If you haven’t heard about Jeni’s Ice Cream, you are missing out. We got Jeni to answer some of our pressing questions about the name she is making in the dessert world.
When I was young, I worked at a French bakery in Columbus, Ohio. I fell in love with pastry and started making American baked goods with French techniques (lighter sugar, fresher ingredients, and better overall quality). I also started to play around with ice cream and ingredients. The first ice cream I “made” was a Mexican hot chocolate-inspired ice cream: store-bought milk chocolate ice cream mixed with cayenne pepper essential oil. When I eventually started making ice cream from scratch at home I realized that no one was making ice cream with the same great ingredients we used at the patisserie, so I started a small ice cream shop called Scream in 1996 the North Market, our city market in Columbus, Ohio. I look at it now as my practice ice cream shop. Scream closed in the late ‘90s, I took some time off to draw up a proper business plan and opened Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in 2002 in the North Market. It’s one of 9 shops now in Ohio; we also have a shop in Nashville, Tenn.
Have you always had a love for ice cream? Do your friends and family also share in this love?
Flavor drew me to ice-cream. I’d studied art in college at Ohio State University and worked in a bakery, but not until I mixed essential oil of cayenne with a store-bought ice cream and served it to party guests who went crazy (“It’s hot! It’s cold!”), was I inspired to make ice-cream from scratch. When I started, everywhere I looked there were ingredients and opportunities to use ice-cream to explore flavor, history, art, and various cultures.
I’m a huge dessert freak; I love them all, but especially ice cream and frozen yogurts. Butterfat—the fat in cream—melts perfectly at body temperature. Other fats don’t do that. Butterfat absorbs flavor: When you put butter next to an onion, it’ll start to taste like an onion. So you can flavor butterfat with all these wonderful things, and then freeze it so the flavor is locked in there, and then it gets released through the warmth of your tongue. And sharing ice cream is one of the best things, too. Everybody gets their own flavor and has a taste of everyone else’s flavor. If you’re dating someone you might give them a lick off your cone. It’s just such a shareable experience.
And, yes, to say the least, my friends and family share my love of ice cream.
June 7th is National Chocolate Ice Cream day, what other flavor(s) do you think deserve a national holiday.
Salty Caramel. I’ve been making it since the mid ‘90s, and it’s the reason people came downtown to my little shop way back when in a city that was already crowded with great ice cream. It put us on the map. Nobody can resist the flavor of pure caramel, but it’s not an easy one to pull off. Caramel is one thing: caramelized sugar. The taste of caramelized sugar can’t be synthesized. Synthetic caramel flavorings are awful, but most companies use them because the process of making caramel is treacherous and intense—especially if you’re doing it on the scale we are. It’s dangerous. Sugar has to reach 385 degrees, it spits and spurts, and if it lands on you, it burns straight through your skin. And it’s very difficult to get right. There is about a 2-second window when the caramel is perfect, so we have only two people in company (in addition to me) who can get it right in our kitchen. If you stop before the window or after the window it just doesn’t have that deeply emotional caramel scent in your nose. We toast our sugar in a copper kettle over fire. That’s the traditional way to do it. The flavor of our caramel is not measured by the dropper-full, but by the sight and smell of the sugar as it darkens over the flame. I think that deserves a national holiday.
We have 16 “Signature” (year-round) flavors: These are flavors that we find ourselves never tiring of that we always want no matter what. Whereas we may tire of something fanciful or novel, these are the ones that have stood the test of time. They’re expertly crafted, balanced, and delicious. Examples: Salty Caramel, Dark Chocolate, Askinosie Dark Milk Chocolate, and Ugandan Vanilla Bean. We have Perennial flavors: flavors that come back every year when the season calls for them Roasted Strawberry Buttermilk, Lemon & Blueberries frozen yogurt, and Roasted Pumpkin 5 Spice, et al. Limited Edition flavors are the latest flavors; they’re the experimental flavors that we have a lot of fun with—as do our customers. Customer favorites right now are Mango Lassi (frozen yogurt), Juniper & Lemon Curd (ice cream), and Plum Sake Sorbet.
How do you come up with flavors?
I always start with what is around me. Something excites me—a flavor, a color, an emotion and then I build context around that. Flavor is what surrounds you. I find flavor inspirations by following my own curiosities. I start with what is around me and growing in the Midwest (sweet corn, black walnuts, spice bush berries, fresh strawberries, stone fruits); what’s happening around the world (the Royal Wedding inspired a 2011 collection); or some ingredient that strikes me. I try to use the flavor to tell a story – so I build context around each ingredient – I put everything I know about it on paper and it becomes like a tree with lots of lines. I choose the most interesting one. Sometimes I follow the color, or the history, or something cultural. I often stay true to classical pairings and dishes – I mean you really can’t go wrong there.
Who gets to choose which flavors make it to the customers and what is the process?
