This article was originally published in the July 2017 Princeton Echo.
Thirteen years of concocting distinctive flavor combinations has made the Bent Spoon a beloved Princeton icon.
With ingredients ranging from ramps to pork roll, this tiny ice cream shop pn Palmer Square has gained national recognition for imaginative seasonal offerings drawn from local harvests and local culture. The ice cream is so good that it’s a must-visit summer destination for many — and a year-round mecca for their hard-core fans.
Gab Carbone and Matt Errico, who own and run the shop together, differ dramatically in demeanor. Errico’s easy going calm contrasts with Carbone’s energetic intensity. But each brings to the creative partnership a dedication to hard work, authentic flavors, and building community through food.
The business partners met in 1996 as students at the College of New Jersey and bonded, in part, over their shared love of ice cream. After graduating with a degree in special education, Carbone went on to receive a degree in pastry arts from the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) in New York. Errico, who received a degree in history in 1996, worked at Small World Coffee during and after college and was named general manager in 1998.
Carbone eventually joined the Small World team, where both gained a hands-on education in the skills and resources needed to run a small food business. In 2003, they left the coffee company to follow their own long-held dream of opening a shop where, using ice cream as the medium, customers could create food memories. The ice cream they chose to make celebrates both European artisanal ice-cream making techniques and New Jersey-grown ingredients.
“We didn’t have a ton of money to start and that kind of forces your creative hand,” Errico says. Necessity led them to scour the neighborhood for ingredients such as pears and grapes growing in an alleyway behind Small World Coffee —giving them a unique product right from the start.
“I love constraint because it makes me the most creative,” Carbone says. “You have to come up with a solution where there is a problem.” Choosing to focus on ice cream and sorbet provides one such creative constraint — feeding Carbone’s love of exploring depth and potential by doing one thing and doing it well. So far, the Bent Spoon has offered more than 600 flavors — 18 in the case at any one time.
While their culinary medium may be limited, their inspirations are widespread. Raised at opposite ends of the state — Carbone in Pennsauken in suburban Camden County and Errico in rural Hunterdon County, near Stockton — both grew up knowing New Jersey as a place of abundance. Family gardens and multigenerational meals were fixtures in their childhood homes. So it is not surprising that they chose New Jersey as the source and inspiration for the flavors of their ice creams and sorbets.
The pair engages in a constant conversation about flavor into which family, memory, and community all factor. Looking beyond just what is grown in an area, they mine history and culture for inspiration. Thinking, for example, about the culture of shad in Lambertville, Carbone muses on using the foods that people brought to shad picnics long ago as inspiration for a flavor that she might offer in springtime when the shad are running.
“I think those kinds of things just keep us all connected in our shared history,” Carbone says. “Those kinds of stories that we tell through food, that’s the thread of humanity.”
When customers enter this diminutive shop — decorated with handwritten signs and framed copies of magazine articles praising the quality of Bent Spoon’s products — they bring with them flavor memories and expectations. Meeting those expectations is one of Carbone and Errico’s greatest creative challenges.
When developing a flavor, they begin by asking “How are people used to eating this food?” Pistachios, for example, are typically eaten roasted and salted. “I can’t just throw raw pistachios in ice cream and hope for the best,” Carbone says. Instead she engages in a seven-day process of roasting, salting, and infusing to achieve the flavor profile that customers know as pistachio.
Instilling the true flavor of fresh fruit into ice cream and sorbet means Carbone must capture and suspend the experience of eating a perfectly ripened piece of fruit. Achieving that with pears and melons is difficult. With peaches there is the additional — and impossible — challenge of matching childhood memories. “Peach is a tough one because people have a strong connection to peach,” Carbone says. “It will never taste like the peach festival that you went to when you were eight and it dripped all down your face.” Her approach is to try to create new peach flavor memories by highlighting specific farms and encouraging the eater to “forget everything you know about peaches. This is this year’s peach, this is the only time you’re going to have it.”
All Bent Spoon ice creams and sorbets are made from scratch — using flavor ideas and inspirations that come from both Carbone and Errico, who taste, discuss, and refine the flavor of each ice cream and sorbet together. Carbone is renowned for her ability to extract flavor from ingredients. That process starts with getting the finest version of a raw ingredient and then determining the best way to coax out its flavor. In some cases this requires slow roasting, in others minimal cooking, and in some, such as basil and nectarine, no cooking at all.
To achieve depth of flavor, they use a lot of the actual flavoring ingredient — an expensive, but crucial, step that, Carbone notes, many cooks fail to take. And they serve their ice cream soft, which brings out more flavor.
Sourcing local ingredients is commonplace now, but 13 years ago it wasn’t so easy. The couple often had to go to farms and harvest their own fruit. Carbone recalls picking blueberries at Emery’s and grapes at Terhune Orchards, shaking her head in amazement that they found the time for it while running their business. That experience, however, paid off by giving them a deep understanding of their ingredients and how flavor and texture transform from the orchard to the finished product. “Nothing beats that connection of picking it, getting to wash it, maybe pitting it, skinning it,” she says, “and then, within a day or two, seeing that transformation.”
