One of the most stunningly eye-catching and vibrantly colored pints I’ve ever had the pleasure of scooping arrives in honor of Netflix’s dazzling and most streamed show ever, Squid Game. Part of the very limited 2021 Gone Viral Pack, Salt & Straw’s Calamari Contest combines teal and pink tracksuit ice cream with bone marrow fudge and dalgona honeycomb.
Conceptually this pint is immaculate, one of the coolest, deepest, and most thought-out ice cream’s I have ever seen. Taste-wise, it really is a tale of two halves. The teal ice cream has an amazing almond flavor that I don’t think I’ve ever tasted from S&S before. It’s smooth, creamy and perfectly sweet without being over the top. The pink ice cream tastes like…nothing? Okay, not nothing but it’s devoid of any of the signature salty or floral notes that define a lot of Tyler’s fantastic bases. It might be as close to a standard sweet cream as I’ve had from him; which next to the brilliant almond, doesn’t taste like much.
It’s also kind of odd — the two bases temper entirely differently. I always give my pints a proper 10+ minutes at room temperature before shooting and scooping and with this one the teal got perfectly tempered, edging towards too soft, while the pink remained hard and kind of stiff. I can’t think of too many times where S&S went with a dual base and this might be why.
The mix-ins are also totally split down the middle — literally and figuratively. The Dalgona honeycomb chunks are absolutely incredible, and exclusively on the teal side. They have an extraordinarily gentle and sophisticated crunch with airy pockets of sugary splendor that dissolve as soon as I sink my teeth in. It’s miraculous how perfect they are and how fragile they feel — quintessential Salt & Straw magic. The high concept is once again on full display, as Dalgona candy plays a pivotal role in one Squid Game’s challenges, and suddenly it feels as though I’m eating an episode.
The bone marrow fudge coexists with the pink side and is much more of a ganache than a fudge. It’s thick, dense, and hard, with an even firmer texture than the usual fantastic S&S salted ganache. Unlike the ganache, this has very little sweetness and actually leans towards savory as opposed to bittersweet. Something about the bone marrow adds a note of meatiness and I don’t really like where it takes the profile. The savoriness combined with the beautiful-looking but bland-tasting base makes the pink half of the pint more experimental but unfortunately far less enticing than the teal.
This is a tough one to grade. The concept and vision are a 10/10, the teal side is a 9/10, and the pink side is a 4/10, which leaves me with a 23/30, so let’s call it a 7/10 — a rating that could be higher for you depending on how savory your like your ice cream, it’s just not my style!
HUGE thanks to Salt & Straw for sending this pack my way to try — an amazing way to start the new year.
Over the last five years of being a professional (…right?) junk food reviewer the biggest thorn in my side has been the lack of a Walmart within 50 miles of where I live. San Francisco says a big “NOPE” to the big box store that notoriously pays its employees low wages, and generally, I’m okay with not supporting the chain; but it gets some exclusive products that I MUST try or I will disintegrate. My heart broke into 10,000 pieces when I found out the new Little Debbie Christmas Tree Cakes ice cream was only at Walmart, but thanks to a perfectly timed dog sitting weekend I was able to spend a night in a city with a Walmart and get this limited time Christmas pint.
The ice cream features a vanilla base with pound cake pieces, red frosting swirl, and green sprinkles. LD’s Christmas Tree Cakes are among their finest products, and this ice cream does a really good job of paying homage to the cheap and comforting treat. The pint is 700 calories and I took it home for $2.49, so I knew what I was getting myself into, and with appropriate expectations I really enjoyed it.
The base is light and overrun as all hell, but in this context it works well. It has a mellow vanilla flavor and smooth almost fluffy texture akin to Cool Whip, but it’s not gummy or unpleasant like some cheaper (Breyers) ice creams. There’s quite a bit of frosting that not only looks cool and seasonally sound but adds a nice sweetness and syrupy texture that I love.
