Gelati and sorbetti at Capogiro in Philadelphia include Lemon Opal Basil, Lime Cilantro,Lemon Verbena, and Honey Cumin.
Updated July 2009
What’s Hot In Ice Cream
Frozen Sweets Are Red Hot
It’s hard to believe, but total ice cream sales in America dipped about three percent last year. In a category where vanilla is always number one followed by chocolate (and in 2004, followed by by nut/caramel flavors, Neapolitan [vanilla/chocolate/strawberry], and strawberry), one could almost yawn if it weren’t for the more exciting stuff out there. One area in the category that is showing sales growth are the extra-rich, super-premium ice creams—the segment in which the “exotics” so dear to foodie hearts are typically found.
The biggest trend in ice cream is flavor fusion—and pushing the fusion envelope, at that! Mainstream producers have set precedent. Los Angeles-based Palapa Azul makes rich, memorable flavors like Sweet Corn, Cajeta, Flan and Mexican Chocolate. Dulce de Leche crossed cultures like wildfire a few years ago. It is ubiquitous from coast to coast, in national brands like Häagen-Dazs and Starbucks, to independent boutiques like Cones on Bleecker Street in New York City and Dr. Bob’s in Pomona, California. Green tea has finally escaped the exclusivity of Japanese restaurants to become a flavor of the people. And large national chains like Cold Stone Creamery, which had not gotten more adventurous than Cheesecake or Cake Batter ice cream, are introducing their Banana and White Chocolate clientele to Wasabi Ginger and Black Licorice—flavors formerly found only on the dessert cards at palaces of haute cuisine.
In Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, one of the country’s fashionable beach communities, Udder Delight Ice Cream House makes premium frozen goods from specially bred Jersey cows that give extra butterfat-rich milk. But the ice cream isn’t just ultra-premium: it’s ultra-flavored. Fusion here isn’t just cross-cultural flavors: it’s cross-category integration.
Pale-red Cackalacky Spice Sauce ice cream for example, is made from the award-winning Cackalacky barbecue sauce from Chapel Hill, N. C. The flavors work: spicy-hot flavors in a cold cream base, the yin and yang of ice cream with a subtle vinegar finish. For those who like their pork products, there’s Chunky Bacon ice cream, described by a 10-year-old taster as “too exotic for words,” and by her aunt as “really good!”
Proprietor Chip Hearn has been in the ice cream business for 35 years, but has been making foodie fantasy flavors for only the past three years. Yes, he makes what seem like “standards” today: Mint Chocolate Chip and Peanut Butter and Jelly. But there are also Black Forest and Key Lime Pie, Pear Green Tea and Honey Fig. One hundred and fifty people sampling 18 new flavors last month voted for Chocolate Raspberry Chip, Moo Moo (raspberry ice cream with peaches and strawberries) and Going Nuts With Chocolate (chocolate ice cream with peanuts, almonds, cashews and pecans). Cappuccino Stout Beer, like Avocado drew the split “loved it” or “hated it” vote.
Pushing The Flavor Envelope
Hearn makes a flavor called Viagra—not included in the sampling and vote—that is orange and pineapple colored “Viagra blue” with Pop Rocks added at the end for a mouth-popping sensation. Give him snaps for a fertile imagination. Inspired by the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival in Pennsylvania, he also has created mushroom ice cream (not good, per Hearn), mushroom-pumpkin (weird) and mushroom-pecan ice cream (it rocked). A cucumber-onion ice cream using Vidalia onions didn’t work, but plain cucumber did. To lay people it may be extreme ice cream to be tried only by the daring. To a foodie it may be a frozen fantasy come true.
But not every fantasy can be realized. Some ingredients just don’t gel, which means they literally separate in the freezing process. Hearn’s many attempts at a crabmeat ice cream were unsuccessful. He consults with the experts at Pennsylvania State University’s School of Agriculture, whose ice cream department is one of the leading places in the country to study the craft. (There’s a two-week course targeted to those who want to open ice cream stores—anyone can enroll). The experts at Penn State consulted on Cackalacky, the barbecue-flavored ice cream. Their advice, to triple the vanilla to offset other ingredients in the barbecue sauce, enabled the fats of the sauce to bond with the fats of the ice cream. They also advised that pork rind would make a perfect ice cream—although Hearn feels that flavor would play better in the South than in his Delaware beach town.
Hearn advises not to pre-judge a flavor: “Put a sample in your mouth while you're making up your mind. It's fun. Ice cream’s all about fun."
You can also indulge at one of the finer restaurants in your area. Here’s just a sampling of what’s being served this month around the country:
- Apple-Onion, Mushroom, and Sweet Potato
- Black Truffle (the vegetable)
- Chocolate with Roasted Chili
- Green Pea
- Olive Oil with Figs
- Plum Spiced with Chilies
- Yellow Beet
If you can’t get to an inspired ice cream emporium or restaurant in your neck of the woods, you can search for the recipes on line and make them at home. Perhaps even sign up for the course at Penn State—it makes a great gift for ice cream lovers.
What’s Hot in Europe
Exotic ice cream is even bigger on the Continent. Manufacturers in the stagnant ice cream market are focusing on unusual flavors and premium brands to hold on to their market shares. More demanding consumers are willing both to experiment with new flavors and to pay a higher price for more
sophisticated products. In Europe, flavor fashion is pursued by large mass manufacturers as well as independent boutiques. The trend is known in the commercial sector as the “premiumization of flavor.”
Names evoking pleasure are an integral part of the creation of new flavors. Last year, giant corporations
Frigo in Spain and Unilever in the Netherlands did well with lines called “Cornetto Love Passion” (with flavors such as Hazelnut-Stracciatella and Tiramisú-Cinnamon) and “Seven Sins Intense Pleasure,” respectively. In Germany,
Nestlé has a winner in Schokolade Orange, a mix of chocolate, orange and spices. In Spain,
pink peppercorns, chili and nutmeg, are increasing in popularity, according to a survey conducted by the Italian Ice Cream Trade Association.
Not surprisingly, in the aggregate, vanilla and chocolate remain the two most popular flavors across Europe as in the U.S. As fashion flavors follow trends, fickle consumers are constantly in search of something new. Today’s Spiced Plum and Yellow Beet will be replaced and forgotten. But with the sureness of the tide, vanilla and chocolate will be around as long as there is ice cream.