Photo by fortes/flickr
We steal 'em.
Friends often ask me, "Where do you get ideas for new ice cream flavors?" and the answer is usually that we steal them. A marketing guy once corrected me. "You should say that you appropriate them." That is also true, or it may just be an equivocation.
A few flavors, such as Adam Simha's invention of Burnt Caramel ice cream, are the result of happy accidents, like 3M's well-known accidental discovery of Post-it notes. [Curator's note: Burnt Caramel is the best ice-cream flavor in existence, as I wrote in this Atlantic article, which even includes a recipe approximating it. Adam Simha went on to yet more creative pursuits, including hand-marking knives, as I wrote about here. The current ice-cream-maker in residence at Toscanini's, Kevin Rafferty, is doing a particularly admirable job at setting off every smoke alarm in the vicinity, a requirement for the proper deep flavor.]
Dark Chocolate begets Belgian Chocolate and Mocha and then Deep Chocolate and Malted Chocolate.
Flavors containing Grape-Nuts are popular, and they are the result of supermarket visits I made after we first opened in 1981. I was looking for anything that would stand up well to being frozen in cream. Most cereals turn to mush but Grape-Nuts are indestructible, and after I started making the flavor I learned that I had rediscovered the Grape-Nuts pudding that is so popular in northern New England and Eastern Canada, and the Grape-Nuts ice cream Jamaicans miss so much after moving to Boston.
Probably most flavors are riffs on existing flavors. Anything can have chocolate chips in it and almost anything does. There is plain old Chocolate Chip, Malted Chocolate Chip, Chocolate Chocolate Chip, Coffee Chocolate Chip, Banana Chocolate Chip, and Mint Chocolate Chip. If you use a chocolate sandwich cookie like Oreo or our choice, Hydrox, then you can try vanilla sandwich cookies like Vienna Fingers or Pepperidge Farm. Dark Chocolate begets Belgian Chocolate and Mocha and then Deep Chocolate and Malted Chocolate and Chocolate Peppermint and Gianduia and Chocolate Peanut Butter and Chocolate Banana.
All of our South Asian flavors came about because of suggestions from customers. Years ago a professor from Harvard set us off on this path by suggesting Saffron and Khulfee ice creams. Other customers from South Asia helped us improve all of these flavors.
Italian flavors like Nocciola and Gianduia were the inevitable result of traveling to Italy. We're still trying to make a Rice flavor as good as I once had at Vivoli's in Florence. Cathedrals and gelati represent the high points of Italian culture.
A friend came back from Japan with green tea Kit Kat bars so we began freezing and chopping up Kit Kat bars and we began paying attention to Kit Kat variations in Japan. This led to Malted Kit Kat ice cream and White Chocolate with Lemon. The green tea Kit Kat was explained as a snack given to students during exams because of a pun that translated as "study study." Recently I was forwarded an English newspaper article about Japanese Kit Kat bars, and I recommend it to everyone.
Ice cream makers also look at Web sites for other ice cream makers, restaurants, chefs, pastry chefs, and candy makers, and it occurred to me that some of what sophisticated pastry people do would work well in ice cream, including the use of salt, hot peppers, and surprising spices and herbs. In fact, if you want to play at home you can buy Kit Kat bars and sprinkle them with unusual salts and pink peppercorns. This is much cheaper than going to Pierre Hermé in Paris.