An ice cream wizard brings the magic home
By Jane Black,
Columbus, Ohio — Ask most people whether they would be willing to pay $10 for a pint of ice cream, and they will probably say, “No, thanks.” But start listing flavors from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, and they might reconsider: Salty caramel, sweet corn and raspberry, and brown butter almond brittle sound more like edible art than a simple summer snack. All it takes is one bite to get hooked.
A visit to Jeni’s offices here seems to confirm that idea. Founder Jeni Britton Bauer, 37, who studied art in college, wears owl-shaped glasses and has her dirty-blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. She sits at a white oval desk in a sunny office that looks as if it belongs in a tech company from the dot-com boom. There are white boards on the walls, scribbled with ideas for new flavors, and a well-curated selection of fashionable cookbooks. (“Ad Hoc at Home,” the latest from Napa chef-restaurateur Thomas Keller, serves as her mousepad.) Every day at 3 p.m., Bauer stops what she is doing to taste ice creams.
But when Bauer starts to talk, it’s not about new flavors or ice cream as art. It’s about milk proteins, the temperatures at which various fats melt and how water acts like kryptonite, zapping the frozen treat of its creaminess. After more than a decade in the business, Bauer knows it takes more than artistry to make great ice cream.
That is the lesson she has set out to teach in her new cookbook, “Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home” (Artisan). It is, she claims, the end of the goopy, soupy, eggy, grainy and, yes, icy ice creams that she thinks most recipes produce with a countertop maker. And it’s this simple: Leave out the egg yolks that most recipes call for. Heat the milk, cream and sugar at a rolling boil for exactly four minutes. Add some cornstarch and a nub of cream cheese, and a quart of creamy, rich, scoopable ice cream — a $20 value! — is yours.
Simplicity, though, took time. Bauer didn’t even know what a milk protein was on the night in college when she made her first batch of “hot chocolate,” dark chocolate ice cream mixed with cayenne essential oil. “I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I thought I invented it,” she remembers. That is, until she went to the library and discovered the Mayans had developed the combination thousands of years ago. But the flavor was such a hit among her friends that Bauer began to think seriously about a career making ice cream. Her first serious experimentation had begun.
In 1996, Bauer opened Scream in North Market, Columbus’s culinary hub. A 22-year-old art student with bright pink hair, Bauer made all the ice creams in a two-gallon machine and worked the counter. She bought ingredients from other North Market merchants, partly because she was curious about them and partly because she was too small to order from any serious supplier.
Scream’s opening menu served up a couple of Jeni’s now-signature flavors: salty caramel, inspired by a French pastry chef in a suburban shop where she had worked as a teenager, and Thai chili, a blend of peanut butter ice cream, toasted coconut and chili, now called Bangkok peanut.
Scream had a cult of loyal customers. But some, Bauer remembers, were irritated by the shop’s lack of consistency. Some days — the days she felt like making it — Scream had salty caramel. Many days, it did not. “I had this idea that I could make whatever I wanted to make,” she remembers. “I was an artiste!”
Scream closed in 2000 when Bauer and her business partner split. But Bauer was still committed to the concept. Over the next two years, she “geeked out” on the science of ice cream and, with the help of her now-husband, Charly, wrote a business plan.
Before the new shop opened in November 2002, Bauer cut her hair short and dyed it brown. She bought starched white shirts to wear behind the counter. “When you make flavors that people aren’t immediately familiar with, everything else has to feel comfortable,” she says.
Jeni’s was an instant hit and transformed Bauer into a local celebrity. More unexpectedly, Bauer says, Jeni’s has made her an evangelist for local food. Jeni’s sources grass-fed milk from Ohio’s Snowville Creamery. Nearby Oakvale Creamery provides cheese, and local distillery Middle West Spirits contributes vodka and whiskey.
Today, Jeni’s has nine shops in Ohio and one in Nashville, and its new 10,000-square-foot kitchen can turn out 4,000 hand-packed, hand-labeled pints per day. Jeni’s ice cream is available in select stores in all 50 states, and its vibrant online business sold more than 100,000 pints last year and is set to double this year.
Each season, the company unveils a new crop of seasonal flavors such as corn syrup custard, a sly take on pecan pie, for winter and baked rhubarb frozen yogurt for spring. Between launches, Bauer sketches out new treats: macaroon ice cream sandwiches, Warhol-inspired push pops and elaborate sundaes such as the recent Tuscan, which featured salty caramel ice cream, biscotti, honey-vin santo sauce and brandied cherries. Doodles of new concepts hang above her shelf of exotic spices — candied fennel, galangal, espelette pepper — in the company’s test kitchen, built expressly to keep Bauer from meddling with daily production.
Bauer is creatively restless and an inveterate tinkerer. It was those qualities, and a request for recipes from Food & Wine magazine, that propelled her to reinvent ice cream at home. While on her first maternity leave, she began to experiment. “I had always wanted to improve on home recipes because I have tried every thing in every ice cream cookbook ever published,” Bauer says. “And they just don’t work at home.”
Egg yolks are one problem, she says. They become brittle when frozen and, unlike butterfat, they don’t melt on contact with your tongue, which can result in a greasy finish. The other issue is too much water, which can create ice crystals. So Bauer’s recipe eliminates eggs. Instead, by boiling the milk, cream and sugar, cooks evaporate some water and create a sugar syrup with what remains, which helps make the ice cream pliable for scooping. That also concentrates and denatures the milk proteins so they create a smooth, rich texture.
Bauer has two final tricks. Cornstarch or tapioca starch prevent ice crystals if you add watery flavorings such as fruit. Cream cheese, high in the milk protein casein, adds body. Both techniques help ensure smoothness and scoopability.
Cookbook author David Lebovitz, whose “The Perfect Scoop” (Ten Speed Press, 2007) is considered one of the best treatments of the subject, hasn’t seen Bauer’s book yet, but he looked at one of her recipes — and defended his techniques.
“I use egg yolks in my ice cream because I like the flavor they give to ice cream, but recognize there are a variety of ways to make ice cream,” he wrote in an e-mail from Paris. “I often use sour cream or even cream cheese in a base, if I’m looking for a certain flavor profile, such as in fruit ice creams.”
Bauer’s method is similar no matter which flavor you choose. The book provides recipes for almost all of Jeni’s flavors: lime-cardamom frozen yogurt, cocoa-zinfandel, roasted pistachio and gooey butter cake. But it also gives careful directions on how to adjust sugar, fat and water to create your own flavors.“This is all you need to know,” she says.
If she’s right, the book poses a dilemma for Jeni’s: What if people are no longer willing to shell out $10 a pint? Ironically, it might all come back to her flair for flavors. Not every home cook, even one with a good recipe, will dream up ones like the cherry pit ice cream Bauer developed for the Post. Or the newest flavors on Jeni’s menu: hoppy beer and apricot ice cream, disco melon sorbet and a glorious-colored beet ice cream studded with poppy seeds and black walnuts. For ice cream aficionados, that will be hard to resist.
Black is a former Food section staff writer.