Italy may have invented gelato, but Israelis have gotten pretty good at making their own ice cream.

You might say it’s due to the hot weather we experience here about eight months out of the year or the blank canvas of ice cream that encourages innovation, but we’ve got it bad for ice cream.

July 19 is National Ice Cream Day in the United States, and we suggest you celebrate it in Israeli style wherever you may be.

We started out as a country of a few large chain glidarias (“gleeda” means ice cream in Hebrew), with cases full of gelato-style offerings set out in metal pans and studded with toppings that allude to what’s underneath.

We have grown into lovers of small-batch seasonal ice creams from boutique shops. Popular flavors include Ferrero Rocher, cheesecake with forest berries, and lemon-mint or passionfruit sorbet.

Today the trend of boutique glidarias is in full swing. In Haifa alone, where I lived for 10-plus years, there are two ice cream shops that sell the handcrafted ice creams that pull at my heart strings.

One, called Eissalon, honors a lesser-known German heritage of ice cream making that makes people wait in line for the doors to open. Bordering the Carmel forest at the top of the city, they make flavors like German Lager, and Labane and Zaatar (you can find my version of this ice cream below).

Eissalon Ice Cream Parlor in Haifa. Photo by Sion Liani

The other one, Delicato, borders the Mediterranean Sea in Haifa’s Castra Center. This small Italian-immigrant run operation sells flavors like the very Italian orange, olive oil and salt; and mozzarella and basil; but also sweet challah, and watermelon-feta — a tribute to the Israeli summer.

These shops, like many others, flex their creative muscles on a daily basis, with a constantly changing rotation of ice cream flavors.

Vegan ice creams no doubt started in Tel Aviv, but these milk-less wonders have quickly spread to the smallest of towns as demand grows for dairy-free options that differ from the typical (although no less amazing) fresh fruit sorbets.

Then there’s the Israeli frozen yogurt I remember getting on a night out on the town as a teenager studying abroad in Jerusalem. Made from a frozen bar of tangy full-fat yogurt, they are whipped up with toppings like bits of halva, candied pecans, fresh fruit and Mikupelet (flaked chocolate) candy bars.It is a celebration of Israel’s tradition of producing and enjoying rich milk products, in a uniquely different way.

There was a time in the not too distant past when black charcoal ice cream was all the rage in Tel Aviv, but these days there’s something else on the menu.

Anita Gelato, a Tel Aviv institution famous for interesting flavors ranging from cherry tomato to pavlova, is now promoting a new line of protein-rich options that seem much more practical given these uncertain times.

Photo from Anita Gelato by Afik Gabay via Haifa Street Food Tours

And with lockdowns and restrictions, glidarias have had to get creative with their business plans, delivering a rainbow of flavors of your choosing in Styrofoam cases, delivered directly to your house, like the one I received on Passover eve from nearby chain Golda Flavor Boutique as a holiday present from my sister in law.

Salted cashew cream frozen dessert from Golda Flavor Boutique. Photo by Afik Gabay via Haifa Street Food Tours

And in today’s social media-dominated world, not even ice cream is safe from politics. You can witness this on the Instagram account of the famous Jewish and Arab-run ice cream shop Buza in Maaolot Tarshiha in the Western Galilee. They expressed their support for the Al-Arz tahini brand, which recently stood up to support LBTGQ rights in the Arab-Israeli community.

Having been around since 2012, Buza is now offering options including a special ice cream truck for small events, delivery service and pick-up.

In case you are strapped for cash, as many of us currently are, here’s a good recipe for you to make at home.

If you don’t have an ice cream machine, try my pomegranate-mint sorbet, which is out-of-this-world good, and very refreshing on a hot evening. That recipe will appear in a future video of the Israel21c food series, Tayim.

Pomegranate-mint sorbet. Photo by Jessica Halfin

Labane and Zaatar Ice Cream

2 cups full-fat milk

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup full-fat sheep’s milk or cow’s milk yogurt

2/3 cup sugar

2 tablespoons honey

Pinch (1/8 teaspoon) salt

5 large egg yolks

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Few drops almond extract

1 tablespoon coffee liqueur, optional (this adds to the warm vanilla flavor)

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1 tablespoon dried zaatar spice mix

2/3 teaspoon salt (check first to make sure your spice mix doesn’t already contain salt)

2 teaspoons olive oil

Jessica Halfin’s homemade labane-zaatar ice cream in a cone. Photo: courtesy

Instructions:

  1. Freeze your ice cream bowl according to manufacturer instructions.
  2. To make the ice cream base: In a medium sized pot over medium heat, bring cream, milk, sugar, honey and salt to a light simmer.
  3. Meanwhile, separate eggs. Place yolks in a medium sized bowl, and reserve egg whites for future use.
  4. Slowly ladle add about ½ cup of the hot milk mixture to the yolks while whisking with the other hand.
  5. Whisk the warmed yolks mixture into the hot milk mixture.
  6. Continue to cook the mixture until it thickens enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, 3-5 minutes.
  7. Strain the hot mixture through a fine mesh strainer over a large bowl. Blend with an immersion blender to get an extra smooth texture.
  8. Let cool to room temperature, then cover and chill overnight.
  9. The next day, remove your ice cream bowl from the freezer and set it up as necessary. Start your ice cream machine and only then pour in the ice cream base. Let ice cream spin on medium speed for 30 minutes.
  10. At this point your ice cream should be the consistency of soft serve. Transfer to an airtight container, and fold in the zaatar, salt and olive oil using a silicon spatula.
  11. Place the mixture in your freezer until firm (4-6 hours).