By Jenn Ladd
From the Philadelphia Investigator
Philadelphia-Philly empties out on summer weekends, when Shore crowds beat a path on the freeway. The streets are quiet, parking spaces are plentiful and the city’s businesses are gearing up for the low season.
It made the line outside the Small Oven Pastry Shop window on a recent Sunday afternoon – in 100 degree heat – all the more surprising. They had come for the gentle service.
“Between cold brew and ice cream, this weekend was crazy,” said Small Oven owner Chad Durkin. Since Memorial Day, which kicked off with strawberries, rhubarb and malted vanilla bean, he’s been whipping up soft desserts in-house with seasonal flavors every weekend. Durkin started the hot-weather project last summer and has since refined the recipes.
Late last month, the Point Breeze Porch/Bakery sold 72 pints of sweet corn and soft blackberries in a single Saturday. Customers were clamoring for more, so Durkin made a 22-pint batch of Madagascar vanilla overnight, to top with cornbread chunks and blackberry compote. He left at 4 p.m. Sunday.
Small Oven’s soft serve ice cream is rare, and the range of flavors it will offer over the course of the season – from lychee and lemongrass to butterscotch and apple pie – is also quite unique. While hand-dipped hard ice cream is often filled with swirls of batter and cookie crumbs, its lighter cousin should stay airy and smooth, which means soft cream is typically only found in chocolate, vanilla and the twist.
But elsewhere in Philadelphia, suburbs and South Jersey, ice cream parlors and restaurants are infusing the ice cream base with increasingly imaginative flavors: brown sugar, sweet cream, German chocolate, hazelnut, graham cracker. , blueberry, chocolate-tahini, ube and even avocado. The Inquirer embarked on a quest to find the many soft custard patties and learn how they are made.
What is Soft Serve, anyway?
At Laser Wolf in Kensington, staff make a basic batch of soft brown sugar every other day. “Milk, powdered milk, heavy cream, granulated sugar, brown sugar,” said chef Andrew Henshaw, when crafting the recipe. They are complemented by two more esoteric ingredients that give it its characteristic texture: xanthan gum thickens and stabilizes the mixture, preventing it from becoming icy; trimoline, a sugar syrup, keeps it nice and smooth.
Soft serve ice cream may taste rich, but it actually contains less fat than hard ice cream, which typically ranges between 14-17% fat. The soft portion rarely exceeds 10% – and that’s key to dispensing the silky treat into cups and cones. (Soft-serve machines usually have room for two flavors, plus a splash.)
A soft-serve cabinet constantly cools and mixes a liquid base to maintain its consistency. If you were to put a heavier base in the machine, “it would spin. The butter would come out of the solution. You’d get grease or even butter spots,” said Ryan Fitzgerald, owner of Fishtown’s 1-900-ICE-CREAM.
While the 1-900 brand is best known for its nostalgia-focused hard ice cream, Fitzgerald launched the soft serve last year after acquiring a scoop store in downtown Ardmore. Since then, he’s been whipping up new flavors every week, blending purees, juices, nut butters, cookies and more into a soft base from an undisclosed Lancaster dairy. Recent entrees include Concord Grape and Salted Peanut Butter, Roasted Sicilian Pistachio and Strawberry Nesquik, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Banana. Toppings, dips and flavor injections enhance the experience.
“It’s our top-down theory,” Fitzgerald said. “Take fantastic local grass-fed dairy, then go crazy with it.”
Small batch flavors
The soft-service envelope is pushed elsewhere in the region. At Càphê Roasters in Kensington, owner Thu Pham and chef Jacob Trinh alternated experimental flavors to complement their condensed milk service, a mainstay of Vietnamese coffee. A swirl of tropical pandan and coconut tops the lychee black tea in the cafe’s latest float, but past flavors have included mocha, avocado and honey butter – inspired by a popular Korean potato chip flavor .
“It’s a learning process every time we try something new,” Pham said. “We’re going to try some things and clog the machine, and then we’ll just adjust the ratio of some ingredients.”
At Levittown’s Dairy Delite on Old Bristol Pike, owner Dave Scott previously showcased a vibrant purple “mystery flavor” of soft serve, which he kept a secret even from his employees. The flavor became so popular that Scott had to change his method (and eventually reveal the secret). He had made his own ube mash, roasting and blending purple yams, then blending them into a soft base.
“It’s a lot of work for one guy, so I ended up buying extract,” he said. Scott still makes the purees for other soft flavors, including blueberry, banana, apple, and pumpkin. It has its drawbacks.
