It’s starting to get warm out there – at least in a pretty large area of America anyway, and there are very few of us who don’t equate warm weather (and summer in general) with ice cream in its myriad varieties and flavors. It’s cool, it’s refreshing, it’s creamy…what’s not to love? And with the newer offerings of low-calorie, dairy-free and sugar-free options, anyone can join in the fun. And because there are so many available, and I have limited time to tell you about them, and you have limited interest in reading this blog…well, I thought I would narrow things down a bit and talk about ice cream, gelato and frozen custard.
Ice cream as most Americans know it is pretty much the “mother” of all frozen dairy desserts, with its earliest roots being noted in the second century BC China, where a frozen mix of milk and rice was served. The idea wasn’t lost on other cultures, spreading around Asia and the Middle East and eventually into Europe, where it caught on among royalty and others of the noble classes. It was so popular in fact that in the 1600’s, Charles I of England offered his personal ice cream maker a lifetime pension if he would keep the recipe a secret. It may have worked a little too well, as the first recipe wasn’t printed for the general public until 1718 in a London publication. It finally made it over to the colonies via the Quakers, who had developed their own special recipes, and became all the rage at parties during the Revolutionary War era (think Founding Fathers.) The USDA has some pretty straightforward guidelines about what makes ice cream, among them that it must contain at least twenty percent milk solids and a minimum of ten percent milk fat. And that’s as of 1977, so they’re probably not going to budge on that. And as previously stated, the ice cream market is big. Like, huge. As in, Americans spent $500 million dollars on ice cream and its variants in 2014. The top selling brands were, interestingly enough, private labels, such as Well’s or Jeni’s. Close behind was Blue Bell (this was before the recall, remember), Ben & Jerry’s and Breyer’s. And of course Americans’ favorite flavors are still vanilla and chocolate. My personal faves? Breyer’s Cookies and Cream (makes an amazing milkshake) and Ben & Jerry’s Volun-Tiramisu.
One offshoot of ice cream that has been gaining more widespread attention over the past decade is gelato. A lot of people don’t know the difference between the two, but it is fairly simple; “gelato” basically means ice cream in Italian. It contains less butter fat and less air than ice cream, and is also lower in fat, sugar and calories. There is no USDA standard, but an Italian statute declares that all gelatos must contain at least three and a half percent butter fat. The result is a denser consistency that for me personally just slightly edges out ice cream as a favorite. Gelato originated in Sicily, and also claims the first perfected ice cream machine, developed by one Francesco dei Colatelli in 1686. Strangely, it didn’t really gain much public popularity in Italy until the early twentieth century, and finally began popping up in specialty shops in America in the early 2000’s. Another element of gelato is the variety of flavors offered, which can differ significantly from major ice cream brands sold in markets. My personal favorite? Blackberry. Creamy. Fruity. Delicious. Somebody stop me.
For those of you out there who like something a little softer in texture (and maybe a little more nostalgic), frozen custard may be the ticket. It begins with the same basic recipe as standard ice cream, but egg yolks are added, which not only changes the texture, but allows it to retain the cold longer, so it can be served at a warmer temperature – 18 degrees F as opposed to 10 degrees for ice cream – and it won’t melt as quickly. This genius concept originated with Archie and Elton Kohr, two frozen dessert merchants on Coney Island who first peddled the stuff back in 1919. And apparently it worked; in the first weekend alone, the Kohrs sold over 18,000 cones of frozen custard. As time passed, the frozen custard rage spread to the Midwest, and these days Milwaukee, WI lays claim to being the Unofficial Frozen Custard Capital of the World. Hey, you could have a worse title. One of the most famous purveyors of this warm-weather treat is Ted Drewe’s, a little roadside joint on Route 66 in St. Louis, MO. For a very long time they’ve been dispensing the loveliness to the masses, including their ever-popular Concrete, a frozen custard-based milkshake that can be turned upside down in the cup without incident. The actual process of making frozen custard also differs from ice cream; the freezing method creates smaller ice crystals, again adding to the smooth texture, and usually contains around fifteen to thirty percent overrun, an indicator of the air content, which is very similar to gelato. The choices of flavor options are as limitless as one’s creativity, which the folks at the chain restaurant Culver’s are taking full advantage of. And again, I have to return to cookies and cream on this one as a favorite…anyone see a pattern forming?
So that’s the lowdown. I don’t feel like ice cream and all of its cousins are going anywhere (thank goodness!), and I encourage all of you to try new flavors and support your local independent frozen dessert shops as always. But most of all, enjoy!!