Food Column: At Leona's, ice cream sandwiches are lactose-free

A local start-up business that is just a year old has garnered notice from a national publication.

Cook’s Country, the magazine from America’s Test Kitchen, did a roundup of Pittsburgh eateries in its June issue, and Leona’s Ice Cream Sandwiches ( made the cut.

Katie Heldstab and Christa Puskarich run Leona’s, selling homemade, lactose-free ice cream sandwiches to local stores and restaurants.

Even the mix-ins are homemade. Ms. Heldstab whips up Heath-style toffee candy and buttered pecans to stir into her ice cream. She buys berries and stone fruits from local farms, cooks them down into a jam-like substance, and stirs that into the ice cream. For mint ice cream, she steeps fresh mint leaves in cream.

The duo raided their families’ stashes of traditional cookie recipes to make the wafers that sandwich the ice cream.

The flavors are unique: Blackberry Balsamic Tangerine ice cream with Bergamot shortbread; cinnamon or blueberry ice cream between oatmeal lace cookies; plum ice cream with ginger-molasses cookies.

Ingredients are sourced locally. Besides farm-fresh produce, the duo uses balsamic vinegars from Olive & Marlowe, and spices from Penzey’s. Vinegars and spices, Ms. Heldstab said, kick up the flavors of the ice cream — a necessity because “cream dulls everything.”

Ms. Heldstab sources her cream from Trickling Springs Creamery in Chambersburg. And yes, the ice cream is lactose-free, but it’s made with “real dairy from actual cows,” she said. In the company workspace, a former bakery in Wilkinsburg, Ms. Heldstab uses natural enzymes, which is “a little bit of magic, and a little bit of science,” to makes the cream lactose-free.

Ms. Heldstab used to do public relations for large food companies like Kellogg’s and Con Agra. She worked frequently with dietitians and recipe developers, and “at some point I realized I was on the wrong side of the desk.”

So she went to culinary school. She also traveled to Pittsburgh on business and met Ms. Puskarich, who works for a Downtown law firm. They are now spouses as well as business partners. For a wedding present, they received an ice cream maker.

Ms. Heldstab, who is lactose intolerant, developed “a really excellent ice cream that I could eat,” and the duo realized they had a highly marketable niche product.

Ms. Heldstab is billed as the “doer,” making 900 to 1,500 ice cream sandwiches each week. Ms. Puskarich is the “dreamer,” the flavor developer, and big-picture person who also handles finances.

They sell to 12 stores and four restaurants, cater private parties, and attend occasional pop-up markets and festivals. They hope to sell in locally owned stores across the tri-state area within the next five years.

Lest you’re wondering, Leona was the couple’s first dog. They rescued her when she was 10 and had her until she died at 13. She used to come running anytime Ms. Heldstab cranked up the ice cream machine.

With the exception of the chocolate varieties, “she was our first and best taste tester,” Ms. Heldstab said.

Rebecca Sodergren: or on Twitter @pgfoodevents.


Hot Topic