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.

In Columbus?

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.

February 18, 2013   Comments

Five Food Questions: Susan Orlean, The Veteran Author

Today marks the launch of  a new feature on The Best Food Blog Ever called Five Food Questions.  Short, sweet, and to the point, Five Food Questions is designed to provide insight into the culinary lifestyles of interesting and compelling people who may or may not be directly involved in the food world.  My inaugural interviewee is Susan Orlean, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of seven books, including The Orchid Thief.   Susan is presently working on a biography of Rin Tin Tin, to be published in 2011, which will place her eight published books ahead of me, by my count.

You’ve traveled extensively throughout the United States and across the world, both as part of your work and also for leisure. What are your favorite regional cuisines or specific foods?

I love Asian food — Thai and Vietnamese in particular. I think one of the highlights of my traveling life was eating pad thai from a street cart in Bangkok. It cost about ten cents and it was just about the best thing I’ve ever tasted. I’m a little awed by Asian food, which is another reason I love it. I respect good pasta and admire a great steak, but I know how to cook my own (not too bad) pasta and steak. Eating really good Thai or Vietnamese food is a wonderful, delicious mystery, since I don’t know the ingredients and wouldn’t know how to whip it up at home.

Who does the cooking in your household? How often do you eat at home?

I’m the cook. I couldn’t boil water until I was in my twenties, and then out of necessity, learned to cook. I even went to cooking school (Peter Kump, in New York) because I really, truly didn’t know how to cook. And I came out of it really loving to cook and surprised everyone by becoming a good cook (modesty aside). We eat at home now quite often – at least five nights a week. We live in the country and hopping out for a burger isn’t that easy, so the nights when we used to do that (when we lived in New York) are now nights when we dig around for something in the freezer. And we even bought a big extra freezer for that very reason.

As an author, how do meals fit into your writing schedule?

When I’m on a deadline, it’s hard. I gobble some breakfast, have whatever’s easy for lunch, and dinner becomes a challenge, since I sometimes forget to think about it until it’s nearly time to be eating. I was spoiled by being able to shop every day and last minute in New York, so I never developed good planning skills. We also entertain a lot, and I sometimes find myself on deadline but also figuring out what to cook for ten people. This is, to say the least, quite challenging.

If you could have any four people, from any point in history, over for dinner, who would they be?

I tried to answer this just off the top of my head, to see what names really floated up fast. William Faulkner (even though he was a drunk and probably wouldn’t be good dinner company). Mao. Darwin. And my dad, who passed away three years ago.

What’s your favorite guilty pleasure food?

I love bad pie. Cafeteria pie. Gummy, glutinous pie. Don’t tell anyone, please.

September 26, 2010   Comments

Interviewing Twitter about Food

Over the course of a week, I posted a single interview question every morning to Twitter and recorded your responses.  Some observations:

1. When it came to rating a meal as the “most memorable” or wanting to repeat a meal as your final dish ever, emotions definitely come into play, particularly regarding who would accompany you at the table, or who would prepare the meal for you.  The food, in these situations, was not as important as the company.

2. Generally, bad service can cast even the best food in a bad light.

3. It is possible to get bad pizza in NYC.

All responses are in their original form and remain unedited.  And with that, on to the questions:

Question 1: In the 60s/70s, Duck a L’Orange was the iconic symbol of haute cuisine. What, in your opinion, is today’s equivalent?

@ElBueno Hmm… Foie gras seems to get a lot of attention, but never interested me. Is ‘I don’t know’ a valid answer?

@StephWeber 3 things come to mind- foie gras, caviar, truffles. They’re not in my diet, but they seem to have a *shmeh* aura about them

@melomel Any dish involving molecular gastronomy has become increasingly popular. And truffles. Everyone’s nuts about truffles.

@sgabarik – tapas / asian-anything fusion.

@banana_stand i’ve been to and work at a restaurant that does a take on poutine, the classic canadian comfort food. With fingerling potatoes, artisinal cheese, fois gras, and a fine brown sauce, it has infinite potential for excellence!

@HannahAmick tuna tartare

Question 2:Describe your most memorable meal, including what made it so special. Remember, responses should be two tweets or less!

@multikulinaria For me memorable and humbling was when visiting with our interpreter’s elderly parents in a poor village in Bangladesh.They cooked two of their chickens for us. Not even sure any other chickens were left to them. I hardly think so.

@ElBueno BD dinner for my fiancee. Made bruschetta, duck over bacon/arugula crepes, and apple tart over hot cinnamon ice cream.

@SmokeInDaEye Windows on the World dinner after asking my wife to marry me. Don’t recall what I ate but wish I could do it again

@StephWeber Dinner at Alba in Malvern, my X-mas gift to my husband. Most delicious, juicy, flavorful steak & pork dishes we’ve ever had

@melomel It’s a tie between the engagement dinner party that you and Jen threw for us (amazing grilled cheese and tomato soup) and Ray and my 2-year anniversary dinner at Vetri last summer…wonderful melt-in-your-mouth pasta! Both meals were great.

