Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Giving the Gift of Ice Cream

The book I've been waiting for.

My aunt is a highly-regarded chemists who has had a hand in developing some of the significant food advances in the past forty years (Equal anyone?). Along with her commercial research, she spent quite a bit of time researching and deducing the finer points of broccoli and was featured in the Wall Street Journal back in the 1990s.

During my youth, this meant a never-ending parade of unique and interesting foodstuffs from her day job - none of which struck my fancy more than the box of blueberry muffins she would bring with her from Marshall-Fields. Those were the hallmark of my youth and the barometer against which I hold all other blueberry muffins. So far, none suffices.

As I got older and opened Jay's Shave Ice, things started to come together. Instead of sitting around buying other peoples' product, why not manufacture our own? My aunt was a big proponent of this and after a couple of years, I decided that our volume had reached a point where it made sense to do so. Soon, I was in her Massachusetts lab trying not to drown in a sea of food science.

Being of the artsy set (read: slacker), I worked very hard to avoid science in high school. Chemistry was cool when you got to do experiments, but was otherwise boring. Physics was just too mentally physical. Instead, I pursued the arts and creative fields. But now that I was embarking on food manufacturing, I was woefully unprepared.

There I was, in Boston and swimming hard. The lessons were fast-paced and high-flying. My aunt and uncle are serious chemists. They know their stuff inside and out, and I was the elementary level chemistry student trying to understand concepts and designs they took for granted. It was mind-boggling but exhilarating, all at the same time.

We worked on a myriad of syrup formulations, each with minute differences in formulation but, sometimes, major differences in flavor, texure or mouthfeel. We were working with industrial hydrocolloids and chemicals to formulate a syrup with the right properties of mouthfeel, texture, "clingy-ness" to ice particles, viscosity, flavor and shelf life.

More science than you ever thought went into frozen milk, cream and eggs.

I toured and tasted flavors from a variety of flavor houses. The assortment of offerings are dizzying. One flavor house had 225 variations on cherry alone. Two Hundred Twenty Five flavors of cherry. And, if you didn't like any of those, they would formulate your own recipe of cherry. Amazing. At McCormick's research center, they showed me how they could take a strawberry and breakdown it's aromatics into chemical compounds in a gas chromatograph and then re-create that aroma by compiling the essential chemicals in the specified ratios. Who knew?

During the day, we would test and experiment. Late at night, I would peruse their library and read. One of my favorite books in their collection was the 1977 Third Edition of "Ice Cream" by Wendell S. Arbuckle of the University of Maryland. It's a detailed manual on the manufacture and production of ice creams.

At the time, we had just started to move into offering soft serve at Jays Shave Ice. I had always wanted to make our own ice cream mixes but we just didn't have the capability to do so back then. I just wasn't ready.

About two years ago, I decided that it was time to start thinking about soft serve ice cream. Problem was, I had just closed Jays and the soft serve machine went into storage.

Fast forward to modern day and I'm asking my aunt about ice cream formulations, specifically for soft serve. I want to know how a soft serve mix can churn in a machine day-in and day-out without the mix breaking down into butter, like it would in a batch freezer. She promised to send me some information.

Not long after, a brown box arrives at the house. Inside is the Arbuckle book on ice cream and it's better than I remember. It covers the usual stuff like ingredients, flavors, emlusifiers and stabilizers but, more importantly, there's an entire chapter on "Soft-Serve Frozen Dairy Products and Formulas." Happy, happy, joy, joy!

I will report back later as things develop.