The cake pieces, although small, do their job in bringing some dense chew and slightly buttery flavor to the the pint. They’re a little firmer than the Tree Cakes themselves but not in a way that’s off putting. As much as the other two components work, the element that really brings the cake-turned-scoop experience to another level are the green sprinkles. They’re just like the ones that sparkle on top of Debbie’s Trees and add the perfect sugar crystal crunch to almost every bite — so simple and so incredibly effective.
This is a low calorie and low price tag ice cream that looks and feels like the holiday spirit without any of the more expected flavors like mint, gingerbread, or egg nog. It’s a fun switch up, essentially a light birthday cake ice cream with really endearing packaging, and I wish I could scoop it again, but I won’t lose any sleep over its exclusivity.
The first Ben & Jerry’s Limited Batch of 2021 was a helluva challenge to find, and it’s less of a newbie and more of a remix. Totally Unbaked is a reimagined take on Half Baked, combining chocolate and vanilla ice creams with brownie batter swirls and gobs of chocolate chip cookie dough. As a fan of OG Half Baked this pint only really has to answer one question: is it an improvement? The answer, sadly, is no.
The new addition to the mix, the brownie batter swirl, is FANTASTIC. It’s rich and thick and sticks to the spoon like proper batter, although it’s missing the grittiness I expected, (not an issue) and has more of a smooth consistency like fudge. B&J’s ability to nail a rich heavy swirl is what makes Peanut Butter Fudge Core one of my favorites from them and in Totally Unbaked that rich thickness is absolutely the star of the show.
It makes the whole pint more chocolate forward than its predecessor and while the base distribution is still fairly equal, most of the more subtle vanilla flavor gets washed away from the intensity of the chocolate ice cream and swirl tandem. I have no issue with the level of chocolate, and I guess what I want is MORE chocolate because this pint DESPERATELY misses the brownies. B&J do brownies so well that their absence here is notable. Despite how good the batter is I still want the brownie’s dense chew to go with it; that would be a sweet combo.
What makes me REALLY miss the brownies is the cookie dough execution. I’m not sure if this was just a quality control issue but all of the dough pieces are hard on the outside, which is not what I’ve come to expect from my boys Ben and Jerry. It feels like the dough was about to be baked, popped in the oven for 45 seconds, and then *SIKE* pulled out and plopped into ice cream. It’s very odd, and not appealing in the slightest.
If Half Baked is your favorite Ben & Jerry’s staple (what’s wrong with you – it’s Phish Food, baby!) then this one is probably worth a shot as there’s a good chance your dough won’t be weirdly hard. If you’re looking for something complex and unique and tantalizing you’re better off skipping it, even though the brownie batter swirl is *chefs kiss* perfection.
When I read that Salt & Straw collaborated with R.L. Stine to create a Goosebumps ice cream the 90s kid inside of me animorphed into a baby tazmanian devil and started space jamming my head into the wall with excitement. Okay…maybe that’s a bit much, but I was STOKED, and even more stoked when I saw the scoop shot covered in green goo that instantly conjured up memories of the book series’ dripping logo. I could even hear the menacing sleuth-like synth notes and crawling piano line from the 1995 TV show’s theme song; good memories. Created in conjunction with the latest book in the SLAPPYWORLD series, Monster Blood is Back!, the ice cream of the same name combines a salted mango ice cream with streaks of fruit punch flavored “monster goo”, and strawberry bark fangs.
Popping off the lid this pint instantly looks the part, with a deep pool of green goo staring me in the face, and it’s beautiful. The salted mango base was a smart choice, bringing a strong fruity flavor without being too sweet, as often mango ice creams can be. It’s an authentic taste with notable creaminess that feels fresh and expertly balanced, as Tyler and the team at S&S have a tendency to do with their namesake: salt.
