I Scream, You Scream, It’s Foie Gras Ice Cream!
Nowhere in the country is the summer as humid as in the South. But nowhere does the ice cream taste as sweet. Popsicles, frozen yogurt, sundaes, we’ll take them all—and we’ll venture way beyond the bounds of chocolate and vanilla (scoop of Thai basil-coconut, anyone?). After all, it’s summertime…and slurping up a jalapeño-pineapple paleta is just the way to celebrate.
In the early 2000s, everyone wanted to be Bryan Gilmore’s friend. That’s because he made pear-champagne sorbet and avocado ice cream out of his New Orleans basement and gave it away to whoever stopped by. One day, the person stopping by was Gilmore’s longtime pal David Bergeron. The two had worked together in ice cream shops throughout high school and college, and Bergeron told Gilmore he wanted them to open an old-fashioned ice cream parlor called Creole Creamery right there in the city. Gilmore, who was happily working in the restaurant business at the time, initially hemmed and hawed—but after three months of deliberation, he finally decided to try it.
He hasn’t looked back since. These days, he’s experimenting with flavors for a much larger crowd, concocting jaw-dropping ice creams like foie gras with huckleberry swirl for the shop’s two locations. Admittedly some of his experiments have taken a while to catch on. When Gilmore introduced the “Green Fairy” a year ago (a combination of Herbsaint absinthe ice cream, chopped dark Valrhona chocolate, and candied orange peel), the container sat neglected while surrounding flavors were scooped clean. Gilmore stopped making it, but then decided to give it another go three months later. “Now it’s flying off the shelves,” Gilmore marvels. “I think it was just timing. You get the right people tasting it and it gets this momentum, and before you know it, it’s one of your big sellers.”
Gilmore thinks artisanal (read: experimental) ice creams have become more popular with the rise of social media. Few people will tweet that they just ate a vanilla cone, but plenty will let the world know they devoured a Thai basil-coconut one. “It forces people like me to flex our muscles even more and push the envelope even more,” Gilmore says. But he adds that there’s still a place for tradition. “When I get a chocolate malt, I want a chocolate malt and that’s it.”
Azucar Ice Cream Company
Way down in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, Suzy Batlle has her own ice cream success story to share. She was a banker for twenty years until the recent recession pummeled her industry. One evening, the single mom sat at her kitchen table fretting about finances and came up with an idea: open a Cuban ice cream shop right where she lived. Not only did the city not have such a shop for its large Cuban population (of which she is a member), the concept fit with an overall ice cream trend in nostalgic flavors. “Cuban ice cream takes you back to when you were a kid, when you shared the taste with your grandmother,” Batlle says.
She enrolled in ice cream courses at Penn State Creamery and the Frozen Dessert Institute in St. Louis, then returned home to create Azucar Ice Cream Company. She commissioned replicas of Cuban tile for the floors and erected large chalkboards where guests could jot down their thoughts about the flavors they tried—or life in general. When she opened her doors in July 2011, locals and tourists alike poured inside, and business has yet to slow down.
Naturally, many of Batlle’s fifty rotating flavors are Cuban, like mantecado (a French vanilla with hints of cinnamon and nutmeg) and Willy Chirino (a bourbon-cherry ice cream named after the famous Cuban crooner). But Batlle also serves gringo flavors like Belgian chocolate and the Elvis—peanut butter and banana. “I believe our shop could be located anywhere, not just Miami,” Batlle says. “People everywhere want nostalgic ice cream.”
Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams
Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams agrees. She owns eleven ice cream shops around the country, including two in the South (both in Nashville). To create rich tastes that evoke the memories of childhood, she buys expensive ingredients from premium (and many times local) purveyors. There’s a Tennessee farmer who sells her “a whole field of local strawberries.” Then there’s a grass-pasture dairy in Ohio that gives her milk and cream. Her vanilla beans hail from a fair trade farm in Uganda, and her dark chocolate traces its roots to a bean-to-bar chocolate maker in Missouri.
Amy’s Ice Creams
Of course, this is an expensive way to make ice cream, as the shops that are doing it will tell you. Amy Simmons, who owns Amy’s Ice Creams in Austin, says her employees create their waffle cones from scratch and hand-squeeze the lemons and slice the cantaloupes for their ice cream flavors. “It’s extremely labor-intensive,” she says. With an average sale of four dollars and numbers that typically drop 50 percent in the winter, making ice cream can oftentimes mean making little money for quite a while. “It’s the best job I could possibly ever have, but when people tell me they want to do what I do, I try to talk them out of it,” Simmons says. “You’re working your hiney off.”
Part of Simmons’s work is coming up with flavors no one else is making, especially as artisanal ice creams become increasingly mainstream (Baskin-Robbins now has Creole cream cheese and Häagen-Dazs has spiced caramel biscuit). One of Simmons’s favorite tricks is adding beer to vanilla ice cream, like Shiner Beer from Shiner, Texas, which she says gives off a surprisingly sweet, caramelized flavor.
Valentina Vassallo Pollard lives down the street from one of Amy’s Ice Creams’ twelve Austin locations and says the place’s flavors are interwoven into her memories. “In college, my friends and I would walk to Amy’s from our dorm to indulge in a late-night treat,” she says. “These days, my husband and I walk from our home to Amy’s to meet up with friends, grab some ice cream, and watch our girls play amongst those funky cows. Amy’s is part of what makes Austin such a special place.”
