Ice cream art and science
I tasted Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream just minutes after being introduced to my first grandson. Stepping through the doorway, I was totally focused on him. But soon other priorities reared their heads. I’d driven more than 16 hours, mostly through rain, sleet and snow. I needed a bathroom and some water.
When I emerged from the bathroom, my daughter, Anne, was opening the freezer for ice. Spying me she said, “You have to try this,” grabbing a carton with a handwritten label, “Bangkok Peanut,” and a spoon. “These Jeni’s ice creams are incredible!”
Anne was right, it was exceptional: from its mouth-feel to the subtle peanut/toasted coconut flavor and hint of heat. But I didn’t dwell on it long; I was far more interested in my grandson.
Spending most of the next three months in Brooklyn gave me ample opportunity to experience Jeni’s ice creams. I didn’t just try Jeni’s. Brooklyn Fare, the grocery store in the same building as my kids’ apartment, had an entire freezer section of local/artisanal ice creams. Others were wonderful, too. But there was something extra special about Jeni’s, and not just because it was the priciest. Partly it was the flavors: Salty Caramel, Goat Cheese with Cognac Figs, Wild Berry Lavender, Ylang Ylang with Clove and Honeycomb, Lime Coriander Sorbet.... The flavors were unusual, to be sure, but always balanced and harmonious.
The other thing that set Jeni’s apart was that incredible mouth-feel. It was certainly rich, but not cloyingly. The finish was clean, without the annoying sensation of a coated-with-butter mouth sometimes found in overly rich ice creams.
Incredible as they are, Jeni’s ice creams wouldn’t have been an appropriate subject for this column if Jeni Britton Bauer, a Peoria native, hadn’t written a book, released earlier this year. It contains not only recipes, but also her passion for local/artisanal ingredients; the philosophy behind her organization; the secrets behind that mouth-feel; sources of inspiration for those amazing flavors; practical nuts and bolts instructions and pictures; and tips for creating your own flavor variations.
Reading Britton Bauer’s book made me want to try her techniques and recipes. But it also made me want to find out more about her and her company. Last month, again traveling to Brooklyn, I stopped in Columbus, Ohio, where Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams is located.
“It all started with a dinner party,” she told me. “I decided to make hot chocolate ice cream as a kind of oxymoron – something cold that was also hot. So I added cayenne oil to some store-bought chocolate ice cream. And everybody just went crazy.”
Thus began a journey that became a passion, a time of trial and error, a scientific exploration and utilizations of her art major that Britton Bauer hadn’t anticipated.
As an art student, Britton Bauer had developed an interest in essential oils – used for perfumes, but also as flavorings – which resulted in the sensory expertise she uses to create new ice cream flavors. As she delved into ice cream-making, she also became “geeked out” on ice cream science.
“Ice cream is a frozen emulsion of water, butterfat, proteins, sugars, starch, air and flavors,” she writes. “The balance of all these ingredients, on a molecular level, determines the flavor, texture, consistency, and finish of the ice cream. Other additions (fruit, chocolate, alcohol, etc.) can disrupt the balance. In addition, if the proportions [are] out of balance, it can make the ice cream feel too cold or too warm on the palate. Understanding the interplay of these ingredients on a molecular level is what ice cream making is all about.”
Wow! Much of that science is about utilizing ingredients that bind the water which makes up most of ice cream’s milk and cream to other ingredients, creating ice cream that’s smooth and creamy rather than icy and gritty: i.e. that exceptional mouth-feel. To that end, Britton Bauer adds small amounts of corn syrup, tapioca or corn starch, and cream cheese to her ice cream base, not just in her commercial preparations, but also in her recipes for home cooks that are “tested over and over again using only home equipment.” It’s that combination of geek science and unique flavors that makes Jeni’s extraordinary. “I think of ice cream more as a sensory experience than as a food,” she says.
Jeni’s has expanded from its first small stall in Columbus’ North Market. There are nine shops in Columbus and around Ohio and in Tennessee as well as a flourishing mail-order business that shipped over 200,000 pints last year. Does Britton Bauer entertain big business hopes for the future, a la Ben and Jerry’s?
Not at all. “I don’t care if we make money or not,” she says, glancing around her office and test kitchen that are a combination of practicality and artsy quirkiness wholly in sync with her artisanal ice cream business. But immediately she stops herself: “I don’t mean that, exactly. I want to make enough money for a good living for everybody who works here. But most of all, I want to be able to come into work every day and be excited about what we’re doing.”
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Roasted pumpkin 5-spice ice cream
Jeni Britton Bauer uses a 1 1/2 qt. Cuisinart ice cream maker, with an electric base and frozen canister for her recipes. Other models are available; all range from around $40 - $60. Using Chinese 5-spice powder gives this ice cream an Asian twist and touch of heat. Traditionally it includes Szechwan peppercorns, although in the U.S. white pepper is sometimes substituted. The 5-spice powder is available at Little World Market and in the ethnic section of some groceries. Apple/pumpkin pie spices can be substituted.
- 1 small pie pumpkin or
- Kabocha, Buttercup, or
- Butternut squash (2-3 pounds)
- 2 c. whole milk
- 1 T. plus 1 tsp. cornstarch
- 1 1/2 (3 T.) cream cheese, softened
- 1/4 tsp. fine sea salt
- 1/4 c. honey
- 1 1/4 c. heavy cream
- 2/3 c. packed light brown sugar
- 2 T. light corn syrup
- 1 T. Chinese 5-spice powder
Prep: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Cut the pumpkin in half and remove the seeds and membranes. Place cut side down on a baking sheet and roast for 30-40 minutes, until soft when pierced with a fork. Let cool slightly.
Scoop the flesh into a food processor and puree until completely smooth. Measure out 3/4 c.; reserve the rest of the puree for another use.
Mix about 2 T. of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl to make a smooth slurry.
Whisk the cream cheese and salt in a medium bowl until smooth. Add the pumpkin puree and the honey and whisk until smooth.
Fill a large bowl with ice and water (see below).
Cook: Combine the remaining milk, the cream, sugar, corn syrup, and 5-spice powder in a 4-quart saucepan, bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and boil for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and gradually whisk in the cornstarch slurry.
Bring the mixture back to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring with a heatproof spatula, until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat.
Chill: Gradually whisk the hot milk mixture into the pumpkin mixture until smooth. Pour the mixture into a 1-gallon resealable plastic freezer bag, and submerge the sealed bag in the ice bath. Let stand, adding more ice as necessary, until cold, about 30 minutes. [Note: If you are making the mixture several hours or a day before freezing, this step isn’t necessary; just refrigerate the mixture. Regardless, it must be very cold before beginning the freezing process.]
Freeze: Pour the ice cream base into the frozen canister and spin until thick and creamy.
Pack the ice cream into a storage container, press a sheet of parchment paper directly against the surface, and seal with an airtight lid. Freeze in the coldest part of your freezer until firm, at least 4 hours.