“Sometimes [the flavor’s] not consistent. I’ll hear things like, ‘Last week there was…’ and I’m like, ‘Well, some bananas have more sugar than others.’ It’s part of the house.
There are easier ways to flavor soft serve ice cream. Jen Wheeler of Levittown’s other Dairy Delite on Woodbourne Road whips Northeast Philly’s I. Rice & Co. commercial strawberry puree into four liters of Crowley’s vanilla ice cream mix. It assembles in seconds. All that remains is to pour it into the machine – the other factor that often limits soft-serve choices.
“We’ll alternate flavors, otherwise we’d need seven or eight machines,” owner Dave Wheeler said. It has four soft serve machines, with room for eight flavors. Chocolate and vanilla are staples, of course, so the other cupboards are filled with a variety of alternatives: banana, orange or raspberry sorbet, vanilla with no added sugar, pineapple Dole Whip (a vegan serve), graham cracker, and more. . Some flavors, like pumpkin, are seasonal. Others, he’ll switch to rotation when he gets calls from customers: “Where’s the peanut butter?” or “When do you have lime?”
“It’s consumer-driven,” Wheeler said.
For some business owners, eight flavors just isn’t enough. They can turn to the 24-flavor system, a setup that uses syrups, a mixer, and an extruder to infuse a basic soft serve with an array of flavors, from bubblegum to guava. That’s how Primo Water Ice in Westmont does it. The collection of syrups there, stored in plastic pump bottles, look like paints for an art project. You can tell which flavors are popular by how dark they are: cotton candy, black cherry, and espresso lead the way.
The 24-flavor system has some downsides, explained Primo owner Adriana Adams, who also runs a Mister Softee dispenser in Runnemede. It takes about two minutes from start to finish – pull in the vanilla soft serve, add flavor,
toss it, pull it again – which means soft serve gets even softer. The blender should be cleaned between each use. On a busy night at an ice cream shop, this can create a backup.
“Sometimes a whole family orders all the different flavors,” Adams said. Even more daunting is gelati with a flavored soft serve: “You have to pre-mix [the soft serve], squirt it into the cup, then fetch the popsicle, come back to that machine, squirt again – hopefully no one else needs it in the meantime. It might take a bit of time, especially with beginners.
This does not discourage Joe Mosco, co-owner of Hilltop Creamery in Blackwood, who calls himself “the king of flavors”. Hilltop offers so many flavors that Mosco needed a new panel designed to fit them all.
“We have over 40 flavors, maybe even more,” he said. “I’m losing track, because every flavor that comes out, I buy it. We just got peanut butter and jelly a few days ago, and jalapeño, believe it or not.
Mosco admits that the 24-flavor system is a bit outdated. “They came out with a new machine that has 12 flavors that people could carry around – I want to buy it, but I’m waiting for this machine to break down. I heard it was awesome.
Soft serve is a feeling
This high-tech machine, the ElectroFreeze Fuzionate, can dispense different flavors of soft-serve at the touch of a button. You can find it at six of the seven area Richman’s ice cream stores. (The Glenside store can’t hold one.) Like any soft flavoring method, Fuzionate has its pitfalls, but also many benefits.
“We are able to flavor the ice cream at the point of contact as it comes out of the spout, but it has to come out more slowly for that to happen,” said Richman co-owner Steve Matthews. “It’s probably three or four times longer to make a cone than a machine that comes out with plain vanilla or plain chocolate.” This time difference may mean longer lines, but it also means a colder soft serve and richer flavor.
People don’t seem to care about the wait. Richman’s sells more soft ice cream, by volume, than hard ice cream over a year — but it all depends on the weather, Matthews said.
“When it’s 60 degrees or less, it’s all hand dipped,” he said. “Only when it gets over 70-80 degrees does it become about 80% soft cream…when it gets to 85 degrees or more, all ice cream sales go down, because dairy n don’t quench people’s thirst.”
The equation may be different closer to the beach.
“Soft ice cream is kind of your bread and butter,” said Jason Plum, co-owner of Custard Hut in Somers Point and Ocean View, New Jersey. “It’s part of the mystique of coming to the Shore. For example, let’s get soft and walk on the boards.
Custard Hut also uses modern machines, blending flavors like mint chocolate chips, espresso, strawberry and banana. Plum said he’s driven to offer various flavors to satisfy customers, something he’s uniquely positioned to do.
“There aren’t many jobs where people come for your service and they smile,” he said. “It’s not something we take for granted as ice cream parlor owners that people arrive with a smile, and our job is to make sure that smile grows.”
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