provided by Counter Culture Coffee, the Lower East Side parlor, piloted by Nick Morgenstern, offers not one but three flavors of coffee ice cream.
The menu's other selections, like Fernet Black Walnut, Durian Banana, Luxardo Cherry Road, and American Egg, are appropriately experimental to take part in the modern ice cream zeitgeist. By comparison, the coffee category of the menu rings relatively conservative. We diligently tasted each of Morgenstern's coffee flavors with care and consideration, from the subtly swirled Coffee Caramel to the mixed-in coffee-honeycomb Coffee Crisp to the coarsely gritty Vietnamese Coffee. The latter was my favorite, for its lush and nearly NSFW layering of sweetened condensed milk.
But it's not enough to merely taste the iced creams. After considerable effort, I was able to secure an interview with the busy modern ice cream baron Nick Morgenstern. We discussed his commitment to coffee as a pillar of ice cream categories, and what it means to take it seriously not just behind the bar, but in the kitchen.
How long have you been making ice cream?
The first place that I made ice cream–I made ice cream for other people for a long time, I was a pastry cook for people before I was a pastry chef, going back to 1998 or so. And I first started making it in my own way, in my own style, in 2006-2007.
And what is that style?
I make something that's sort of like a Philadelphia style with no eggs, low overrun, which means less air, and lower butterfat than a typical premium ice cream product. And relatively low sugar content.
What's your relationship with coffee? What's the relationship, for you, between ice cream and coffee?
It's an important flavor for sure! We sell a lot of it, first of all. People really gravitate towards that flavor. I approach making coffee ice cream the same way I approach making coffee. Which is that we grind the beans fresh, when the dairy is at the right temperature, we don't leave the coffee to oversteep. It's a difficult process because we're using a lot of coffee at one time–the ratio of coffee to dairy is pretty high, compared to your usual coffee ice cream. When you eat our coffee ice cream it's got a lot of coffee in it.
You use coffees from Counter Culture Coffee. How did you connect with them? Was it during your time at the General Greene in Brooklyn?
I developed my relationship with Counter Culture in 2008 I think. The General Greene was one of the first restaurants in Brooklyn to work with them and have an espresso machine in the restaurant. They've always been incredibly supportive and helped us with setup and training. You know who those guys are, they're very solid.
At Morgenstern's, your staple flavors are categorized under broader headings, like Vanillas, Chocolates, and Coffees, with derivations within those genres. Have you always felt coffee stood among the very purest essential flavors of ice cream…or are you just a huge coffee fan?
Super important flavor profile. That's why it's there. That's how my menu's designed–those are the ones that I think are important. I could have put something up there like nuts, or something like that, but the flavor profiles on nuts are so varying that they don't represent their own category. We try to keep the menu design clear for the customer; they're overwhelmed as it is when they come into the store. But yeah, coffee's crucial.
Tell us about your specific coffee flavors and how you came to them. Were you, for example, directly referencing the Canadian candy bar Coffee Crisp?
Yes, my ex-girlfriend is a Canadian and she would never shut up about this Coffee Crisp candy bar thing. I had it and I was like, I guess it's good? We could make it into an ice cream? We don't have chocolate in that recipe, but I guess we could.
So far, people don't want too much stuff–the coffee caramel flavor or the Coffee Crisp flavor are fitting the bill. And the Vietnamese coffee is a much stronger ice cream which gets condensed milk added to it à la minute, right before we scoop it.
You also offer a full coffee service, with hours that begin much earlier than your average ice cream parlor. Do you go through a lot of coffee? And which coffees do you select to make ice cream with?
My manager Jen [Driscoll] and I were just talking about how much coffee we go through JUST to make ice cream. It's typically a blend, like Rustico or Toscano. You know, I've done single origin stuff for ice creams in the past, and it's good, but it's very subtle. And the subtlety has to be enjoyed in a relatively short period of time. Our ice cream turns over really quickly but something like that you've gotta scoop it pretty quick, within 48 hours I would say.
Tell us more about your coffee service and what you're hoping to do with that.
We have a lot of people in the neighborhood who are looking for a place where they can get coffee. They want–you know, they love the store and they want it to be–they come in and they have coffee. We'll add pastry in the fall, and you'll be able to get coffee and a pastry as well.
Finally, you've proved yourself an innovator. What do you see as the future of coffee ice cream?
I don't know if I can answer that question. It's top secret! I'm working on some single-serving items that you can eat, like on a bar, that kind of thing. We're doing something different already because we treat the coffee ice cream like how we treat coffee, so even the fact that we grind it on the percolator setting, I know most people don't do that. If you look at the coffee ice cream you can see the texture of the grains in there and that's because of how we're grinding it and how we're brewing it. I think when most people think of coffee ice cream they're thinking of something much softer flavored and creamier, like Häagen-Dazs. This is not that. I think this is an interesting step, and I wouldn't do it any other way. I think what we're doing is a little bit different–as far as the future, give me another year.
Liz Clayton is the Associate Editor at Sprudge.com, and helms our NYC desk. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.