For a long, long time -- as far back as most millennials can remember -- ice cream wasn’t hip. It was something delicious we ate after Little League baseball games or any other occasion when dad needed to garner a little extra good will, sure. But the flavors everywhere were usually the same: chocolate, vanilla, and occasionally something crazy like Moose Tracks. But never, ever rum raisin. We weren’t ready.
Now, though, ice cream is definitely cool. We wrote a definitive list of the best ice cream shops in America, and many of them are doing crazily creative things with the stuff, introducing flavors that people decades ago wouldn’t have dreamed of, like Salted Crack Caramel (“salted butter caramel ice cream with Deb's Famous Crack Cookies: saltine crackers coated with butter, sugar, and chocolate”) at Ample Hills in Brooklyn.
How does a flavor like that come to be? What forces conspired to make it? Well, we spoke to Ample Hills owner Brian Smith about how his famous ice creams go from idea to execution to digestion.
The man you see above is Brian. He used to write monster movies like Flu Bird Horror and Alien Express. Now he uses his brain to make ice cream.
"I think [making monster movies is] quite similar to making ice cream,” he says, “because you have to come up with a new monster, but there are no new monsters -- there are only iterations of old monsters. You take the head of this monster, the tail of that monster, you sort of combine things, and then you put your own twist on them.”
To make his twists on ice cream flavors, a lot of moving parts have to come together at just the right moment, and there's a lot more trial and error than you'd think. So how does his shop, Ample Hills, do it?
It starts with a spark
Brian, whose taste buds “stopped developing when [he] was more or less 7 or 8 years old, in the candy aisle,” tries to look to the real world for his ideas. When he’s browsing at the grocery store, he’s constantly thinking of ways to incorporate ingredients, like Corn Pops, into his ice cream. And when an idea finally strikes, it’s up to the team at the creamery to figure out how to make it happen. Like with the Corn Pops.
All the flavors that are available in-store (and online!) today were the result of seeing something enticing first and wondering, "how could we turn that into ice cream?"
The ingredients come from all over (and close to home)
Finding the flavoring agents is half the battle. They could come from a trusted supplier, or a farm, or a garden, or -- again -- from the grocery store where the idea first struck (jars of Skippy Natural peanut butter dot the shelves of the shop's Gowanus location).
Of course, in a few cases, it’s as much initial inspiration as it is collaboration -- the beach-side location at Jacob Riis, which is adjacent to Fletcher’s BBQ, is working with its neighbor to create an as-yet-unannounced (and unchurned) flavor involving a honey base with candied bacon and those Corn Pops we told you about. See? Knowing your neighbors can occasionally turn out OK!
Then, it's time to pasteurize!
Once the concept is finalized and the ingredients are concrete, it's time to make the underlying ice cream they'll be partnered with. Every base is essentially the same mix of eggs, milk, and sugar that’s pasteurized in-house at Ample Hills' Brooklyn facility. That means it goes from hot to cold in a special machine, in a manner that would make total sense to Katy Perry.
You know how each ice cream flavor has a base ingredient, like chocolate, cream cheese, vanilla, and/or salted caramel? Of course you do! You're a smart guy. Those things (not all of them, mind you, unless you're doing something really crazy) are mixed into the base with an immersion blender, which is probably what you called the kitchen appliance you only used on your Middlebury French program.
This blending instills in the ice cream its underlying flavor, independently of the add-ins, and is decided somewhat democratically by conferring with the kitchen team... with Brian getting the final word, of course.
Add-ins get their time in the sun (or blast chiller)
Those spectacular add-ins? They require a team of bakers and candy makers that work parallel to the dairy team, whipping up peanut brittle, Crack Cookies, and St. Louis-style Ooey Gooey Butter Cake in huge batches. But when Ample Hills first started up, Brian experimented in his own home to find out what combinations worked together the best, much like Robin Williams in Flubber, except easier to digest (both literally and with critics).
Even now, though, it’s a constant game of figuring out what tastes right, and his goal is to cater to “the 7- or 8-year-old inside all of us. We’re not making saffron ice cream, or pea soup ice cream.” Although that doesn’t mean you can’t -- follow your dreams!
Finally, the gang gets together
After the base has been chilled to its final consistency, it’s time to unite it with its soulmate -- the add-ins. In the above case, the pretzel-infused ice cream is getting mixed with Ritz Crackers, potato chips, pretzels, and mini M&M's to create the Munchies. But occasionally the mix they end up with isn’t final.
“We want to get better and better, so we go back and tweak things, but we tweak things after they’re already in the cabinets," says Brian. "We might say, ‘Put a little more chocolate into that dark chocolate.'" That's totally OK with us.
Off into the world
From there, the somewhat-final, mixed-up batch of ice cream is shipped out to the shop's different locations, where it’ll stay available to customers until it runs out (so, not very long). “Because we make our flavors with so much frequency and in such small batches, we can try and make a flavor, and if it doesn’t take the world by storm, it’s not the end of the world because it’s in the cabinet for a week and then it’s gone and nobody remembers it," says Brian.
Ice cream-makers like Brian are constantly searching and rarely complacent. There’s always room for a new flavor, and since the turnaround is so quick (short of having to search for the right ingredients, which -- contrary to those Kashi commercials -- does not always require a trip around the world), people are able to see their frozen creations on shelves almost as fast as they can think of them.
Of course, they’re usually gone just as quickly.
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