It’s wonderful that the base is slightly salted because the goo is SWEET. Super sugary and thick with amazing viscosity that clings to the spoon as I scoop. Fruit punch is a pretty accurate description as it’s no doubt fruity but there aren’t any distinct, or real, dominant fruity notes. Definitely some citrus (I get more orange than anything), mixed with some tropical pineapple flair followed by boatloads of sugar. It reminds me of something that I would squeeze out of a tube straight into my mouth in 1997, and for this chilling creation that’s pretty much flawless. When the goo combines with the base they compliment each other in a very refreshing and summery way, and for how off-the-wall this ice cream looks, it tastes really natural and bright.
The strawberry bark fangs are the least notable part of this pint but they play a very important role: texture. The flavor is much more white chocolate than it is strawberry, and their gentle chew reminds me of softened chocolate chunks, not quite as soft as ganache, but not super crunchy either. It’s ideal that the flavor is subtle because the base and swirl have so much character there’s potential to clash. When I isolate a fang away from the other components I get a slight tart strawberry flavor and it’s nice. The fangs are studded with Pop Rocks for the occasional burst of extra explosive mouth fireworks, and while not as wild as in S&S’s Pirates of the Caribbean ice cream, it’s still a playful and satisfying touch.
Eating this ice cream is FUN. It pulls at the nostalgia strings while simultaneously pushing the creativity forward, presenting something legitimately scoop-able and worthy of a visit to your local Salt & Straw, or delivered to your front door via their website. As a big fan of both the Goosebumps franchise and crazy craft ice cream, my only complaint is that this didn’t come in a limited edition pint container adorned with 90s-era Goosebumps artwork that I could add to my ice cream shelf…but I’ll let that slide for the sake of this supernatural success.
Every year Ben & Jerry’s seems to come up with a new theme. Better yet, a new scheme, to get people like myself to seek out and try 5+ new flavors of tantalizing ice cream at the same time. In 2014 it was Cores, followed by Cookie Cores in 2015, in 2018 it was Truffles, and then to Cookie Dough Cores in 2019…you get the point. For 2021 Ben & Jerry’s said screw shoving stuff INSIDE, we’re going to put the goods on TOP; and thus, the Topped line was born. Each of these 7 pints are topped with either a regular or white chocolate ganache and some sort of chunk or cup mix-in, followed by regular B&J mix-ins and swirls.
This lineup delivers a pretty impressive array of flavors with a little something for everyone. The effectiveness comes down to, as it often does, the quality control of the pints. I had some that were PACKED with mix-ins and others that were missing key components to bring it all together; but fortunately there were no outright flops. So let’s get into it, here are all seven of Ben & Jerry’s Topped flavors ranked and reviewed:
Brown Butter Bourbon Ice Cream with Blonde Brownies & Whiskey Caramel Swirls Topped with White Chocolatey Ganache & White Fudge Chunks
This is a super unique and very well-executed flavor that, unlike 2017’s Urban Bourbon, nails the balance of boozy and sweet in a very harmonious and enjoyable way. The brown butter bourbon base is creamy and mildly boozy, with a much more significant oaky eruption coming from the whiskey caramel swirl. The two play off of each other well, resulting in a sturdy but not off-putting amount of whiskey presence.
Blondies are one of my favorite rare B&J’s mix-ins, and their appearance is one of the reasons I still go back to Salted Caramel Core a couple of times a year. They’re dense and gently chewy with a nice buttery brown sugar flavor that compliments the alcohol notes swimmingly. The finishing touch on this pint is the white chocolate ganache, which is a bit harder and thicker than I wanted and experienced in other Topped pints, but maybe I was just being impatient. The ganache isn’t as necessary here as it is in some of the others, but I have no problem at all with it being here: this one is a winner.
