When it comes to ice cream, Seattle is an abundant place. Successful ice cream shops such as Bluebird, Cupcake Royale, Full Tilt, and Molly Moon's serve up delicious frozen delights—often made with high-quality, local ingredients—all over the city.
In recent years, Seattle's homemade ice cream options have increased, with many smaller artisan producers like Half Pint, Kurt Farm Shop, Parfait, Sweet Bumpas, and Sweet Lo's making ice cream entirely from scratch—cream, milk, egg yolks, sugar, and not much else—in small batches. Of those, three of them—Parfait, Sweet Bumpas, and Sweet Lo's—also offer ice cream sandwiches.
Since childhood, ice cream sandwiches have been my preferred vehicle for ice cream consumption. My taste buds have always skewed a little more savory than sweet, and I find the salty, crunchy components in a dessert irresistible.
Parfait owner Adria Shimada began selling her French-influenced ice cream from a food truck in 2009. Shimada built a loyal following with her use of local and organic ingredients: Theo chocolate, milk and cream from Smith Brothers Farms, eggs from Stiebrs Farms, berries and fruit from Hayton Farms and Tonnemaker Orchard.
In 2013, Shimada opened a brick-and-mortar shop in Ballard. It's a lovely spot, with an herb garden out front and an open kitchen that functions as a pristine dessert laboratory. In a display case by the register is a rotating cast of colorful macarons—delicate, airy French meringue cookies filled with ice cream flavors like Meyer-lemon-and-pistachio, honey-and-apricot, and toasted coconut.
At $4 each, the petite sandwiches are a little pricey, but the ice cream inside will make you feel goddamn rich. The texture of homemade ice cream is by turns shocking and revelatory; it's far thicker and richer on the tongue than commercial ice cream. While I found Parfait's macarons overwhelmingly sugary, the ice cream itself was heavenly, especially the mild, sweet-cream ice cream with an unapologetically tart blueberry ripple that comes inside a robin's-egg-blue macaron. My favorite sandwich by far, though, was a simple one: two classic chocolate-chip cookies dusted with a generous amount of French sea salt that enlivened golden vanilla-bean ice cream ($4.75).
Lauren Wilson's ice cream sandwiches are a far cry from classic French cookies and flavors—and that's precisely what makes them great. Under the brand name Sweet Lo's, Wilson makes "wacky" flavors such as Texas sheet cake, black sesame, Movie Night (it's flavored by steeping buttered popcorn in milk and cream), and Munchies (salted pretzel ice cream with candied potato chips, pretzels, Ritz crackers, Whoppers, and Kit Kats) in small batches without stabilizers and sells them around town.
Wilson, who has worked at restaurants for years, grew up an avid baker but began experimenting with homemade ice cream a few years ago. "That moment that I tasted my homemade ice cream, it blew my mind," she said. "I didn't realize how much better it could taste, and I knew immediately that it was my thing."
Appropriately, Wilson started small, first bringing samples to her coworkers at Tom Douglas's Seatown restaurant, then delivering to customers who ordered via Facebook and Instagram, then getting pints of her ice cream into retail locations such as downtown's Home Remedy and Makeda Coffee in Greenwood. She's looking into opening up a retail space, but isn't in a rush, as business is thriving.
Sweet Lo's ice cream sandwiches are available only as custom orders or at private events, which still account for a large portion of her business. For events, she brings both homemade cookies and ice cream, so people can mix and match, creating their own personalized treat.
I gave Wilson free rein to create three ice cream sandwiches for me (each cost $5), and when we met, she handed over massive treats made of intensely rich ice cream hugged by dense, chewy-centered cookies: double chocolate cookies with mint cookie ice cream, brown sugar cookies stuffed with a "peanut butter explosion" ice cream made with Reese's Pieces, and, my favorite, oatmeal cookies filled with a gently salted caramel ice cream with an absolutely divine and viscous milk-chocolate swirl. They were so big and had such bold flavors that I ended up cutting them in half and eating them as open-faced sandwiches.
"I just see ice cream as such a blank canvas," Wilson says. "There's no limit to what you can do with it. Sometimes I dream of flavors and make it—some work and some don't." She told me about a sugar-cone and peanut-butter-brittle flavor that came to her one night, causing her to steep sugar cones in milk and cream the next morning. "I woke up and was like, all right, yeah, whatever, I'll try it."
Experimentation also drives Matt Bumpas, the former pastry chef of Poppy restaurant who now owns Sweet Bumpas. He currently sells his ice cream at outdoor markets in Fremont, South Lake Union, and Des Moines, as well as for private events and special orders. "I'm always experimenting," says Bumpas. "Otherwise I get bored."
While he plays around a lot, Bumpas is a technically driven chef. "People think ice cream can't be elevated," he says. "It is a simple thing, but there is a complexity to it that people don't understand. And even people making ice cream don't understand."
"Every single ice cream that I make, there is no base level," he continues. "I decide the flavor that I want, and I have to manipulate the texture and ingredients in order to get that flavor to come out."
Bumpas's meticulous work is on magnificent display in his ice cream sandwiches, particularly the Banana Puddin' and PB&J varieties. For the banana ice cream, Bumpas uses the most intensely flavored bananas (aka the black, slug-like overripe ones you'd never actually want to eat) to create an ice cream so profound, it's almost transcendent. With PB&J—peanut butter and blackberry ice cream in between two vanilla wafers—it's the blackberry ice cream that steals the show. It's not just blackberries mixed into vanilla ice cream, but a deep-purple ice cream whose flavor lingers on the tongue.
As a bonus, Bumpas's sandwiches look just like the beloved old-school wax-paper-wrapped ones—ice cream wedged between two chocolate wafers, right down to the wafers' perfectly spaced little holes. (Bumpas confirmed that those holes don't serve any purpose in baking and are entirely for aesthetic—and, in his case, nostalgic—purposes.)
He gets both animated and sentimental when he talks about ice cream sandwiches. "An ice cream sandwich changes, it evolves. At first you're like, 'Damn this cookie, it's too hard.' But then it starts to soften and the ice cream soaks into the sandwich..." He trails off and sighs with pleasure.
"I didn't grow up with fancy things. I had the cheap store-brand ice cream sandwich. And I want the lowly ice cream sandwich to be special."