Coming soon to a freezer aisle near you: balsamic vinegar ice cream. Plus, hot sauce ice cream. And maybe even tomato.
“You’re seeing the same kinds of trends in ice cream that you’re seeing in other foods,” says Peggy Armstrong, spokeswoman for the International Dairy Foods Association. “People are willing to experiment.”
Just a generation ago, Americans mostly bought their ice cream at the supermarket in recognizable flavors that occasionally sported chocolate chips or a swirl of some kind. Today, regular old ice cream has been joined by boutique items such as gelato, sorbet and water ice, as well as an army of flavors that seem more at home in an Italian restaurant – opal basil lemon sorbet, anyone? – than in your local freezer aisle.
Americans ate nearly 1.6 billion gallons of ice cream and other frozen dairy desserts in 2012. But traditional ice cream’s share of that market has been shrinking, edged out by specialty items such as frozen yogurt and gelato. In 2012, production of regular ice cream hit its lowest point since 1996, the Dairy Foods Association says, producing fewer than 900 million gallons.
Boutique scoop shops and artisanal producers have flooded the landscape during the last five to 10 years, introducing audiences to a wider range of flavors and textures. Cumin and honey butterscotch, salty vanilla, and pumpernickel are typical of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, an Ohio-based producer that has gone national. Uber-hip Coolhaus, which has parlayed ice cream trucks and storefronts into distribution in 2,000 supermarkets, offers Cuban cigar, spicy pineapple-cilantro and even fried chicken and waffle ice cream.
“The flavor we thought nobody would buy was balsamic fig mascarpone, and that’s the one we’re out of,” says Coolhaus co-founder Natasha Case about the company’s recent experience at a trade show. “All the buyers want that one. Two years ago, we were out of vanilla. That buyer at that show who does five to 300 grocery chains wants to know what’s cool, whereas before they just wanted to know that you could do vanilla well.”
Vanilla remains supreme, Armstrong says, but the mass-market producers represented by her organization are branching out. At the association’s annual ice cream technology conference in April, producers showcased flavors such as Mexican-spiced chocolate and hot sauce ice cream. Ice cream flavors such as caramel popcorn, coffee-and-doughnuts, cotton candy and peanut butter s’mores also are destined for supermarket shelves.
Though we are in an intense period of flavor experimentation, the desire to go beyond chocolate, vanilla and strawberry dates to the post-World War II era, says Laura B. Weiss, author of “Ice Cream: A Global History.” That’s when Howard Johnson, known for his roadside restaurants, tried to convince Americans to indulge in his famous 28 flavors. Among them: maple walnut, burgundy cherry and fruit salad.
“This was really pretty revolutionary,” Weiss says. “Going beyond chocolate, vanilla and strawberry really began with Howard Johnson.”
Even today’s most exotic-sounding new flavors make sense on some level. Candied sweet potato, a flavor being explored by Parker Products in Fort Worth, Texas, has its roots in Southern sweet potato pie. Ice cream behemoth Haagen-Dazs recently launched tomato ice cream in Japan, as well as a carrot-orange flavor. And why not, says Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.
“A lot of vegetables have a very sweet flavor,” she says. “Like corn. Even when you make it salty, it’s still sweet and milky.”
Producers also are tackling whiskey, beer and other alcohols in new ways. Jeni’s Splendid makes a cherrywood smoked porter ice cream studded with rosemary-sprinkled bar nuts. High Road Craft Ice Cream in Marietta, Georgia, makes a bourbon-burnt sugar flavor. “Ice cream is a great canvas for evoking those flavors and speaking to those profiles, but also having fun with the cocktails, the old-fashioneds and the Manhattans,” says Coolhaus’ Case. “And I don’t have to card people. It’s a food.”
The next revolution, ice cream watchers say, will be in creating more texturally sophisticated ice creams. Customers are beginning to demand smoother, creamier products that suggest the hand of the artisan.
“Just in the way that people have learned to crave sophisticated flavors, they now want textures where the mouth-feel is really rich and delicious,” Weiss says. “The next thing is texture. It can be a fabulous flavor, but if it doesn’t feel really smooth and creamy and rich, it loses something.”
READY TO MOVE beyond basic vanilla or chocolate this ice cream season?
Much as we love those classics, with so many crazy – and crazy delicious – flavor combinations flooding the freezer aisle of the supermarket, it’s hard to resist making some big, boldly flavored frozen concoctions of our own. We started with a bee sting parfait, inspired by the honey, almond and coconut-studded pastry of the same name.
For a cool and so-very-adult frappe, we combine strawberry ice cream with elderflower liqueur. And to cool off a crowd, we layer on the flavor with a salted caramel malted mocha ice cream cake.
BEE STING PARFAIT
Start to finish: 20 minutes
2 tablespoons slivered almonds
2 tablespoons grated coconut, large flakes if available
2 tablespoons honey
1 banana, diced
1 pint vanilla ice cream
Heat the oven to 350. Spread the almonds and coconut on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until lightly golden brown. Place in the freezer to chill for 5 minutes.
To assemble the parfaits, add a teaspoon of coconut and almonds to the bottom of each parfait glass. Top with a tablespoon of banana and a drizzle of honey. Add a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Continue layering in this order until you’ve used all the ingredients and filled the glass. Serve immediately.
STRAWBERRY ELDERFLOWER FRAPPE
The elderflower liqueur makes this a grown-up frappe. For a kid-friendly version, substitute an equal amount of juice or milk.
Start to finish: 5 minutes
1 cup sliced fresh strawberries
1 cup strawberry ice cream
2 ounces elderflower liqueur
Zest of ½ orange
In a blender, combine all ingredients. Puree until very smooth. Serve immediately.
SALTED CARAMEL MALTED MOCHA
ICE CREAM CAKE
Start to finish: 2 hours (30 minutes active)
2¼cups all-purpose flour
1½ cups packed brown sugar
½ cup cocoa powder
1½ teaspoons baking soda
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon instant coffee
½ cup Ovaltine Classic Malt mix
1½ cups water
1 tablespoon cider or white vinegar
½ cup vegetable or canola oil
1 pint coffee ice cream
½ cup caramel sauce
Coarse or flake sea salt
Heat the oven to 350. Coat a rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray and line it with kitchen parchment.
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, brown sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. In a liquid measuring cup, whisk together the instant coffee, malt powder, water and vinegar. Add the oil, then add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients. Whisk until smooth. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted at the center comes out clean. Allow to cool completely.
When ready to assemble the cake, microwave the ice cream in 10-second increments until just slightly softened. Flip the cake out of the pan onto a cutting board. Remove the parchment and trim the edges off to make a neat rectangle. Cut the cake in half down the center (the short way), then cut each half in half again to create 4 even rectangles.
Place 1 piece of cake on a serving platter, then spread a third of the coffee ice cream over it. Top with a second piece of cake, then spread another third of ice cream over that. Repeat one more time, finishing with the last piece of cake. Place the assembled cake in the freezer to firm up for 20 minutes. The cake also can be tightly wrapped in plastic and frozen overnight. If so, let stand at room temperature for 10 minutes before slicing.
To serve, slice the cake into squares, then drizzle each serving with caramel sauce. Sprinkle with a few grains of sea salt and serve with fresh berries.