Mascarpone Ice Cream with Fudge Swirls & Shortbread Pieces Topped with Espresso Fudge Chunks & Chocolatey Ganache
Coming from someone’s who favorite Italian dessert is Tiramisu, this ice cream came together even better than I expected. It’s not a perfect replication of the light and airy espresso-kissed cake but it conjures the right feeling and level of satisfaction I get when enjoying a proper slice. The mascarpone base is excellent, with a slight tang and sturdy density that reminds me a bit of cake batter and forms a solid foundation for the swirls of fudge that bring added sweetness with a touch of bitterness to scoop. The coffee flavor is mild here and I’m okay with that. The espresso fudge chunks slide their way into every other bite with a nice chomp that provides more of an aromatic flourish than it does an aggressive espresso push, and it’s just the right amount for someone that loves coffee but prefers his desserts to be sweet (me). If you get a chip in isolation it tastes spot on like an extra thin chocolate covered espresso bean…delicious.
Despite all of the other solid components, the real star of the show here are the shortbread pieces, which come impressively packed into the pint and have a soft chew and beautiful vanilla flavor that hits much closer to cake than shortbread, which is perfect for a tiramisu experience. And oh yeah, there’s a layer of ganache on top too, this pint rules. Somehow when all the components come together it reminds me of a coffee-kissed yellow cake with chocolate frosting. Is it my birthday? Cause it hella feels like it!
Salted Caramel Brownie
Vanilla Ice Cream with Salted Caramel Swirls ＆ Fudge Brownies Topped with Caramel Cups ＆ Chocolatey Ganache
There’s something about a brownie sundae that just really gets me in my feelings, and this pint does a helluva job replicating that experience. The vanilla ice cream is pure and creamy with ample salty swirls that keep the base from being too repetitive or boring. The ganache on top is soft and smooth with a gentle crunch and mouthfeel that does well to mimic the ribbons of fudge I like my brownie sundaes smothered in.
And the brownies – the brownies – one of B&J’s strongest mix-ins, come in spoonfuls-a-plenty with their soft chew and sweet cocoa flair to really bring this flavor home. Sometimes the wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented, it just has to be executed with finesse, and this new scoop simply smacks.
Mint Ice Cream with Chocolate Cookie Swirls & Mint Chocolate Cookie Balls Topped with Chocolate Cookies & Chocolatey Ganache
This pint is easily better than the year round available Mint Chocolate Cookie and is on par with the wonderful winter seasonal scoop Minter Wonderland, although it is very different. Thick Mint is a textural paradise full of crunchy cookies and chocolate that is just downright fun to eat. Ben and Jerry are definitely coming for the Girl Scout’s with this flavor and absolutely succeed in replicating one of the organization’s shining cookie accomplishments.
The cookie balls are the real star of the show and do a great job of elevating the mint flavor in the relatively mild mint base. When you get a bite with balls and ganache the variance in all the chompiness is awesome and absolutely worth picking up if you’re a fan of the chocolate mint tandem.
Chocolate Caramel Cookie Dough
Chocolate Ice Cream with Caramel Swirls & Gobs of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Topped with Caramel Cups & Chocolatey Ganache
These caramel cups SMACK! They have way more caramely-impact than their peanut butter counterpart and bring a seriously sweet burst of character that this pint desperately needs. I didn’t notice the caramel cups as much in Salted Caramel Brownie, but maybe that’s because that experience was simply stronger than this one. I got a pretty decent amount of B&J’s classic cookie dough but not as much caramel swirl as I would like. The cookie dough doesn’t pop as hard here as it does when vanilla is present like in Half Baked, and without the more glaring contrast from the base it isn’t as compelling of a mix-in.
There’s actually so much heavy chocolate that the cookie dough can’t really be tasted as much as felt, and more caramel cups would have helped break up the overlap. As I ate this I couldn’t stop thinking about how important the marshmallow swirl is to Phish Food, because this pint shouldn’t be too far off from that, but it doesn’t hold a candle to my precious Phishies.