@TailgatingTimes Jean-Georges 5 course dinner with wine on the company in Internet heyday. Kevin Bacon & Kyra were across the room.

@domesticDIY Last Thanksgiving we did an Asian theme. General Tso’s chicken, thai soup, eggrolls, pot stickers, and fried rice. Yummy!

@banana_stand A traditional hangi meal of chicken, lamb, potatoes, and other things cooked in a dirt hangi pit and left to roast all day – New Zealand on a Maori marae by the nicest ppl. old school cooking culture at its best. Truly an amazing people and culture

Question 3: Whether homemade or dining out, describe your most disappointing meal, detailing why it was so awful.

@ChefAsata 2 words: bad service. What a downer. Nothing sucks worse that being treated like an imposition.

@StephWeber When I was first teaching myself to cook (I must have been 19 or 20), I tried making my own recipe, lemon-garlic chicken. At the time, I didn’t know garlic burned quickly, and it ruined the whole dish. I ate it anyway, but I was very discouraged

@melomel I had a pretty awful Shepherd’s Pie at McGillin’s Olde Ale House…the chef didn’t use enough salt (or any) and the meat…was a strange texture. The final blow was the lack of salt and pepper on the table. I couldn’t even fix it myself!

@zoeythegreat Most disappointing meal: $22 plate of “onion-crusted grouper” that was clearly breaded with French’s Fried Onions. Horrid.

@uglyhermit Bland, flavorless pizza in a New York city parking garage turned pizza parlor.

Question 4: When it comes to dining out, what contributes more to a great meal – the quality of the food or the service?

@melomel The quality of the meal contributes more to a great meal; if the food sucks but the service is good, it’s not the same. But, if the food is amazing and the service is outstanding, then that makes it a meal you can’t stop talking about.

@Greg888 Too long for RT, but bad service dinning out is the least forgivable mistake a restaurant or diner can make

@alandaviddoane Good food trumps good service, but both are a must for a truly great experience.

@StephWeber Definitely the food. I don’t care if the service is so good that they give me a back massage during the meal, the quality of the food is what I’ll remember. Servers are mostly salesmen for the meal.

@AteToTheBar Food’s more important. Good service helps but can’t really make up for bad food; but good food can trump bad service.

@seidson Bad service does ruin good food. I have vowed never to go to certain restaurants due to bad service

@ChefAsata bad service may ruin the experience, but amazing food always shines… like a sincere smile or a diamond in candlelight.

@uglyhermit Bad service can make or break a meal. Dining out is all about the TOTAL experience. I’ve had $200 meals with $2 service.

@floatingprncess Bad service absolutely ruins good food!

@Foodie_Chick I think bad service sours a good meal. Happened to me tonight! I’ve almost forgotten how much I liked my duck confit.

@cookerteacher Bad service definately contributes to the quality of the food. A restaurant is an entire package! Reputation is everything

Question Five – If you had a say in it, what would you select as your final meal?

@HealthySpices I am not ready to think about my final meal I am thinking about many more to come

@seidson 1st time I made apple crisp for my now husband. He asked me to marry him it was so good. :)

@StephWeber I’ve been trying to think of some amazing elaborate last meal since you posted the question, but I keep coming back to my mom’s chicken francais with angel hair pasta. Simple, delicious comfort food. Can’t beat that.

@melomel For my final meal, I would want Ray to repeat what he made for my 27th birthday. A meal made with love.Mango prosciutto cheese bruschetta, duck over savory herb crepes, and hot cinnamon ice cream over apples and puff pastry.

@ElBueno London broil, marinated in whisky, soy sauce, and lime, seasoned with dill. Fresh tomatoes and corn.Grilled outside (except for the tomatoes). Beer, choosing at the last moment. On a backyard deck with friends.

April 6, 2009   Comments

The Great Twitter Experiment, in Which I Interview the Internet About Food

So, I’m going to try something entirely new, experimental, and hopefully fun.  I’ve decided to try to interview the internet on the topic of food, and to accomplish this lofty goal, I will be using Twitter to post the questions.

Here’s the deal – on Monday, I will post the first of a series of questions relating to everyone’s experiences with food, both the cooking and the eating of it.  I’ll collect the responses (you can submit them as @ replies, or direct messages), and pick three or four of the most interesting answers, which will then become part of the interview.  The next day, Tuesday, will bring the second question, and so on.  You can always visit my Twitter profile page to view any questions that you may have missed, and there’s no daily deadline for answers – in other words, if you want to submit a response to Monday’s question, you can do so at any point during the week while I’m still collecting and compiling.

The week after next, I will publish the entire interview in Q and A format, with attribution and links back to the Twitter screen names of the authors of the best responses.  Obviously, this experiment has the greatest chance of success if there’s a lot of participation, so feel free to pass this on to anyone who you think would be interested.

March 20, 2009   Comments