Summer in Missoula is magical, but autumn is even better, in my totally objective opinion. That's because fall is time for crockpot dinner parties, hot cider (with whiskey) and fresh-baked apple pie (à la mode). And, perhaps most important, it's still warm enough to ride your bike to the ice cream shop.
Ice cream is serious business in this town, and some of the most creative flavors are made at two downtown shops: Big Dipper and Sweet Peaks.
These places like to experiment with local ingredients and seasonal flavors in ways that push the boundaries of our sometimes vanilla (pun intended) taste buds. And, for me at least, they usually exceed expectations.
Big Dipper (631 S. Higgins Ave.) has been churning out the fall flavors since August, which manager Bryan Hickey says is about the time Starbucks rolls out its season-signifying pumpkin spice latte. Still, he says, making pumpkin ice cream from August through November becomes a drag for the ice cream makers, so this year they've been experimenting with riffs on the flavor—pumpkin marshmallow, pumpkin Biscoff cookie, pumpkin brownie—while also crafting other fall-inspired flavors, like molasses.
You can still get pints of Big Dipper's straight-up pumpkin ice cream at almost any store around town, as well as eggnog and candy cane (people are already thinking about Christmas?!), but I definitely recommend going to the source to try out the daily specials. If you get bored with pumpkin, like I do, you'll find something else to love. Earlier this month, Big Dipper was serving up buttermilk bacon ice cream made with Burns St. Bistro's candied bacon. Unless you don't eat meat, you will never, ever go wrong with one of Big Dipper's bacon recipes, no matter what the season.
A few days ago, in anticipation of one of my first fall crockpot dinner parties, I walked down to Sweet Peaks (420 N Higgins Ave., Suite D) to buy a couple of pints. Their new fall line includes some doozies: chocolate zucchini bread, plum cardamom, apple pie à la mode, brown butter peach and pumpkin cookie. The most outrageous is Hopz hard cider, which is made with a hops essential oil from Glacier Hops Ranch in Whitefish and combined with a swirl of apple jam spiked with Western Cider's Poor Farmer Hopped Cider. Truth be told, I really dislike IPAs, so hoppy flavors aren't my bag. But the cream and sweet cider jam soften the edge on the hops, making it super delicious, and, weirdly, there's even a carbonated sensation to the aftertaste.
I tried all the fall flavors, because as a journalist, it's my job to do a thorough investigation, and then bought a pint of the Hopz hard cider. I went for one of Sweet Peaks' classics for the other pint: salted caramel. The Hopz is such a novel idea that I didn't want to pass it up, but now I wish I'd also gotten the apple pie à la mode. It basically tastes like it has pieces of pie in it, flaky crust included. The most decadent thing I can think of right now is putting apple pie à la mode ice cream on apple pie. I can't stop thinking about it. Good thing there's some autumn left to savor.