So You Want to Learn About Ice Cream. One.
Top: the course materials binder for the Penn State ice cream short course. I don't many good things to say about that program but I will tell ya that the stuff in this binder really is an excellent resource.
I came at ice cream sideways. In the first days of Big Gay Ice Cream Truck I knew only that I bought ice cream mix (the liquid- cream, milk, sweeteners, and some other stuff we’ll get around to someday) by the gallon and poured it into the truck’s ice cream machine. The summer of 2009 was a really weird way to become an ice cream man. I ended up knowing lots about what tasted good with ice cream, and what I wanted ice cream to taste like but I had no practical knowledge of the product. That first week I saw carrageenan on the ice cream ingredients list and thought “I’ve been seeing that word on stuff for my whole life, I guess now I should learn what it is.”
I set about reading as much about ice cream as I could. Lots of Serious Eats articles and a bit of scientific stuff that I could barely wrap my head around. I read The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz cover-to-cover. Same with the Ben and Jerry’s cookbook and The Emperor of Ice Cream: The True Story of Haagen-Dazs, the story of Reuben and Rose Mattus, two first-generation Polish immigrant business pioneers who insisted that customers wanted super-premium ice cream in their homes. The building of an empire.
I have to throw credit to Gus Rancatore of Toscanini’s Ice Cream up in Cambridge MA. I used to play the bassoon in a number of Boston ensembles and while I was working up there I lived off Central Square with my cousin Nanette. I went to Tosci’s pretty religiously and Gus talked my ear off, to my pleasure, about all manner of ice cream related stuff. Years prior to this Nanette’s husband Albe helped build that giant table in the Toscanini’s customer area. Everything comes around.
A lot of practical knowledge was gained but even a few years into this new career I still felt a disconnect from the backbone. I didn’t want to go back to school- enrolling in a pastry program just wasn’t my interest. Frankly ice cream isn’t that hard to make when you’re talking about small batches. It gets tricky when scaled up and that’s what I wanted to know about.
There are a number of universities and colleges that have diary programs. The dairy programs have cows (duh) so milk and cream abound. Many of these schools host “short courses” which are open-enrollment programs typically held while regular students are off on breaks. Need to learn about Pasteurization? Hit up the Washington State University creamery’s Pasteurization Workshop. There are a variety of short courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that all sound interesting. Ice Cream? There’s a winter break Ice Cream Short Course at Penn State University and that sounded like just the thing for me. There isn’t much available online about the course except for a very broad overview. You enroll, you know you’re going to State College PA for the better part of a week and there you have it. I think the program cost me around a grand.
Day one. Morning. We congregated in a hotel ballroom/conference room at the Nittany Lion Inn that was to be our classroom for the next week. I didn’t expect 120-something classmates, fine, that’s not a big deal- until the session leader told us that we’d be going around the room to introduce ourselves. 120 people introducing themselves. Wow. And so we started.
I sat in the front of the “classroom” in an effort to make myself pay attention. I was serious to get my money’s worth out of this thing. I was first up so I introduced myself and gave my business name to the teacher, who stared at me blankly and moved on to the next person. My classmates were certainly a diverse lot. There were people who ran the production floors at major facilities. There were employees of Ben and Jerry’s and from Dunkin' Brands, the parent company of Baskin-Robbins. There were people who worked in other branches of dairy whose bosses sent them off to the course for betterment. There were also people who knew nothing about ice cream.
I distinctly remember one man’s self-introduction. It went pretty much like this: “Hi! My name is Jerry Or Whatever! I just went through one hell of a divorce and I soaked my wife for everything she had. I’m going to use the money to open an ice cream store!” Nope, he’d never worked in ice cream, and honestly seemed to have no reason that he wanted to pursue the field other than to gloatingly burn through his alimony.
That evening was a welcome dinner (chicken fingers from a steam table) and then the next two days were a blur. I learned some very crucial material, such as the theories, processes and mechanisms behind homogenization and Pasteurization. I learned about suppressing freezing points; about blast freezers and batch freezers and continuous freezers. Then things began to thaw and something smelled fishy.
