There is a French bakery across the street from my office.
Six mornings a week a Frenchman named Janusz bakes fresh croissants and pastries. He also makes a mean omelet (anytime you have the opportunity to have a French chef make an omelet for you, take it). The C’est la Vie bakery seats approximately 12 people.
I pop in a couple of mornings a week to grab a croissant and maybe a couple of scrambled eggs (anytime you have the opportunity to have a French chef scramble eggs for you, take it). All of the regular morning crew is in there. As with most breakfast places, people become culinary creatures of habit.
There are always two tables of men who show up every morning. They talk politics and current events. Couples seem to frequent the place on a weekly basis. There are usually one or two academicians from the university— professorial types— who work on laptops and drink coffee. This is the daily routine, along with a steady stream of people in line at the counter ordering carryout pastries on their way to work (anytime you have the opportunity to have a French pastry chef bake croissants for you, take it).
A few weeks ago a local banker, I will call him Dave, was there early on a Saturday morning. He looked anxious. He kept looking out the window and appeared to be fidgeting. This made me a little nervous. As I watched him out of the corner of my eye I wondered what kind of clandestine meeting was about to occur. He wasn’t eating and he wasn’t drinking coffee and he had a suspicious look on his face. Some type of unlawful business was about to go down and he looked as guilty as OJ in the back seat of a Bronco.
After a few minutes a local physician, I will call him Steve, walked in. He surveyed the tiny space until he made eye contact with Dave. Steve looked anxious, too. Something serious is about to go down here, I thought. What type of nefarious business could make these guys act so suspicious?
Steve walked over and whispered something to Dave. They nodded in unison. Each was wearing a mischievous grin. What could it be? Drugs? Black-market children? Organ harvest? I had no clue, but they were up to something.
I put on my amateur detective’s cap as they took a table in the corner. It looked as if they were devising a strategy. What could a banker and a doctor be scheming this early on a Saturday morning? Before I could flesh out my initial hypothesis they were getting up to leave. I was about to miss my chance to solve this mystery. They were probably on their way to some “drop-off point” and I was going to be left wondering what they were up to for the rest of the day. As they wound through the small seating area I summoned my best Hercule Poirot and asked, “Where are you guys going?”
“Just up the road to Laurel,” they replied. So the deal is going down in Laurel, I thought. I had to give them credit. It was probably a smart move to never handle felonious transactions in your own hometown, but rather in a smaller, neighboring town.
“What could be going on in Laurel at 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning?” I pressed. They could probably feel the noose tightening.
“Ice cream,” Dave the banker replied as he passed my table.
Summoning my inner Columbo, I asked, “What type of ice cream?”
“Graeter’s,” he replied.
Graeter’s must be some type of code word. I had never heard of it. “What’s Graeter’s?” I asked.
“It’s the best ice cream on the planet and there’s only one grocery store in this area that carries it,” the banker replied. Before I could press any further, they were out the door. The mystery was unsolved, but the case wasn’t closed.
This past Saturday the same clandestine meeting, with the same two suspicious characters, happened again.
This time I pressed, “So I guess you two are about to get more ice cream?”
“We are,” the doctor replied. “Do you want some?” The question took me by surprise. Maybe this was legit. Maybe there is an ice cream that is so good that two busy, professional men will take an hour out of their Saturday morning to drive to another town to purchase it.
“Sure,” I replied, only half expecting to get anything in return.
An hour later the banker and doctor pulled up in my driveway and handed over a Kroger bag filled with bootleg ice cream from the Free State of Jones. There were no DEA agents in sight, No revenuers in pursuit, and no sheriff’s deputies hiding in the bushes, just a bag filled with Graeter’s black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream, which, as it turns out, is— in a word— sinful.
So as we close the case of the suspicious professionals what have we learned? Anytime you have the opportunity to have a banker and doctor drive 60 miles to purchase ice cream for you, take it.
Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
5 cups heavy cream
2 1/2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 vanilla bean
12 large egg yolks
To make the vanilla ice cream: Combine the cream, milk, salt, and 3/4 cup of the sugar in a large pot. Split the vanilla bean down the middle lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with a paring knife; add them to the pot and toss in the pods for added flavor. Place the cream mixture over medium heat, and bring up to a simmer; stirring with a wooden spoon to dissolve the sugar. Cook for about 15 minutes, being careful that the mixture does not boil, simmer or scald. Shut off the heat, cover the pot, and allow the cream mixture to steep for 15 minutes to further infuse the vanilla flavor.
In the meantime, combine the egg yolks in a large mixing bowl and blend them lightly with a wire whisk. Gradually add the remaining 3/4 cup of sugar and continue to whisk until the sugar is completely dissolved and the eggs are thick and pale yellow; about 6 minutes.
Using a large ladle or measuring cup, temper the eggs by gradually whisking in about 2 cups of the hot cream mixture. Return this back to the rest of the cream in the saucepan and turn the heat to medium-low. Stir constantly until the custard thickens and leaves a path on the back of a spoon when you run your finger across it, about 10 to 12 minutes (do not let boil.)
Pour the vanilla custard through a fine strainer into a mixing bowl and place it over an ice bath and chill completely. Stir the mixture while it is cooling. For best flavor results, store the ice cream base covered over night in the refrigerator. Following the manufacturer’s instructions of your ice cream maker, freeze the ice cream. Transfer to airtight containers and freeze until needed.
Yield: 1/2 gallon