Conversation: Jeni Britton Bauer, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams
Jeni Britton Bauer is the founder of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams and the author of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home. I had the opportunity to chat with her during last summer’s Fancy Food Show in Washington, DC.
Was ice cream your first life? Or did you start out doing something else?
Well, I started my first ice cream business when I was 22 and now I’m going to be 39 this September, so it really is almost my only life. I was in college studying Art and Art History and had been working in a French pastry company since high school. They made everything in their kitchen, and they grew a lot of their own ingredients. It was an all French kitchen, with all French speaking employees.
In the United States?
In Columbus! They were actually Belgian. They imported a lot of chefs from France to work there. It was a wonderful experience for a young woman – I was 17 when I first started working there and I just fell in love with France and with the flavors in the kitchen. I was thinking about pastry school when I was in Ohio State as a way to make money doing something creative. But pastry school was way too expensive for me, so I starting making stuff at home.
Were you a good student?
Was I a good student? I was a terrible high school student, absolutely awful. I was a very good student at Ohio State. Ohio State is such a big school, they have everything you could possibly ever want to take, so I only took courses in subjects that I loved. You can even convince professors to let you in even if you haven’t satisfied the prerequisites. All of that served me well in business because I was able to talk to people and customers about a variety of things.
So I started making ice cream at home, right after making pastry, thinking to myself, how can I revamp this American thing?
What year was this?
This was 1995.
I’m trying to figure out what the ice cream landscape was at that time. Obviously, Ben and Jerry’s had been around for a while…
Ben and Jerry’s had been in business since 1978, but they really came to power in 1989 throughout the country, so, at the time, Ben and Jerry’s was still a very exciting thing.
Did you come before or after Jeremy’s Microbatch?
Before. Yeah, Jeremy’s was around for that one year.
Your story reminds me of Jeremy’s Microbatch, but with a different third chapter.
Oh sure. Well, ice cream is a difficult business. It’s very hard to make a living, very hard pay for everything, hard to go directly to your sources, especially for dairy. It’s really set up for retirees, where you just buy a mix and put it into a machine, like the yogurt business now.
I had presumed that your scoop shops make the product on site, but you actually still make it centrally and distribute the ice cream to your shops.
The reason why we do this is because we have so much specific machinery. We’re making the marshmallows that go into our ice cream, we’re making the pralines that go into our ice cream, we’re caramelizing sugar in a copper kettle over a fire. So if we had to build this kind of kitchen for every store, it just wouldn’t work. We have very specialized skills – three people in the company can burn the sugar for salted caramel ice cream. That kind of scale doesn’t work to put a kitchen in every store.
Where did you come up with the idea, and this is revolutionary, when I first read about it, for including cream cheese and corn starch? I had only ever used the Ben and Jerry’s cookbook and those recipes are custard based, which is the reason why I haven’t made much ice cream. First, you have to stand over the stove and make sure it’s not going to curdle, then you have to cool it down. When I made that batch last week out of the book, the texture was amazing. How did you happen upon that?
Well I didn’t happen upon it. I’ve studied ice cream making for 16 years, I worked a lot in the Ohio State Dairy Science Department lab. I’ve thought about ice cream every day for 16 years, I’ve made ice cream every day. I learned a lot about the science behind ice cream. The way that we make our ice cream is very innovative. We start with raw milk and work with these milk proteins…
So, you pasteurize it yourself?
Yes! And what I learned, I applied to home equipment. I knew that I could improve on the texture of home ice cream. I had a lot of fun with flavors and I put those in the book, but it’s really about the texture and body of the ice cream, because if you get that right, then you can make any flavor you want, and that’s what I wanted people to take away from the book. You made roasted strawberry, but you can make roasted peach with the same recipe. Whatever you’ve got around you, whatever you’re inspired by, at least you’ll get the perfect texture. Start with great ingredients and know how to treat them, and the book tells you how to do that, and you’ll have great ice cream. What I wanted to be was America’s sweet shop ice cream, scoopable, put it on a cone, lick it off on a hot day.
The cream cheese actually was a late addition to the recipe. I didn’t want to do what other ice cream makers did, which was to put out a product which was very different from what they made. When a chef does a cookbook, you know…if I use Thomas Keller’s gazpacho recipe, it’s going to be Thomas Keller’s gazpacho recipe. I might not have a Vitamix, and it may not be perfect, but I’m going to get the same flavor. And if I used a Vitamix, it would pretty much make it such that I could really do it. With ice cream, it’s not the same, with completely different equipment than what you have at home. Most ice cream makers use stabilizers and gums to provide body and texture, and they put out ice cream cookbooks with the same custard recipe that’s in every cookbook, and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to think about body and texture first, and I wouldn’t have written the the book if I hadn’t gotten that right. I wanted it to be as close to what I actually make in my professional kitchen. It didn’t matter what the ingredients were and what was the equipment used at home, as long as it was home equipment and you could get the ingredients in the grocery store. It’s the same science as what’s used in my kitchen, with ingredients and equipment that are available to the home cook.
I’m happy to see that you use the same Cuisinart ice cream maker that I have.
I have about 25 of those, and not one of them was free.
My recipe has a long shelf life once it’s in the freezer, so you can actually make four or five ice cream flavors for a party. We have kids that are doing ice cream stands instead of lemonade stands, making flavors throughout the week and selling them on Saturday.
So you’ve been making ice cream for sixteen years, you’ve written this cookbook detailing the process, so now I get to ask you in person – why four minutes on the boil? Why not five or three?
More than four, getting to five and up it starts to become more like a dulce de leche, like a candied milk and you evaporate too much water . Less than that, and it’s icier. You can leave out the cornstarch and cream cheese. The cream cheese adds body, and the cornstarch helps to absorb excess moisture like an insurance policy. The boiling is the most important part of the recipe. The boiling gives it that fine texture, and the cream cheese adds more body, a little more bounce.
I like your comment about how it doesn’t make sense to put cut up strawberries into ice cream because they lose their flavor and become chunks of flavorless fruit.
It’s part of the science of how you taste things. Something has to be at body temperature before you can taste it…It has to be at the temperature that’s warm enough to volatize to your nose. Any fat that freezes too brittle, like egg yolk fat, takes a lot longer to come to body temperature. Too many egg yolks and you wont’ taste the ice cream as much. Whereas butterfat melts exactly, or actually at two degrees below, body temperature. Which is perfect. When you encapsulate flavor with butterfat, it just relaxes on your palate and goes right into your nose. When you have something that’s icy, it takes lot longer and you’ll just swallow it before it melts and you can taste it. The same holds true for the best chocolate.