One of the resident professors gave a seminar on sweeteners. The gist of the talk was how to swap sweeteners around in your product based on what was cheapest at ordering time. If the price of corn syrup went up, you could swap in dextrose at a certain ratio and achieve the same level of sweetness. I put my hand up. “But what about the difference in taste?” He replied that there would be no difference. The sweetness of X amount of corn syrup equalled the same sweetness as Y amount of dextrose. That’s what I call "correct bullshit." The classes that discussed mechanics were enlightening. Now that we had moved on to constructing actual product and objective criticisms I realized that we were learning how to make really shitty ice cream. You can’t tell me that high fructose corn syrup has the same flavor as stevia which has the same flavor as honey. Stevia has a rank aftertaste, and HFCS burns your throat. Honey is great but since it is bee barf vegans won’t eat it.
I really started to get pissed off now that I realized we were there to learn how to freeze up crap. The sweetening class turned to high fructose corn syrup. You can convince me of lots, but you can’t convince me that HFCS tastes good or is good for you. Various studies are going to tell you different things about the health benefits or health tolls of HFCS, so I asked him if there was much backlash towards companies using HFCS in product. “No! And all the studies about HFCS being unhealthy are lies and propaganda.” Whoa now, hold on. All of it is lies and propaganda? All of it? Pissed off began to escalate. Someone else asked about GMO labeling and he flew into a fit about it. “Corn has been around for thousands of years. You can make corn better, but it’s still corn.” WAIT WHAT. I pulled out my phone and typed the guy’s name into Google. Sure enough, he had been a lead protein scientist at Monsanto. MONSANTO. The company that splices frog DNA into your peas and has bred chickens the size of Mini Coopers.
There was a strong thrust in the Penn State course to learn mix formulation. This is the math you’d need if you ran a commercial plant and wanted to make a pretty big batch of mix. You’d need X amount of milk, X cream, X milk solids, X sweetener, X emulsifier, and the ratio of each to each would vary by what prices were, what the budget was, and what was available for use. These computations are pretty damned annoying; even for someone with good maths (unlike me) it’s a bunch of steps and takes way too much time. It was presented to us as onerous and necessary. A process that would suck our souls but there could be no opt-out.
One of our break-out sessions was an introduction to a computer program that would do those mix formulas for you. Ah, what a relief! The convoluted mix computations that filled pages and pages of our workbook with algebraic formulas could be done by a PC. At the end of the class the professor gave us a discount code for the purchase of the program. Which he had written. We had been beaten to death with studying the long-form way and now we were being offered a pricey salvation that would help him pay his mortgage.
I stopped into a class about publicizing your shops and/or brand. The featured speaker told us about the face painter and balloon-animal-guy he hired for the opening of his shop. I thought “ya know, at our opening we had roller girls, a drag queen stealing babies, a contrabassoon octet and Anthony Bourdain dressed as a minister. I’m gonna sit this class out.”
A second break-out session was a vanilla tasting seminar. I was really looking forward to this- after four days we were finally going to taste stuff! We looked at the ingredients list for different commercially available vanilla ice creams, all branding hidden so that we couldn’t cheat or whatever. One fellow pointed out that a particular ingredients list didn’t have any emulsifier. I said that sure it did, there was egg as ingredient. He said “egg’s not an emulsifier, it’s egg.” Sigh. Egg is pretty much the only emulsifier used in home or restaurant ice cream, so I guess the gentlemen hadn't made ice cream before. Check out this worksheet from the vanilla tasting class. Besides Haagen-Dazs (ID number 7) all the ice cream was bottom-shelf supermarket-brand stuff.
After the vanilla class I was really over the whole seminar. I went back to the hotel. It was mid-January, cold as a witch’s tit, dark at 3pm. I ran (to keep from freezing) across the town to the State College gay bar. I was the only one there. The bartender and I watched Ghost. I don't want this to sound depressing; honestly it was well below 0F and no one should have been outside their homes. The bartender was sweet and I'd never seen Ghost so all was swell.
The next morning I work up pissy. I walked over to the ballroom lobby, poured myself a coffee, then looked at the morning snacks. This gluten-free mousse made me mad.
I can’t remember what the morning session was, and it doesn’t much matter. At the end of the morning one of the organizers came to the microphone. “The Penn State Creamery has set up outside the classroom, so make sure you stop by and sample the flavors made right here at the university.” Fine, why not. I walked out and had a look at this menu:
That was it. “Peachy Paterno” broke my back. I didn’t want to taste anything named after a man who was complicit in the systemic cover-up of child rape. A quick look online and I discovered that "Penn State Truthers" existed. Bye bye. I packed my bags in about 30 seconds and was out the door.
More to come in a future "So You Want To Learn About Ice Cream" post.