Much has changed in the past 13 years. Now farmers bring items to the shop for them to try. The Bent Spoon’s creativity and curiosity makes the store a natural market for unusual local specialty items such as gooseberries, elder flowers, pawpaws and persimmons. So does their confidence that they can now make ice cream out of anything — provided that it is delicious. Rather than asking farmers to grow special items for them, Carbone prefers to take a collaborative approach by playing off the inspirations and serendipitous moments that lead farmers to new and interesting crops.
Over its history, the Bent Spoon has created more than 35 variations of beer ice cream. Flavor is one reason Carbone loves working with beer — she is fascinated by the myriad of flavors created by bringing yeasts together with a few ingredients. Married to the head brewer at Triumph Brewing Company, Brendan Anderson, she also loves the chance to collaborate with the community of craftspeople who are reimagining traditional beer styles. “If somebody’s going to be this craftsperson and make this very rare beer, it’s almost upsetting to us to just drink it,” laughs Carbone. “But it’s neat to take that level of craft and then do something with it. So there’s that community connection of two craftspeople.”
In some cases, Carbone works with the building blocks of beer to explore the flavors she can get from hops, malts, and wort (the malty, sweet liquid that will become beer). In other cases, she uses the actual beer (with the alcohol cooked out), picking up on the flavors that the brewer developed and finding ways to accentuate them.
Her long friendship with Tom Stevenson, the former head brewer at Triumph, gave her a collaborator in one of her most interesting flavor explorations — aromatic woods. “I had been wanting to make Christmas tree ice cream because an important part of my family growing up was smelling that Balsam fir,” Carbone says. “I wanted to meet my own expectation of what it was like at my house on Christmas Eve when my dad would cut off the base of the tree and the whole thing smelled like Christmas.”
Using needles from a Norwegian spruce that fell during Hurricane Sandy, Carbone made spruce ice cream. She followed that with an ice cream flavored with spruce wood, which launched her into what she jokingly calls her wood period — one in a series of deep flavor explorations into ingredients that include mustard and pulverized citrus peel. Stevenson, having himself experimented with spruce and other woods, supplied Carbone with additional options, including palo santo — a fragrant tropical wood used by craft brewers — and Douglas Fir. By the end of her exploration, Carbone had surpassed her goal of finding four woods with distinctly different flavors to infuse into ice creams and house-made marshmallows. Palo santo and spruce remain staples in her flavor repertoire.
It is important to Carbone and Ericco that they have a connection to the source of their flavoring ingredients. Carbone has been experimenting with using distillation to extract flavor. She ends up with an extract that she could likely have purchased but, for her, the difference is that she has a direct relationship with her raw materials.
“I know if I were to make an oil out of spruce tips, I’d get the spruce tips from Cherry Grove Farm, so I know where it’s coming from,” Carbone says. “I need to have the real connection to the actual food — that’s the difference for me.”
The Bent Spoon’s wildly popular Peppermint Schtick (candy cane) ice cream is an example of how far the partners go to connect to their ingredients and create quality. The first year they offered it, they couldn’t find candy canes with natural colors. So, in spite of the busy holiday season, they made their own — offering some for sale and using the rest in the ice cream. The following year, they started making the candy in sheets and chopping it up. Year after year they play with improving the color and texture in an ongoing pursuit of the perfect taste and hue.
The long lines at the Bent Spoon door make it clear that their customers taste and appreciate their relentless and inspired pursuit of flavor. “We’ve focused a lot of time and energy on continually improving our product,” Errico says. “This comes in the form of improving production efficiency but also quality.”
Carbone agrees. “Any flavor — I’m always thinking, how can it be better?”
With 13 years of experience to reflect on, Carbone and Errico are excited about the future and tight-lipped about their plans — which include a newly created device that Carbone hopes will allow her to extract a new range of flavors from local ingredients. “We’ve got many irons in the fire with projects that we’re investigating and planning,” Errico says. “Doing what feels right and being sure the quality and standards we’ve set for ourselves can be upheld is of utmost importance.”
Whatever the plans, maintaining a sense and flavor of place will always define Bent Spoon. “If there’s ever a Bent Spoon Alaska, a Bent Spoon Vermont, even Bent Spoon Jersey Shore, it would be different,” Carbone says. “The water and the places that we draw from would be different. Maybe a few things would be the same, but it would hopefully have the embodiment of that place.”
The Bent Spoon, 35 Palmer Square West, 609-924-2368. www.thebentspoon.net. (Cash or check only, no credit cards.)
Matt & Gab’s top 10 flavors
- Witherspoon Concord Grape: made from the hidden 50-year-old grapevine that we picked ourselves.
- Rye Whiskey Caramel: made with Dad’s Hat Rye from Pennsylvania and spoon-made sea salt caramel.
- New Jersey Basil: perfect in its simplicity because of Jersey’s finest herb.
Local Nectarine Sorbet: our favorite sorbet.
- Peppermint Schtick: made with organic peppermint and spoon-made naturally colored candy canes.
- Oyster: made with organic meyer lemon and Cape May oysters.
- Norwegian Spruce: made with spruce needles from Cherry Grove Farm.
- Fresh Ricotta: with New Jersey ricotta.
- Lavender Mascarpone: with Pennsylvania lavender.
- Old Bay Sweet Corn: with New Jersey’s finest sweet corn with Old Bay seasoning
The article above was adapted and updated by Fran McManus from an article she wrote for Edible Jersey in 2014.