Have you ever tried starting your day with ice cream instead of coffee? I have … many times. The cold treat wakes me up, and its sugar gets me going. Hallelujah!
But how about starting your day with ice cream made without sugar—ice cream which tastes good while being good for you? Yeah, sure. We’ve heard that empty promise before.
However, local culinary guru Les Starks insists the promise is not empty.
Starks—who calls Snow Creek (located off Highway 111, 13 miles west of downtown Palm Springs) home—recently published a new book, Sweet Without Sugar: Ice Cream That’s Good for You. The secret, according to the Starks’ book, is to make ice cream with stevia instead of sugar.
“Stevia is a plant native to Paraguay,” Starks said. “The Guarani Indians of Paraguay have consumed stevia for over 1,500 years. Stevia has zero calories and is super-sweet.”
However, the use of stevia itself is not enough to make tasty, healthy ice cream. It took Starks years of experimenting until he found desirable recipes, he said.
“I started in 1992, and finished the book in 2017,” he said. “It was all about trial and error—what works and what doesn’t—and it took a long time to really get it right, without using one bit of sugar, honey, agave or molasses, and none of the insidious stuff like erythritol or artificial sweeteners.”
I first tasted Starks’ delicious food at an event held at Cary Grant’s Palm Springs estate hosted by Dr. Jane Smith, a noted author of medical books. At that time, Starks was still working and cooking for Eric Burdon, singer/songwriter for the Animals.
“I worked for Eric from 1991 to 2003,” Starks said. “When I stopped working for Eric, I got back to the book. He did have a favorite ice cream. It’s called chocolate banana cream in the book.”
Starks tells me that he also briefly worked for Ringo Starr in the 1970s when they both lived at Los Angeles’ historic Savoy Plaza. At the time, Starks was brushing shoulders with celebrities in the L.A. social scene; a close friend was Nancy Andrews, who was then engaged to Starr. He also met someone who influenced his culinary career.
“I met New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne when I was working on Laurie Burroughs Grad’s cooking show,” Starks said. “He told me I should pursue my interest in food professionally. I admired him and had made many of the recipes in his books.”
After moving to the desert in 1985, Starks would find inspiration to begin experimenting and eventually write his own book in the serene setting of Snow Creek.
“I started working on the book after I got my first Vitamix blender,” he said. “I have had some variation of the recipes in the book for breakfast every day since. That is how I wrote the book: I made the ice cream, and I ate my mistakes and triumphs every single day until I got it right.”
Starks’ Eureka moment happened when he started experimenting with stevia.
“In the early 1990s, I experimented with vanilla and chocolate almond milk, sweetened with stevia,” he said. “I tried many stevia brands before coming up with my final recommendation, which I didn’t really discover until 2010, while putting together varying combinations of fruit, almonds and flavoring, just to see what I could come up with that worked with stevia.”
Starks claims the reason his ice cream tastes so good is that it is made of the sweet and tart flavors stevia best complements, as well as high-quality ingredients and fresh or frozen organic fruit. No sugar, though.
“Stevia gives it a light, clear sweetness that accentuates the tartness of the fruit, making it more fresh-tasting than conventional ice cream,” he said.
There were excruciating trials regarding the proper measures of ice, but Starks persevered.
“I really love ice cream, but my family’s sad history of early death, diabetes and blindness from the disease weighed heavily on my mind,” he said. “I knew if I wanted to have ice cream on a regular basis that I was going to have to somehow get around that.”
Starks’ culinary odyssey eventually led to the book’s publication this year.
“My intention in writing the book was to give everyone the rare ability to have absolutely guilt-free ice cream by combining stevia and some soaked, frozen almonds with various common fruit flavorings and virgin, unrefined coconut oil and ice, to make ice cream that’s good for you.”