Sunday, July 27, 2008
Dairy Queen is the future
A great, productive weekend and I'm headed home late tomorrow. I can't wait to see the boys..anyhow catching up on my reading tonight I came across this in the NY Times last week. The world has finally caught up with my love for soft serve..
BRUCE HILL has tasted caviar and Château d’Yquem, but he still gets a thrill from the thought of a swirl of soft-serve ice cream.
I was about 6 and one of my first memories is of my first bite of a soft serve with a chocolate shell,” said Mr. Hill, owner of Pizzeria Picco in Larkspur, Calif., a destination for Bay Area pizza connoisseurs. “If you get your first lick before the shell completely hardens, you get the chocolate and vanilla melting in your mouth at the same time, and it was really special.”
Now Mr. Hill makes his own soft-serve ice cream at Picco, with a shell of chocolate from El Rey of Venezuela.
For Don Tillman, soft serve was a treat he couldn’t get enough of growing up in Hershey, Pa.
“When I was a kid, there was a Mister Softee which came pretty much every day, and I ran behind the truck,” Mr. Tillman said.
So at their ChikaLicious Dessert Club in the East Village, Mr. Tillman and his wife, Chika, have been making vanilla soft serve that they pair with a shot of espresso and crunchy Valrhona chocolate beans for a refreshing affogato. They also mix it with iced cappuccino and lattes, anoint triple-chocolate cupcakes with it, whip it up into a strawberry smoothie and use it to top a vanilla apple pudding cake. Beats whipped cream.
Young chefs around the country, with fond memories of Dairy Queen stands and Mister Softee trucks, are remaking soft-serve ice cream, with epicurean takes on traditional ingredients as well as some things never before seen spiraling out of an icy nozzle, like saffron, bourbon and jalapeño flavors.
At Sketch Ice Cream, a shop in Berkeley, Calif., boysenberry, balsamic Bing cherry, white peach and strawberry are the soft serves of choice this month; vanilla is always available.
They are all made from scratch with organic milk, sugar, pure vanilla extract and sea salt in small batches for freshness. One of the most popular versions is half granita and half soft serve. One offering: a creamsicle of white nectarine granita and jasmine tea soft serve.
“I grew up on Dairy Queen,” said Eric Shelton, who owns the shop with his wife, Ruthie Planas-Shelton, “and in some self-conscious way, maybe I’m going back to my childhood.”
Christina Tosi, the dessert chef at the Momofuku restaurants in New York, remembers soft serve as something “lowbrow” she got to eat only on summer vacations. But now, she said, “Eating soft serve has become what you do when you are in your Manolo Blahniks.”
On a recent night at Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village, where most customers carry out soft-serve cones covered in paper decorated with an American flag or biodegradable cups, Ms. Tosi had peanut butter and Cracker Jack flavors. She makes the latter by simmering popcorn in milk. She uses half the strained milk to make the soft serve and the rest to deglaze melted sugar to make caramel.
For soybean fanciers, Kyotofu, the dessert restaurant and bakery in Hell’s Kitchen, has introduced chocolate black soybean, green tea and white sesame soft serve, which sell for $3.85 for 5 ounces and $5.85 for 8 ounces, with topping. Whether you think they are as good as the cow’s milk version depends on how you feel about soy.
A co-owner, Michael Berl, said he has had the soft-serve machine since the restaurant opened in October 2006 but was too busy to develop the recipes.
“Basically we were using it as an expensive display piece, but finally got around to launching it this June,” he said. “Now it’s the most popular item in the restaurant, even more popular than tofu cheesecake. Our inspiration was from Japan, where they also have soy milk soft serve.”
Even the most ordinary soft serve is popular. When going out for an afternoon or evening snack, Americans are about twice as likely to have a soft-serve swirl than a scoop of the harder stuff, according to Harry Balzer, a vice president of the NPD group, a market research firm. (Until recently you couldn’t make soft serve at home.) While sales of hard ice cream have been fairly stable, according to NPD, soft-serve sales are growing.
The appeal of soft serve lies in part in a bit of science. Taste buds respond better when they’re not well chilled, so ice cream tastes creamier and richer when it’s not frozen solid. Hard ice cream is served at about 5 to 7 degrees, while soft serve comes out of the nozzle at 14 to 25 degrees.