Strawberry Topped Tart
Sweet Cream Ice Cream with Strawberry Swirls & Pie Crust Pieces Topped with White Chocolatey Ganache & Candy Sprinkles
Strawberry is pretty under-represented in the Ben & Jerry’s catalog, and while it isn’t my favorite I’m always down for a nice bright berry scoop. Unfortunately this pint is severely lacking in what I came to it for: strawberry! I like the sweet cream base, it’s mild and creamy, and the pie crust was very abundant with a nice chew perfectly reminiscent of something straight from a metal tin. But the strawberry swirls were so few and far in between I was really missing the sweet acidity to tie the experience together.
While the swirl from the pint’s namesake really left something to be desired, I really liked the combination of the white ganache and candy sprinkles. The medley of crunchy and creamy is pure sugary bliss that I would have welcomed another layer of. I can see some serious potential with this one if it packed more of a berry punch but as it is I wouldn’t return to this one again.
PB Over the Top
Chocolate Ice Cream with Peanut Butter Swirls & Peanut Butter Cups Topped with Mini Peanut Butter Cups & Chocolatey Ganache
Peanut butter and chocolate is one of the greatest combinations of all time, and sadly this is not a good representation of that amazing combo. As much as I love PB and chocolate, this interpretation comes across as extremely one-noted, in particular the way the swirl blends in with the base to give no textural contrast or fatty mouthfeel is pretty disappointing.
The Topped line is fun because there are so many different components in the mix, but here they overlap in a way that just becomes redundant without the intensity. Change the swirl or change the base and this could be fun but as it stands it really just tastes like chocolate ice cream with small PB cups mixed in that never have enough peanut butter inside. This flavor is far from inedible but I’ll stick with PB World when I need a B&J’s PB fix!
Bay Area I’ve gotta let you in on a little secret – there’s some cool underground ice cream shit happening in Oakland. Bad Walter’s Bootleg Ice Cream began as a quarantine hobby for owner Sydney in the spring of 2020, and has snowballed into churning out weekly limited pints since October. From what I’ve been able to sample, I’m impressed. Bad Walter’s makes super premium custard bases that are, wait for it…lactose free! I know, I’ve never had anything like it either.
Last week’s limited run flavor was “46”, inspired by today’s inauguration. It features a brown sugar ice cream with chocolate dipped Ruffles and a peanut butter swirl. Y’all know how I love my sweet and salty so I HAD to taste this.
Truthfully, this was the most impressive and authentic brown sugar base I’ve ever had. It’s incredibly smooth with a decadent mouthfeel, but what really took me by surprise was the depth of the brown sugar flavor. Initially it reminded me of an epic brown sugar cereal milk, but the more it stacked the richer the flavor became. By the end it reminded me of the filling in a See’s Bordeaux truffle, which is one of my favorite chocolate’s of all time. Less-typical bases, like brown sugar, tend to fade away after the initial bites, but this one never let go.
Bad Walter’s peanut butter swirl is exactly how I like my peanut butter swirls — more salty than sweet with a slick fatty texture but thin enough to actually temper with the ice cream. Just as satisfying as sticking your spoon in the jar! My only issue with it is I wish there was more. The top superficial layer of the pint had the swirl’s best showing, and while the swirl never entirely vanished I would have loved a couple more epic spoonfuls to allow the saltiness to play off of the stunning sweet base.
Similarly, the chocolate dipped Ruffles were executed very well – nice and crunchy with a salty potato taste highlighted by just a touch of bittersweet chocolate. Once again, perfect execution, just lacking a bit on the actual quantities to make this pint something undeniably out of this world. I was reminded of this same mix-in being used in one of my favorite ice cream’s of all time, Salt & Straw’s Chocolate Caramel Potato Chip Cupcake, and how if I got some chunks akin to the boulders found in those pints I would have been in sweet and salty heaven.
Despite the slightly underwhelming density of the mix-ins, which is largely a preference thing, I really loved this ice cream, and I love the entrepreneur spirit of Sydney and her ice cream company named after her pesky pup. If you’re interested in grabbing a pint of what she comes up with next make sure to follow Bad Walter’s on Instagram and place your order on Sunday night for pickup the following weekend. And fair warning: it sells out quick!
