My unhealthy obsession with Scream Sorbet began at the Grand Lake Farmers’ Market in Oakland, where after a run around Lake Merritt in late 2010, I rewarded myself with a scoop of Nathan Kurz’s pistachio sorbet. While I’m a fan of ice cream and pistachios separately, pistachio ice cream is far from my favorite, but Kurz’s scoop offered something different: all the creaminess of regular ice cream and all the flavor of pistachio undiluted by cream. The creaminess came from the fat in pistachio, which made it unlike the fruit-based sorbets I’d tried in the past. It was delicious, and the ingredients on a jar looked ridiculously simple: pistachios, water, sugar, and salt.
When Scream Sorbet opened a store front in the Temescal a few months later, I looked for any excuse to go, evangelizing it to friends and visitors alike. Like a Teddy Ruxpin that had just been turned on, my eyes would open wide as I described the magic of nut-based sorbets and attempted to win over converts. I would even share an article in the New York Times about Scream to entice skeptics to give it a try.
I wasn’t expecting such an abrupt end when Scream closed its doors in 2013, and despite a one-off pop-up at Bittersweet Cafe a few months later, the sorbet never found a home elsewhere or returned to farmers’ markets. It was reduced to just a memory. While nut-based sorbets found their way to grocery stores, I never found a pistachio sorbet that matched the taste of Scream’s.
On the face of it, it felt like it should be relatively simple to make. I had access to its four ingredients, and the Times article went into some detail about getting the proportions of fat to sugar to solid to liquid correct, as well as the type of blender Kurz used in his process, but without the numbers. The question was what those proportions were, so I searched online. It turned out that Kurz had shared his pistachio sorbet recipe, so I set out to revive the sorbet as a dessert following Thanksgiving dinner.
I was at my cousin’s for Thanksgiving, whose husband incidentally had first shown me the Times article. He became my partner in crime, and we combined the ingredients using a blender that featured none of the bells and whistles of a Pacojet or a Vitamix. I tried a spoonful of the blend, and the flavor that I thought was lost to history was in the spoon. I gave a sample to my cousin-in-law, whose eyes lit up like Teddy Ruxpin.
Suffice it to say that the pistachio sorbet was a hit, and we wanted to try it again the next day. We were out of pistachios, but my cousin had walnuts at home, which contain a greater percentage of fat than pistachios, so we combined it with some papayas, running the numbers to maintain the proportions of solid to liquid (papaya’s are roughly 91% water) to fat to sugar so that they roughly matched up with with the pistachio recipe. The result was a papya-walnut sorbet that was as creamy as ice cream. We had cracked the code!
For our batch, the cost of making the pistachio sorbet was roughly $1.50 a scoop, and I think Scream used to charge $3 or $4 a scoop, but the per scoop costs don’t tell the entire story. Based on some back-of-the-envelope calculations and the conservative estimate that retail space in the Temescal is $5k a month, the business needed at least one employee, e.g. the owner himself (in practice there were more) paid for a 40 hour work-week at $15/hour (i.e. minimum wage), Scream would have needed to sell nearly 20 scoops an hour to break even charging $4 a scoop or over 30 an hour charging $3 a scoop. During many of the times I was there, Scream was not pulling in anywhere near that kind of traffic.
On the other hand, if it were a dessert item in a restaurant, the expenses could be offset by other items on the menu. In the meantime, I’ve found a workaround.