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,” said 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 ice creams have 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 almost 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 said, selling 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, a Columbus, 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,” Coolhaus co-founder Natasha Case said 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 said, 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, said 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 were maple walnut, burgundy cherry and fruit salad.
“This was really pretty revolutionary,” Weiss said. “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 carrot-orange and tomato ice cream flavors in Japan.
Why not, asked Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.
“A lot of vegetables have a very sweet flavor, like corn,” she said. “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, Ga., makes a bourbon-burnt sugar flavor.
Strawberry Elderflower Frappe
1 cup sliced fresh strawberries
1 cup strawberry ice cream
2 ounces elderflower liqueur (See cook’s note)
Zest of 1/2 orange
Cook’s note: The elderflower liqueur makes this a grown-up frappe. For a kid-friendly version, substitute an equal amount of juice or milk.
In a blender, combine all ingredients. Puree until very smooth. Serve immediately.
Yields 2 servings.
Bee Sting Parfait
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 degrees. 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.
Yields 2 servings.
Salted Caramel Malted Mocha Ice Cream Cake
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon instant coffee
1/2 cup Ovaltine Classic Malt mix
1 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon cider or white vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable or canola oil
1 pint coffee ice cream
1/2 cup caramel sauce
Coarse or flake sea salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 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 again in half 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.
Yields 8 servings.