You could record every firework, ocean wave and burger sizzle onto one big soundtrack, but it would never outplay the true song of summer: the first time you hear the ice cream truck rolling down the street.
With that truck comes the promise of a cone of symmetrically swirled soft-serve sporting a sheath of rainbow sprinkles. But after years of this reliable classic, chefs have started to take the ol' truck for a spin, kicking the summer staple up a notch. From flavors thought up by Michelin-ranked chefs to ones topped with homemade cheese crackers, these are the cones killing us softly this year—and, luckily, you don't have to chase down a roving truck to get a taste.
Though creative soft-serve caught our eye last year, newfangled swirls showed up to summer 2017 ready to go hard. Just ask Michael Tsang, cofounder of Soft Swerve in New York City. When Tsang opened the shop with childhood friend Jason Liu last year, they sold out on opening day—no small feat, considering they opened in the beginning of December. People lined up then as they do now for flavors you'd be hard-pressed to score off a truck, like ube, matcha and black sesame.
"Trips to Dairy Queen were pivotal in my childhood," Tyler Malek says. He's one of the masterminds behind Salt & Straw and Wiz Bang Bar, which opened last year in Portland, Oregon's Pine Street Market and doles out soft-serve creations as whimsical as its name suggests. One of his current favorites at the shop is a vegan blueberry ginger coconut, which reads to him as "a grown-up Flintstones push pop."
While some shops focus only on the soft stuff, perennial favorites like New York's Morgenstern's and OddFellows are also venturing into the soft-serve world. The latter has popped up with a summer carnival, where cymbal-clapping monkeys and circus-themed objects abound, and where composed treats like the Concession Stand, a salted-caramel triple threat with a popcorn topping, steal the show.
Adding toppings to a cone at OddFellows | Photo: Wyatt Conlon
But it's not just ice cream shops that are getting in on the game. Restaurants, bakeries and even coffee shops are going soft as well. Greg Baxtrom, chef at always-buzzing Olmsted in Brooklyn, recently added a soft-serve machine to the restaurant's picturesque backyard.
And though you might not expect to find some of a city's best ice cream at a coffee shop, a trip to Supercrown Coffee Roasters in Brooklyn will prove you wrong. Owner Darleen Scherer remembers Mister Softee of childhood yore with love: "It tastes like summer vacation," she says. Building off the shop's beloved milkshake, she introduced a coffee soft-serve earlier this year to "take the coffee experience to a different place."
You'll also find cones with a buzz at Dominique Ansel's seasonal soft-serve window, where he's rotating in cold brew topped with anise biscotti and milk foam. At least until August, when it rotates for peach tea, and September, which brings dark chocolate olive oil. Despite these creative options, Ansel is a purist: "A lot of people ask me what my favorite ice cream flavor is, and I always say vanilla—it's such a simple and clean flavor, but it's hard to do right."
Cold brew soft serve with anise biscotti and milk foam | Photo: Dominique Ansel Kitchen
Summer's proliferation of this frozen treat is about more than novelty though. As The Washington Post points out, there's the added bonus of not having to carve out freezer real estate required for traditional ice cream. And the "set-it and forget-nature of the dessert" makes it attractive to chefs like Mason Hereford of New Orleans newcomer Turkey and the Wolf. "I'm not good at desserts," he freely admits, "so we decided to get soft-serve to send sweets to the masses." He calls it a "power bottom" for the toppings like the crowd-pleasing Key Lime Crunk Chunks, which are like Key lime pie on Opposite Day: most parts graham cracker crust, one part custard.
Another factor in soft-serve's widespread success? It's so hard to make at home. As Malek puts it, "It's filling a sweet tooth-satisfying niche that we forgot was so important to our daily lives." Baxtrom also leans into the inevitable nostalgia. "It's like French and Italian food," he says. "They will always come back in style, because it's what people like."
Finally, as Tsang points out, "There's a sense of urgency that forces people to enjoy the dessert right then and there." Because if you stop enjoying it for even a second, it's just going to melt away from you—much like summer itself.