I could hardly believe my food fortune when the fine folks at New Amsterdam Market asked me to judge their ice cream “Sunday.” But if you think such an undertaking sounds like a blast, you’ve obviously never attempted it. First, there’s the physical challenge of eating your way through all the flavors – 40 in this case! Then we re-tasted seven finalists. I’m not with child but that morning I was wise enough to dig out my old pregnancy spanx and boy was I glad I did.
Then there’s the fact that my fellow judges and I were allowed to select only a single winner: No runners up, no silver medal or red ribbon, no honorable mentions. Which meant I would have to pass up on 39 flavors, and given New Amsterdam Market’s amazing lineup of ice cream artisans, that nearly broke my heart.
That would have been hard enough had I been judging solo, but the cherry on top was that I had to come to agreement with two other judges—cheesemonger extraordinare Anne Saxelby and Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten. It was an honor to serve alongside such supertasters, but our differing opinions made the Middle East Peace Talks look like a snap.
Several scoops that made my eyes roll back in my head simply made Steingarten’s roll. One that sent me swooning caused him to demand “what is wrong with your tongue?” and a tomato sorbet that would have made my short list prompted him to declare, “I could vomit.” Still it was illuminating to judge with him. I’ve judged the random chili cookoff in a bar and once judged an episode of Throwdown with Bobby Flay, but Steingarten is a pro, asking what country a specific cinnamon came from (when the answer was Indonesia he corrected the producer, rightly identifying the ingredient as cassia bark) and carefully considering a scoop of lavender-infused goat milk, even though he dislikes the floral flavor. (One’s personal preferences must not taint one’s evaluation of technique and texture, he reminded us.)
After two hours of tasting and deliberation we settled on a short list, but consensus was elusive. While Saxelby and I were rooting for La Newyorkina’s Cajeta flavor, Steingarten was unimpressed, saying the dulce de leche made from upstate goat’s milk was no more creative than a pint of Haagen Daaz. Further, he clued us in that the best chefs in Mexico City now turn up their noses at ingredients introduced by colonialism, cooking only with ingredients available back in 1491.
But Saxelby and I had also fallen hard for the Catskills-based newcomer called Early Bird (no relation to the granola), and we high-fived in our agreement that the gold should go to their ethereal Hay flavor. “It tastes the way hay smells,” said Saxelby, who knows her way around a barn loft.
I figured Steingarten would balk but he nodded gravely and Hay made it to the final taste-off. There alongside Otto’s Verbena Black Currant (which Steingarten and Saxelby both scored high) and Bent Spoon’s Chocolate-Cippolini (believe me, it worked) Hay held its own. Remarkably we had our winner.
We reconvened at the stands, rang the honorary cowbell and gathered round Early Bird to declare them the champions. The celebrated scoop was soon sold out but if you missed it, you can make it yourself: just warm Tonjes Milk and Boice Brothers Cream with some honey from Clem Murphy, then drop in an eighth of a bale of Timothy hay. Steep overnight, then strain and churn; each lick will transport you to an upstate field as the sun sets on another summer.