This just in: It is no longer cool to just eat ice cream. If trending is your thing, you must consume frozen delights in sandwich form. Here in Southern California, and all over the country, ice cream sandwich shops are popping up like Starbucks across the street from another Starbucks. You can find fabulous ice creams sandwiched between everything: donuts, croissants, macaroons — you name it.
CoolHaus, which began in Los Angeles as a food truck in 2009 and has spread to 40 states, follows an architectural model. (CoolHaus/Bauhaus — get it?) Their desserts, which consist of imaginatively flavored cookies and ice creams, are explained not as ice cream between two cookies, but as a cookie foundation with ice cream walls and a cookie roof. Art and food together is a concept I fully support. Beachy Cream in Santa Monica offers pretty standard fare. Their flavors are not what I would call cutting edge, but it is all organic, which is admirable.
Fonuts, over by The Grove on Third Street, is home to “baked or steamed but never fried” donuts. They have started offering a scoop of house-made ice cream on top of their fancifully flavored product, billing it as an ice cream sandwich (although, technically, it should be called open-faced, she said in nerd-like fashion, pushing her glasses up on her nose). Carmela Ice Cream has also jumped onto the ice cream sandwich bandwagon. What started out as a farmers’ market venture has resulted in two stores (in Pasadena at 2495 E. Washington Blvd. and near The Grove) as well as a formidable presence in gourmet groceries and local restaurants.
Of course, the ice cream sandwich is nothing new. For centuries they have done amazing things in Sicily with ice cream and brioche. It looks more like a gelato burger than a sandwich, but it is crazy good, stuffed with creamy gelato and eaten with a colorful little plastic spoon on some piazza. A similar thing is done throughout Southeast Asia, although the ice cream there is more likely to be flavored with yams, red azuki beans or durians. In the British Isles the ice cream is sandwiched between thin cookie wafers and will often have an interior hidden bonus of nougat or caramel.
Yes, there are a ton of ice cream sandwiches out there. But to me, nothing compares to the ice cream sandwich I grew up eating, the It’s-It. A San Francisco original, more beloved by natives than Rice-a-Roni, Willie Brown and rainbow flags combined, the It’s-It is simple and pure — two really great oatmeal cookies with vanilla ice cream, dipped in dark chocolate. (Over the years, they’ve added flavors, but the vanilla has always been the best.) The factory has been a landmark along the Bayshore Freeway since I was a kid, but the It’s-It started out in the 1920s at Playland-at-the-Beach, an amusement park that stood on the Great Highway in San Francisco, just south of the Cliff House. A happening place until the 1960s, Playland had rides that rivaled Coney Island’s — the Big Dipper roller coaster, Shoot the Chutes, the Whip and the Fun House, to which you were beckoned by the horrifying animatronic Laughing Sal. (At least it horrified me when I was little. You can go see Sal now in a museum on Fisherman’s Wharf and judge for yourself.) Operator George Whitney (dubbed “the Barnum of the Golden Gate”) owned many of the rides and concessions, purchased and refurbished the Cliff House and created the It’s-It. When he died in 1958, the park slowly deteriorated; it was pretty seedy by the time I visited. It was torn down in 1972, and with it went the It’s-It. Happily for my tummy, the name was purchased in 1974 by two brothers who opened the current production facility in Burlingame, and the It’s-It has been in markets throughout the West ever since.
Now, even though lots of companies already make sandwiches, let us not overlook the fact that they are super fun and oh-so-satisfying to make at home. You can sandwich your ice cream with pretty much anything, and in that spirit I am offering some ice cream sammie ideas to get your creativity flowing, plus a few tips to make it easier — because that’s how I roll.