Simmons says you won’t hear this sort of sentiment when people talk about their favorite sushi restaurant or steakhouse. “Ice cream plays a role in people’s lives you almost can’t put words to,” she says. “It’s something people eat because they’re sad or happy or they want an experience with their friends—that’s what reeled me into working with ice cream to begin with.”
Southern Flavors to Savor
Ice cream makers give us the varieties that represent their cities
NEW ORLEANS / Creole Cream Cheese
New Orleans natives have incorporated this spread (which tastes like a cross between cottage cheese and sour cream) into their ice cream for generations. To Bryan Gilmore of Creole Creamery, nothing says N’awlins better. “It’s a little tart, so delicious, and the quintessential New Orleans ice cream flavor.
MIAMI / Abuela Maria
Suzy Batlle of Azucar Ice Cream Company trademarked this flavor, a combination of Cuban Maria crackers, guava, and cream cheese. “Cubans love guava and cream cheese on a cracker, and I put it all inside an ice cream,” she says proudly.
NASHVILLE / Yazoo Sue
Take ice cream made with Yazoo Sue, a smoked porter beer made at Yazoo Brewing Company in Nashville. Throw in a fistful of mixed nuts roasted with rosemary, salt, and brown sugar. And there you have it, an ice cream that tastes like a bar snack. “It may be my favorite flavor yet,” says Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.
AUSTIN / Mexican Vanilla
“It is just phenomenal,” Amy Simmons says of the sweet, intense vanilla flavor she makes for Amy’s Ice Creams, her eponymous company. Maybe that’s why it’s her best seller.
The coolest popsicles aren’t popsicles at all—they’re paletas
GoodPop in Austin.
King of Pops in Atlanta, Athens, and Charleston.
Pleasant Pops in DC.
Las Paletas in Nashville.
They all serve frozen treats on a stick, but don’t call them popsicles—they’re paletas (pronounced “pie-yeh-tahs”). “Paletas are everywhere in Mexico, where I grew up,” says Irma Paz-Bernstein, who owns Las Paletas with her sister, Norma Paz. “They’re completely natural—no flavorings or colorings. They’re gourmet popsicles made by people, not machines.”
When the Paz sisters opened their paleta shop on 12th Avenue in Nashville ten years ago, many scratched their heads and wondered whether locals would really go for a dessert they couldn’t pronounce in flavors like pineapple-hot pepper. But as it turns out, Las Paletas was on the front end of a trend. Dozens of paleta shops have since opened around the country, including several in the South. Daniel Goetz opened GoodPop in Austin in 2009, making all his paletas himself and selling them in farmers markets. He now has a production facility in Houston and a slew of retailers who buy his paletas wholesale. Over in Atlanta, Steven Carse dubbed himself the “King of Pops” in 2010 and started selling paletas out of a cart in pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. Today, he has sixteen employees and carts in two additional cities. “It definitely turned into something a little bigger than we ever imagined,” Carse says. “I get emails from people as far away as Africa and Australia who are interested in our recipes.”
Carse closely guards the secrets behind chocolate sea salt, the flavor that’s far and away his best seller. But he’s willing to share his banana pudding recipe (see recipe sidebar), one of his other top flavors. Goetz reports that in Austin, hibiscus-mint paletas are the hottest thing going, but banana-cinnamon and watermelon-agave aren’t far behind.
The tricky part about paletas? Since they don’t have preservatives or stabilizers, they only last two to three days. Make too many, and they go bad. Make too few, and customers grumble that you’ve sold out of their favorite flavor. Carse says that when this happens, he encourages people to try something new, and they often wind up enjoying their Plan B paleta just as much. It’s hard to eat a paleta unhappily, and for the people who make them, that’s the main reward.
Paletas + Pops Recipes
Fro Yo Fever
How long can the frozen yogurt trend continue?
It’s hardly an exaggeration that wherever you are, there’s a frozen yogurt shop within a five-mile radius. The industry has exploded in the last three years, thanks to innovative, low-fat flavors, the ability to control your own portions through self-serve options, and a populace hungry for something that costs less than five dollars. Craig Hyde, communications and marketing director for Birmingham-based Yogurt Mountain, reports that the company has opened forty-two stores in fifteen states since its founding in 2009. While he acknowledges that the yogurt industry can’t grow forever, he insists that it hasn’t yet reached its peak.
Roi Shlomo agrees. The CEO and founder of Atlanta-based Yogli Mogli, Shlomo has nineteen locations in three states and plans to open another six this summer. The competition for customers is fierce, but he’s convinced his business model (choose great locations, franchisees, and products to create a strong brand) will help him prevail. “A lot of [frozen yogurt] stores have started to fade out, but the ones that stay in business in the next year or two will stay long-term,” he says.
Perhaps because the industry has populated so rapidly, many states don’t have a system for governing who can call themselves frozen yogurt shops. Schlomo sniffs that his yogurt is made with live and active cultures but that plenty of his competitors make theirs from powders. Hyde reports the same: “There are a lot of copycats who say, ‘I think we can do this,’ but maintaining a high level of quality is much more difficult than you would think.”
Besides starting with quality yogurt, shops set themselves apart with flavors that resonate with customers. The shops with whom we spoke say that in the South, sweet sells. Apparently, we love our old-fashioned vanilla, cake batter, cookies and cream, and red velvet cupcakes—especially when they’re frozen and piped into cups at 110 calories a serving.
Down the road, expect sweet-and-savory flavors like salted chocolate, thick and creamy Greek frozen yogurt, and toppings that literally burst in your mouth. But don’t expect anything to replace frozen yogurt entirely. “We’ve created a new culture,” Shlomo says, “and it’s not going anywhere.”