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Gourmetified Soft Serve is the Dessert du Jour

The Mole, one of Alta CA’s inspired flavors, is a spicy combination of cinnamon, chili, lime, and chocolate soft serve. Photograph by Cedric Glasier

Once the stuff of drive-throughs and strip malls, soft serve ice cream and its Midwestern cousin, frozen custard, are experiencing a gourmet renaissance in some choice Bay Area restaurants.

Across kitchens, chefs are using the soft stuff as a base for fantastic culinary toppings. At Alta CA, old-school flavors like rocky road (flecked with house-made malt balls, marshmallow, and pine syrup) or root beer (topped with beer jam made from stout, vanilla bean, sugar, and spices, and gourmet Magic Shell) take childhood fantasies to new levels. Meanwhile, TBD offers such seasonal toppings as salted persimmon preserves, pumpkin seed praline, and preserved Meyer lemon; and Bravas Bar de Tapas opts for Spanish-appropriate chocolate Pedro Ximenéz fudge sauce and jamon-flavored breadcrumbs. The common ingredient? Petaluma-based Straus Family Creamery’s organic vanilla base.

“Straus’ soft serve mix makes it easy to do now,” says chef-restaurateur Bruce Hill, who may be responsible for the creamy treat’s menu moment. After inheriting a machine from the prior owner at Picco, he developed his own soft serve base in 2005 using Straus ingredients, serving it with things like bacon brittle and Chick-O-Stick: a peanut butter shell with toasted coconut shavings that’s named after the candy. He brought soft serve to Zero Zero, and when customers and other chefs inquired about the dessert, Straus developed their own mix.

Hill has transitioned to another creamy treat at his latest restaurant, Fog City—frozen custard. “We’re challenging ourselves to elevate it to something better,” he says. He starts with a Straus ice cream base, modifying it to a specific temperature and texture—a technique he picked up while training in St. Louis, the unofficial custard capital of the world. Unlike soft serve, frozen custard has to be made fresh daily to achieve dessert nirvana. And although pastry chef Aaron Toensing has crafted a chocolate flavor, Hill prefers the simplicity and perfection of his beloved vanilla, which he tops with such deliciousness as blood orange marmalade or an egg yolk caramel that’s as indulgently rich as it sounds. Go ahead and give it a twirl. 

This article was published in 7x7's April issue. Click here to subscribe.