Micah Camden didn’t want to give up ice cream. The Portland, Oregon, chef is known around town for serving quick comfort foods at restaurants like burger drive-thru Super Deluxe and Boxer Ramen, and he was a co-founder of Blue Star Donuts. But, in recent years, Camden has found that he can’t eat as much of certain foods, including dairy. It’s not that he has a diagnosed food allergy, but some products give him trouble. “I’m not gluten intolerant. I’m glutton intolerant. It literally is something that affects me,” he says. And so for his next venture, Camden will make ice cream he — and just about anyone else — can eat with abandon. Little Bean, as he’s calling it, is dairy-free, nut-free, gluten-free chickpea ice cream.
Alternatives to dairy abound. Hip coffee shops now regularly stock nut milk, oat milk, and even hemp milk, and when it comes to frozen desserts, vegans and the lactose intolerant have never had more options. Chickpeas, though, might be a first.
Camden hit upon his recipe for chickpea ice cream accidentally. He started out making chickpea tofu. “I need to eat healthy. I like tofu, but I don’t like soy tofu, and I’m like, ‘What else can you do?’” he recounts. Camden then made chickpea milk, using the same process one would use for homemade soy milk. He put the result in a household ice cream maker and was pleasantly surprised. “Even in its rudimentary form it was really, really good, and it showed an amazing amount of promise,” he says.
Little Bean’s chickpea ice cream solves for a few of Camden’s issues with typical milk alternatives. Unlike coconut milk, chickpeas have a subtle flavor and are virtually free of saturated fats. Camden calls chickpeas a “drought crop,” meaning they don’t need as much water to thrive as a crop like almonds. Plus, he can feel good about buying them on a large scale, whereas he says relying on soy would most likely force him to support Monsanto, whose genetically modified soybeans have historically made up a large part of the soybean market. And for what he has planned, Camden will need a lot of chickpeas.
The Little Bean cart, which doled out scoops to Portlanders over the summer, will be joined by a truck and scoop shop this winter. The shop doubles as a bakery; it makes vegan, gluten-free ice cream cones and baked goods with the parts of chickpeas leftover from processing chickpea milk. He isn’t looking to be another Salt & Straw, the Portland-born scoop shop that’s expanded all over the West Coast. Instead, he hopes to see Little Bean pints in grocery stores across the country. “Crap commercial ice cream has cultivated my generation, but [the next generation is] going to be craving healthier ice cream,” he says.
Already, there’s a wealth of options for dairy-free ice cream in the freezer aisle to meet consumer demand. According to Nielsen, retail sales of nondairy ice cream increased by nearly 50 percent between 2016 and 2017, and in 2018 London-based market research company Technavio predicted that the global vegan ice cream market would continue to grow. Even Häagen-Dazs released a line of nondairy ice cream in 2017. But the biggest name in prestige vegan ice cream might be Van Leeuwen, which puts the word “vegan” right on its pints. The company launched 10 years ago with a New York City ice cream truck. The brand prided itself on flavors made with the highest-quality ingredients and a simple base of milk and cream, cane sugar, and egg yolks.
Four years after the brand’s launch, and two years after the opening the first Van Leeuwen scoop shop, it started turning out its first nondairy flavors. The initial goal was to please lactose-intolerant ice cream lovers, but vegan customers soon followed. “When we put out our first two vegan flavors, which were vegan chocolate and vegan vanilla, they exploded,” says co-founder Ben Van Leeuwen. “It blew up, partially because no one had ever eaten vegan ice cream made with extraordinary ingredients.”
Van Leeuwen treats its nondairy ice creams with as much care as its other flavors. Vegan options are available at every Van Leeuwen scoop shop (complete with house-made vegan toppings, like coconut whipped cream), and the company offers 10 different vegan pint flavors, to the classic line’s 16. “[One reason] we make the best vegan ice cream I’ve ever had anywhere in the world is because most of the vegan ice cream makers are only vegan ice cream makers, so they don’t have dairy ice cream as a standard, which is really, really good to go off of when you’re making vegan ice cream,” he says. The other reason: “We just spend a ton of money on extraordinary ingredients.”
Van Leeuwen puts intense focus on the base: a combination of (expensive) coconut milk, cashew milk, and cocoa butter. Having all three of these base ingredients (in varying ratios depending on the flavor) is essential for mimicking the texture of real ice cream: Coconut lends it creaminess, while cashews provide a chewy mouthfeel, and cocoa butter emulates butter fat, an essential ice cream component (in the U.S., real ice cream must contain at least 10 percent butter fat).
Cashew and coconut are now common replacements for the cream in ice cream. Virtuous Pie, a Vancouver-based vegan pizza and ice cream chain that expanded to Portland, Oregon, in 2017, also uses a cashew-coconut blend. In grocery-store pints, almond milk and soy are also frequent dairy substitutes. But increasingly, chefs are trying out new ingredients to satisfy nondairy dairy cravings.
New York City vegetarian restaurant Superiority Burger — helmed by acclaimed pastry chef and gelato star Brooks Headley — recently advertised a vegan polenta soft serve made without any alternative milks. Goldie, chef Michael Solomonov’s Philadelphia falafel shop, has served a vegan tehina shake to satisfy customers’ ice cream cravings since the restaurant opened in 2017. Executive chef Caitlin McMillan, a 2018 Eater Young Gun, says a tehina shake made sense at Goldie for a few different reasons. In a restaurant conceived as a vegan alternative to a burger joint, it complements the other items on the concise menu. “A lot of the burger places, they do milkshake, fries, and burgers, and that’s it,” McMillan explains. Goldie offers just falafel, fries, salad, and shakes: “[We’re] just keeping it super simple and trying to please everyone, but doing it vegan.”
Because tehina is used prominently at Solomonov’s Israeli restaurant Zahav, there was never really a question about what would make up the base of the shake. Happily, the ingredient makes for a satisfying frozen dessert when paired with sugar, nut milk, and flavored syrup. “It has a lot of fats and solids and creates this creamy effect,” McMillan says. She adds, “I think that it’s an alternative way — and a cool way and a new way — to incorporate that oily, nutty flavor.”
In Portland, Camden believes chickpeas will revolutionize vegan ice cream and change the way people eat. “The nondairy, healthier, local, environmentally conscious, quality products, they’re actually shooting up,” he says. “It really is the future of food — having something that isn’t kicking off huge emissions.” And as more people cut back on dairy, whether due to increased environmental consciousness or lactose intolerance, they’ll have options suited to their particular dietary restrictions and tastes. At Little Bean, they’ll find scoops with a light, creamy texture, supporting bold flavors, like barrel-aged vanilla, matcha mint, and strawberry Sichuan — no nuts, no gluten, no dairy, no soy. “I believe a lot of people need something like this,” Camden says.