The ice cream maven behind Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams shares tips for ice cream lovers, including best storing practices, genius toppings and one of the biggest—and most unexpected—crimes against ice cream.
What is the most important tip in Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams At Home?
In my book, we boil the milk for the ice cream base for four minutes. The boiling is key. It evaporates excess water, like our nanofiltration system. Like pasteurization, it bonds the sugar and fat to the water. And it denatures the whey proteins to make them smooth. Then you add cream cheese to mimic the thickening of homogenization, to bulk up the body.
How do you flavor different ice creams?
Chocolate? Chocolate took a long time for me to figure out. We make our own chocolate syrup with cocoa powder, sugar and melted high-percentage chocolate. That all sounds easy, but it’s incredibly hard to get the balance just right so the ice cream isn’t too hard, wet or dry. Chocolate and cocoa powder suck out moisture so they will make your ice cream short, like shortbread. But you don’t want to use too little, because it will later get diluted with cream.
Mint? We use a special mint called Robert Mitchum peppermint, named after the actor. It’s a black peppermint a local farmer grows for us. It took us several years to choose it; we found it had the most essential oil. We rip up the leaves and steep them in the cold cream for 24 hours.
Coffee? For coffee, vanilla beans, and barky spices like cinnamon, we heat the cream to steep it, but only very quickly, and then cool it down very quickly, too.
Fruit flavors? We don’t add fresh fruit straight to ice cream because most fruit is just water, which will make the ice cream icy. So we’ll roast many fruits, like strawberries, along with some sugar. The heat helps bond the water in the fruit to the sugar. Fruits like oranges, we get their flavors from essential oils in their skins. We steep the zest in the cream like we do for mint.
Crunchy mix-ins? For our whiskey pecan ice cream we roast pecans with butter and salt. For our brambleberry crisp we make a streusel topping and roast the fruit separately with sugar, then layer the ice cream, fruit and topping into the pints so the streusel stays crisp.
What’s the best way to store ice cream?
Keep it covered, and keep it in a really cold part of the freezer; don’t store it in the door. Unopened it can last a couple of months. Once it’s opened, if you’re sure your freezer hasn’t warmed up at all, it should last a few days. Anytime you take it out of the freezer, you want to put it back in as soon as possible. Once ice cream starts to melt, once you break that ice crystal structure, once any of that water comes out, that will attract more water from the ice cream and it will melt really fast. Once it melts, it’s done—except for a few ice creams with so many emulsifiers that they can survive it—it’s called heat shock. But generally dairy’s safe as long as it’s frozen. If it’s been in there for longer than a few days, you might want to taste it to see if it tastes like your freezer or has started growing ice crystals. But if you still like it, it’s fine.
Favorite ice cream scooper?
The Zeroll scooper is the best scoop for ice cream. It was invented here in Ohio. And it’s in MoMA, part of their permanent collection, for its modern design. It has a handle filled with a brine solution that transfers the heat of your hand to the ice cream scoop when you hold it. It’s just the right amount of heat to form a perfect scoop.
Does it help to dip the scoop into hot water first?
No, that’s a big sin against ice cream I wish people wouldn’t do. You don’t want the scoop to be wet at all. We have to use cold water by law; we have to clean it between servings at the shop. But if I could use a dry scooper, I would. The water freezes on contact with the ice cream. Even if you only drop one drop of water, it becomes a crunchy chunk of ice in a couple of minutes.
Favorite ice cream serving dishes?
I do. I think when you eat ice cream out of a real dessert dish, it tastes better. I have these little old-fashioned glasses that are supposed to be champagne coupes, but they’re really heavy. They look more like the 1950s dessert glasses, on little pedestals. I also love Heath Ceramics’ ramekins. I like smaller servings of ice cream, and their four-ounce ramekins come in all different colors.
Favorite unsung toppings?
I like to enrobe things in chocolate, like cornflakes. Not because it tastes like cereal, I just like the crunch. You can mix melted chocolate with pulverized cornflakes, spread it flat and let it cool, break it into chunks, and garnish the ice cream with shards of this chocolate. It’s almost like making a candy bar. If you just put cornflakes into ice cream, or any sort of crunchy baked thing, it will absorb the sugar out of the ice cream and go soft. Ice cream is never fully frozen, so there’s sugar exchanges happening constantly, moving around on the molecular level. When they make the supercheap ice cream sandwiches with the black cookies on the top and bottom, those square ones? Those cookies are actually very hard when they first put them on. But in a few days they absorb the sugar and soften. But if you enrobe anything baked in chocolate first, they’ll stay hard.
That was first done at Ohio State in the 1950s, when someone at the Nestlé corporation wanted to sell ice cream pre-scooped in a cone. It didn’t work at first because the cone would become soft. Then someone at Ohio State coated the inside of the cone in chocolate and oil—and the Drumstick was born. That’s on all the halls of the dairy science school.
One of my favorite things ever: I love to sprinkle our tarter frozen yogurts like lemon yogurt, pineapple and pink grapefruit with pink peppercorns. Pink peppercorns have a kind of popcorny flavor. They’re also perfect on top of ice cream because they’re so dramatic-looking. Same with pomegranate seeds.
Honey is another—my book has a recipe for honey butterscotch which is so good. Honey is so different depending on where you get it. You can make the sauce with a honey you brought back from somewhere, and it can tell a story. You burn the honey, make it smoke a little bit, then add butter, cream, salt. Sometimes I add a pinch of cumin, which has this wonderful umami flavor. It feels ancient.
I love smoked almonds, so I love a hot fudge sundae with smoked almonds and too much whipped cream. Whenever I order a sundae, I ask for too much whipped cream. Because if I say extra, they don’t give me enough. I tell them, “When you think it’s too much, it’s just enough.”
Favorite edible ice cream containers?
I like licking ice cream off a cone the best. My favorites are the supercheap wafer cones. They remind me of rice paper. They don’t have a lot of vanilla in them, they just taste of toasted wheat or rice. I like waffle cones, but wafer cones are my favorite. I love the innovation of it. In a pointed sugar cone, the ice cream never makes it down to the point. But the flat-bottomed ones were designed in such a way so the ice cream melts all the way down to the bottom. I like licking the ice cream, because your tongue sweeps off just the right amount to melt in your mouth and release the flavor.
I also love baguette. When I was a kid, my first job was actually at a local ice cream shop—I just was meant to make ice cream. It was right across the parking lot from the French bakery where I ended up working a long time. The bakery made fresh baguettes from scratch. I would tear the baguette apart, slather the insides with fresh vanilla ice cream and strawberry sauce and eat it like a sandwich for my lunch. I like brioche ice cream sandwiches, too, but the brioche is a little sweeter and eggy and very rich, whereas the real Parisian baguette was no-frills, just a little bit salty and crunchy.
But brioche sandwiches are so good. There’s a great bakery in the North Market that makes brioche rolls. I would get them and warm them up on our waffle cone iron. I love pistachio ice cream on brioche, that’s pretty traditional. We also have a coriander-and-raspberry ice cream that I really like with it. For my very first business plan I have a picture of that as an example of what we would serve in the market.