The fourth and final pint from Ben & Jerry’s and Netflix snuck itself into the indulgent holiday season with the least indulgent profile of any in the collaboration; but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, I think it’s pretty refreshing. Punch Line combines a comedic duo of brown butter bourbon and almond ice creams with roasted almonds and chuckles of cherries.
I’ve always been skeptical of the effectiveness of dual bases, and fortunately here it works, since one does almost all of the heavy lifting. Almond is the most pronounced flavor, one of my favorite flavors that’s terribly underutilized in ice cream, and I really like this take on it. The brown butter bourbon is extremely mild, with virtually no booziness and just a hint of burnt buttery flavor, that again, sits in the background while the almond kingpin calls the shots.
The almonds are nice and toothy with a pleasant mildly roasted flavor that pumps up the volume on the excellent floral and nutty taste in the base. They don’t bring a ton of flavor but their texture is crucial in keeping each bite interesting. The cherries are perfectly sweet and juicy with no iciness and virtually no tartness. They’re naturally sugary and work wonderfully in tandem with the almonds to bring two contrasting textures. I’m honestly surprised by how much I like this pint!
While Punch Line may not be the most inventive of the Netflix collabs, I actually enjoy it more than the bloated-and-confused-doing-way-too-much Boots on the Moooo’n and just as much as the also simple and excellently executed Chip Happens. Punch Line is like an alternate universe spumoni without the chocolate, and much like this whole line has been to 2020, it’s a surprisingly fun way to end the year.
Salt & Straw are a pretty amazing company. If you weren’t aware, every time they open in a new city that city gets a menu that includes some S&S classics as well as some city-specific exclusives that you can’t get anywhere else. When they expanded to San Francisco last year they made some amazing flavors, including Roasted Strawberry Tres Leches and Salted Honey Marshmallows & Walnuts (RIP), but sometimes even great new things need to be revised. To kick off National Ice Cream Month, Salt & Straw added a handful of new SF-only flavors to their menu, including the tantalizing-sounding vegan friendly Dandelion Chocolate Hazelnut Cookies and Cream – a dark chocolate ice cream made with coconut and hazelnut milk with stacciatella ribbons of Dandelion chocolate and chunks of homemade gluten free vegan oreos.
I could go on and on about how much I love Salt & Straw’s Chocolate Caramel Potato Chip Cupcake. I’ve made it my mission this year to get everyone I possibly can to hear me out and try it. CCPCC is the fine craft of ice cream perfected to such a degree that I hope it comes back every March, or in my dreams, permanently. Another of this months voted back offerings, Meyer Lemon Meringue Pie, is no slouch either, but there’s a sneaky good flavor lingering beneath the glitz and glam that really deserves your attention too. Sweet Corn & Waffle Cones combines a sweet corn ice cream with chocolate covered waffle cones, freckles of salted brown butter, and ribbons of rich vanilla caramel.
As a bonafide ice cream lover I don’t pay too much attention to Dreyer’s. I’ve had my fair share of their products over the span of my life, but the end result is usually pretty lackluster, like last years Pumpkin Spice Latte, so I don’t feel a need to seek out their newest releases. That being said, sometimes packaging can jump out at me so convincingly as I slowly peruse the frozen aisle that I can’t help but stop; as was the case with the recently re-branded Kit Kat ice cream. In 2016 Dreyer’s released a line of candy bar themed cream’s including 100 Grand, Baby Ruth, and, you guessed it, Kit Kat. They’ve changed the packaging to more closely mimic the wrapper of a candy bar, and although the container doesn’t explicitly state this, they also changed the base from their normal higher fat Grand style to the lighter variety usually reserved for Slow Churned. The new Kit Kat ice cream combines chocolate light ice cream with a wafer swirl and pieces of Kit Kat candy.