At those warmer temperatures, soft serve needs less fat than regular ice cream to taste rich. Some premium ice creams are 17 percent fat, yet Picco’s soft serve is 10 percent fat, Sketch’s is 7 or 8 percent and Ms. Tosi said her Cracker Jack flavor is 11 percent fat.
Warmer temperatures also mean a drippier cone. Other than Mr. Shelton, all the soft-serve makers interviewed use some form of natural stabilizers, like carageenan, guar gum, lecithin, agar agar or invert sugar (equal parts glucose and fructose) to inhibit melting and thicken the mixture.
Either J. F. McCullough or Tom Carvel deserves credit as the first soft-serve maker. Mr. McCullough made soft serve in 1938 in Moline, Ill. One August day, he offered it at a friend’s ice cream shop in Kankakee, Ill., and 1,600 people paid 10 cents for all they could eat of his newfangled treat.
Two years later, Mr. McCullough and his son, Alex, teamed up with Harry Oltz, who had invented a machine that could produce a continuous flow of the frozen mixture. They opened the first Dairy Queen in 1940 in Joliet, Ill.
Mr. Carvel appears to have stumbled on soft serve about the same time. When his truck carrying ice cream broke down in Hartsdale, N.Y., he sold it from the truck over two days as it softened.
While these old-time brands might leave New Age soft-serve creators feeling nostalgic, some of them use ingredients that have less appeal. Along with milk and cream, sugar and corn syrup, you might find artificial flavors, emulsifiers and stabilizers, like mono- and diglycerides, polysorbate 80, and tetrasodium pyrophosphate.
(The commercial versions are cheaper, though — about $1.80 for three ounces, while the newest versions are as much as $5 for four ounces.)
“I don’t know what they are putting in it today but you can walk from the East Village to Central Park and it will maintain its form like a beehive hairdo,” said Mr. Tillman, who opened ChikaLicious Dessert Club five months ago, across the street from the ChikaLicious Dessert Bar. “It tastes like a bunch of oil sprayed over something white.”
For his soft serve, he said: “It was such a hassle to get vanilla back to the flavor of what I recalled as a child. A lot of trial and error, a lot of money thrown away. It took two months.”
At the Fort Greene branch of the Mexican restaurant Bonita in Brooklyn, hibiscus, tamarind and vanilla-bean soft serve have been on the menu for two months.
The chef, Juventino Avila, began to work on his own after he saw the chemicals in a soft-serve mix that came with a machine.
“I was very unhappy when I looked at the list of ingredients because I didn’t understand any of them,” he said. “Now we have come up with our own recipes and only use one chemical, a little lecithin as a stabilizer. We like to serve ice cream the way we serve our food, without chemicals.”
He’s working on a version flavored like horchata, the Mexican rice drink with cinnamon and cloves. The soft serve, which sells for $5 to $7 for about 8 ounces, is so popular, he said, that sometimes they run out.
Mr. Hill, at Picco, is using an unflavored organic frozen custard from Straus Family Creamery. (Frozen custard has eggs, while most soft serves don’t.) For chocolate, he adds Scharffen Berger cocoa to the base; vanilla uses vanilla beans. The toppings include gold, black and red raspberries, butterscotch caramel or extra virgin olive oil and sea salt.
His soft serve has become so popular that the original machine, which made about six portions before it had to be stopped to let the mixture re-freeze, has been replaced with one that can dispense 700 portions an hour.
“We sell close to $100,000 a year in soft serve, and our pizzeria has only 11 seats,” Mr. Hill said.
Anne Quatrano, an owner and a chef at Floataway Café and the store Star Provisions in Atlanta, was looking for a simple, nostalgic dessert and came up with what turned into a runaway best-seller, a vanilla soft serve that she says “tastes like fresh dairy.”
“It’s wildly successful,” she said, “because it’s kind of retro but it’s still all natural.”
At Floataway, at least half of the desserts ordered are soft serves, topped with extra virgin olive oil and Maldon sea salt, caramel with fleur de sel, bittersweet chocolate or seasonal fruit (at the moment peaches macerated in lemon juice and sugar).
One of the first of the new soft servers in New York was Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, which, like Picco, makes a frozen custard, with daily choices that include raspberry jalapeño, strawberry shortcake, coffee and doughnuts, and fig ricotta.
“Soft serve is a really a satisfying textural, tactile and visual experience,” Mr. Hill said. “Like instant gratification. We have a lot of people joking about lying down and having the soft serve dispense right into their mouths.”