Dessert trends are sweeping across the country, igniting in places like New York City where tourists and natives pour into restaurants serving innovative yet simple sweets. I was curious to understand what keeps these fads alive, and my point of interest was ice cream rolls. Before I went to New York City for midterm recess, I had heard through Buzzfeed and word of mouth about this newfangled dessert. Would it be better than the famed cronut? Or would it fail to live up to its hype?
When Dominique Ansel unveiled the cronut (the love child of croissants and donuts), people went wild. This novelty of a pastry combines two of the most popular carbs in the world and it needs to be pre-ordered weeks in advance to avoid winding lines outside Dominique Ansel’s bakery. I have tried the famous cronut before, but it simply tastes like a flaky fritter with a crispy, thick edge encrusted with sugar. Its aesthetic beauty is what captured my attention. Yet while a wait of two hours might not be worth it, the bakery is still clogged with people longing for a taste of His Majesty the cronut. Similarly, tourists and New York natives alike are shuffling for space inside little restaurants to savor ice cream rolls.
These frozen treats are actually a staple of Thai street food, and places all over New York are offering inspired versions of the confection. It certainly looks more unique than a typical scoop of Ben & Jerry’s; ice cream rolls resemble a cross between short scrolls and delicate roses, all stuffed into a frozen yogurt cup and adorned with various toppings. And the other fascinating part about this dessert is the fact that customers can watch it being made before their very eyes. It is like people are allowed to witness a secret process and understand the mystery behind the dessert. After all, who really knows how cronuts are made? But ice cream rolls are open to the public — perhaps that is one reason this concoction is surrounded by a flurry of adoration.
So I sampled ice cream rolls in NYC to wrangle out possible reasons this dessert has gained an avid fanbase. I scoured Yelp for the best place and decided on I-CE NY, which claims to be the “original Thai ice cream roll destination.” It was a tiny space with a glass case in the wall, lined with plastic examples of ice cream roll flavors and toppings. When I asked the young employee who took my order how these ice cream rolls have gained such renown, he simply shrugged and mumbled that he didn’t know.
I stood there, flabbergasted. But then I realized that perhaps he had a point — maybe he was disillusioned after working with foodies clamoring for pictures of the dessert. Or maybe he just thought that ice cream rolls were not really that much different from Haagan-Daaz besides the presentation. It was time to discover the truth. The process of ordering involved four parts: choosing an ice cream base, a filling, a topping and a drizzle. The Thai tea base sounded delicious, and I chose to pair it with lychee morsels, followed by a topping of mochi and a final drizzle of condensed milk.
Watching the poor girl who had the pleasant job of making all the rolls evoked a combination of pain and intrigue. Each batch took about four minutes, which would probably make any hungry customer start tapping their feet in impatience. The process was quite an undertaking. First, the girl poured out the measurement of creme anglaise, a sort of cream tinted light orange due to the Thai tea. It spilled out into a rectangular sheet. She dumped in the lychee and proceeded to chop it all into the cream over and over, until it resembled a gloopy mound that she flattened on the sheet. No doubt she had serious biceps after all that mincing. The sheet must have been extremely cold as well because once she started scraping the ice cream’s edge and rolling strips off of it like cutting fondant, they all came out into nice, frosty curls. Then she placed them all carefully into a cup and added the toppings.
Honestly, my dessert didn’t look the most aesthetically pleasing. Mochi was falling off the rolls and the entire cup wasn’t as full as I would hope. Digging my spoon into a roll also proved to be a bit difficult. I figured the ice cream would need to be pliable yet stiff enough to be rolled, so chipping off a piece was as hard as attempting to scoop ice cream from a tub that has been in the freezer for a while. The cream tasted light with the right amount of sweetness; I could pinpoint all the delicate flavors and had no trouble scarfing it down.
I paid $6 for this dessert, and I think it was that expensive due to all the effort in crafting it. I would recommend it for a unique dessert or to curb a craving for ice cream but, in the end, ice cream rolls are just made of basic, humble flavors. No doubt the quality is stellar, but is it worth it to fly to New York for a taste? Probably not. If you handed me an ice cream cone instead of these, I would be just as delighted. Yet I think that these rolls have become so noteworthy because people can watch their desserts being made, and the idea is simple — change the generic ice cream scoop into a work of art. Ice cream rolls and cronuts both make people stop in their tracks and marvel at the brilliance of the idea. And everyone wants to be able to say that they’ve tried it. No wonder Instagram is littered with photos of these desserts. What other proof do people need?