Jeni Britton Bauer is my ice cream hero.
Many among the coffee nerd set have heroes similar to this—people with whom we'd love to sit down and watch while they work, roasting or brewing coffee, boring them to death with questions about extraction and pour speed, such that we might learn from them ourselves. But if someone were making me ice cream instead of coffee—or ice cream with coffee in it!—the learning/tasting game, and the attendant pleasures, would be so much more.
Of course, it's not necessary for me to watch Jeni make ice cream herself, or even take a trip to wonderful Columbus, Ohio, where her company is based, to get closer to the source. She's published two ice cream cookbooks, and nowadays, nearly any city in the United States with a fancy food store can avail itself of Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream, which comes in flavors as simple as Backyard Mint and as out there as Saison With Sunflower Seeds and Golden Flax. Homegrown from a kitchen into one of the country's most respected ice cream makers, the Jeni's of today is a mid-sized B Corp, keeping the focus on sustainability and a living wage. “It's not easy—but it makes it more fun to go to work every day,” says Britton Bauer of the company's focus. “We have 561 employees, and 150 of them are still working in kitchens making ice cream. We're bringing in pumpkins and chopping them and roasting them and drying them and finally making them into ice cream.”
The creamery's latest flavor is, auspiciously enough for me, coffee—their newest rendition of a classic ice cream flavor, made this time with the Black Cat espresso blend from our partners at Intelligentsia Coffee.
As an at-home ice-cream-maker, my approach changed completely when I discovered the recipe for Jeni's ice cream base online. Neither a classic, yolk-laden Midwestern custard or a Philadelphia-style, Jeni's flavor base uses the secret weapon of 3 tablespoons cream cheese to guarantee a perfect, smooth texture each time. Since switching to her recipe I've never had the consistency heartbreaks of past batches, and when made with quality dairy ingredients, you won't find a more delicious tasting blank canvas to mix and freeze your flavor dreams into.
With nearly two decades of expertise in an artisan category in which Jeni's had been well ahead of the curve, it seemed likely to me that, paired with high quality coffees, Jeni's ice cream labs could easily produce some of the tastiest coffee ice cream out there. And I was right. After sampling a summer's worth (okay, a few decades' worth) of the finest ice creams and frozen coffee concoctions around, the icy bounty of Jeni's Black Cat ice cream samples that arrived on my doorstep lived up to its potential. I spoke more with Jeni Britton Bauer herself about her connection to coffee, and coffee as an ice cream flavor, in between spoonfuls of the stuff.
Do you drink coffee in Columbus?
I drink coffee! I just refilled my cup. We get all kinds of coffee, really good coffee in our office. The big coffee geniuses of the world would probably be upset to know that we percolate it, but we do French press too, sometimes if we have guests. Or pour-over, we do that in our stores. We're serving Intelligentsia and we're also serving Batdorf & Bronson.
Where do you go out for coffee? Have you heard of “Fox in the Snow”, the Columbus cafe named after a Belle and Sebastian song?!
That's funny, I love that song. We were listening to that when we started our company. We have many great coffee companies in Columbus! There's Cafe Brioso, there's a company called One Line that's relatively new, that's nice, Direct Trade sort of thing, so yeah, there are a lot. The other one we love is Luck Brothers, they're in Grandview and we think of that as our second office. He'll do pourover coffee and it will take—he explains the coffee to you for 10 minutes, then the coffee takes 10 minutes to brew and then you hang out and drink your coffee.
You've made coffee ice creams before. How did you come to work with Intelligentsia?
It seemed like a natural thing to do. What we're doing [in the Scoop Shops] is the seasonal coffees that they do. We don't sell a ton of coffee in our shops, but I do think that having good coffee is important with the desert experience. So it's great, and our sales have gone up on coffee. We do a double pot too, if you're on a date or whatever.
We still make other coffee ice creams. Intelligentsia is by far, without question, the most popular one we've ever done. It's pretty incredible, our Black Cat espresso flavor. The Batdorf & Bronson one we do is sort of milder but full of flavor, it's more caramelly. We've done other ones throughout the years.
What can you tell me about your method? Did you brew the coffee first, do you brew an extract or concentrate, etc.?
As far as I'm concerned there's only one way to make coffee ice cream, and that is to steep the coffee right in the cream. Every time we heat cream we have to bring it up to pasteurization temperature, and then we add the coffee and then we steep for 10 minutes. What happens there is the butterfat liquifies a little bit, and it adheres to the scent of the coffee. So when you steep coffee in water, you only get the plant extracts in the water. All the oil is on the top, which is why coffee doesn't taste like it smells.
In ice cream, if we were to steep it in water and even make a very strong espresso and then add it to cream, it would still taste like coffee steeped in water and mixed with cream. We want it to lock it in and freeze in so that as soon as it melts on your tongue, it releases the scent into your nose and tastes like coffee smells. If you want to get all that richness from coffee, it's a very different experience than having it steeped in water, which is also wonderful, but in ice cream you get a different version of coffee.
So that's two ways to enjoy coffee. Steep in water, or steep in fat.
How do you filter it out after this process? I noticed the ice cream still has flecks of coffee bean.
We put the grounds in the cream, and then steep it, and put it through Toddy bags. And we go through a bunch of those weekly! We just kind of force it through there, and then we take fresh espresso grounds—what we use to steep in the cream is a coarser grind—and then we add a little bit of the espresso-ground coffee back in before we put it in the machine. We want you to have a little bit of specks, and also those specks continue to bloom in the ice cream even as it's frozen, so they also add a little bit of flavor.
Do you prefer espresso blends to single origins? Have you played around with those?
I think we've made every coffee of Intelligentsia's that we've had into ice cream, and we find that there are some that work better than others. When we did this Black Cat one we thought, “that's the best one we've ever made.” Some coffees are a little acidic, and sometimes they get ashy in the flavor profile, and in the cream that's elevated, and they even turn sort of gray. So what we've done is find one that works best. Though I'm sure there are people who have lots of different preferences.
Are there other frontiers of coffee ice cream, or pairings/goodies, you've considered?
I've done like, in the '90s when I was just playing around with ice cream, I would do one that I called Al Pacino which was almond biscotti and espresso ice cream—the biscotti's really good because after a couple of days it turns into basically cake and absorbs the sugar syrup from the ice cream and gets soft.
With coffee I like to keep it really simple, because it goes with a lot of things. We have ice creams that we build with things in them, but coffee's one of those flavors that—especially when people go through so much to make such a beautiful coffee—we usually just leave it alone.
Liz Clayton is the Associate Editor at Sprudge.com, and helms our NYC desk. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.