I’ve got a small team who help me create the flavors. We know when we’ve made a new really great flavor because after we take a bite, we can’t speak. We smile deeply. And then we rush out to share it with everyone else. Not every flavor is like this, of course, so it’s a great feeling to nail it. Sometimes we think a flavor isn’t perfect, but it’s exciting anyway and we make it and let our customers give us feedback. This is great because we learn a lot from making new things—about how different ingredients perform in ice cream and also about preferences from customers. We think of our customers as our greatest collaborators.
Any of our yogurts. I have been making them the same way since 1996. They are always made with tart fruits and cream and yogurt from grass-pastured cows. They are colorful, light, tart, and very creamy. Nothing like the “fro-yo” powdered astronaut yogurt thing. These are real yogurts, full of flavor. More like French-style. They have fat, but it’s good fat, and not much of it. Just enough cream to make it intensely crave-able. (I’m going to go get some grapefruit yogurt right now)
What is your most eccentric flavor combination?
I have never set out to make something eccentric, something that’s eccentric for eccentric’s sake. Almost everything we make is usually can be traced back to rather traditional desserts. When I think back on some of my favorites I think of the Toasted Rice Pudding with Coconut Milk and a Whiff of Black Tea. I toasted the rice first, until was brown, and then made the rice pudding with coconut milk. I steeped the cream with black tea just to give it a backdrop; the tea is almost not there, just a “whiff”, but it makes the whole combination feel exotic. Young celery leaves with rum soaked sultanas was another one that I loved. I was on one of the farms near Columbus and the celery was just starting to come up. The leaves were really verdant and so strong in flavor that they almost numbed my tongue. So, I asked our farmer, Adam, if he would pluck some of the celery tops early for me and I made that ice cream by steeping it in the cream. The rum soaked golden raisins kind of reminded me of being a kid and eating celery and raisins together. The lapsang Sounchon and Armagnac Prunes was inspired by the traditional French pairing or cognac and prunes – and the smokiness draws out even more of that flavor. Of course, I spent 8 years making ice creams and serving them in an indoor public market where you can find every ingredient under the sun and everything in that market eventually made it’s way into ice cream, some more successfully than others. It’s all part of the fun.
Do you recommend your ice-cream in a cup or a cone?
Ice cream is meant for a cone. When you sweep a layer off with your tongue you excavate flavor. It’s the perfect amount to melt immediately and release all that scent into your nose.
What kind of ingredients do you use? (All Natural? Local? Etc…)
Ice cream is only as good as the foundation upon which it rests. We work with a handful of small dairy farms for grass-pastured milk and cream (Snowville Creamery). Our process is much more like cheese making. When we start with raw milk and minimally pasteurize it, we don’t break up the proteins, so those proteins provide smoothness and body to the ice cream. You can’t do that if you buy milk that is already pasteurized – and raw milk is not easy to come by. We don’t use gums or dried milk powder to create body, we do it with the natural components of milk: butterfat, sugar, protein. We can do this only because we have amazing dairy partners at Snowville Creamery. This is rare in the world of dairy, let alone ice cream. We have spent many years working this recipe out (and we continue to do so). But it is very unique — we did not want to use a generic ice cream mix, or an old ice cream formula. We knew ice cream could be better.
From there, we like to buy our ingredients directly from the people who produce them, whether it’s beer, coffee, herbs, strawberries, even international ingredients like vanilla beans, which we import directly from Ndali Estate, a small fair-trade farm in Uganda. The varietal of vanilla bean we use accounts for less than 1% of the global vanilla supply. It’s rare and it’s the best.
We never use just organic, local, etc.; we just work with people we like to work with. And those people always grow or produce the best flavor. Ohio is a top 5 state for soil in the U.S. Our farmers grow some of the best produce on earth. So we start there, but look beyond if an ice cream calls for something that isn’t being produced here.
What is a normal day in the life of Jeni’s Ice Cream (yourself, a worker, a store, or an actual product).
Each day is unique. Today, we have our monthly company lunch. Ten years ago, I would have all of our employees over to my house. I would cook dinner, and we would sit around my table and just hang out. There were maybe five employees then. Now we get together monthly and we pull out all the stops. We have about 300 people in our company and many come out for the lunches. Every lunch is better than the last. We rarely talk business; we just hang out and have fun. Today I am looking forward to discussions of writing and recording holiday music this summer for our early winter collection. We’d like to have our own song this holiday. We’ve always got some fun side project we try to pull off with people who work here. (The kitchen seems to always be populated with dudes who play music when they aren’t making ice cream.)
Then it will be ice cream tasting time. I taste ice cream about twice a week. We are very critical about it. We take good notes. Then we tweak. We spend a lot of time just trying to make everything better (from ice cream to customer service; the list is very long). We want to take one step forward every day. If we just tweak one little thing for the better, then we feel good.
If you could pick any flavor of ice-cream and make a special delivery to anybody in the world, past or present, who would it be and what flavor would you choose?
I would take our yogurts to Michelle Obama. I think she would flip.
Tell us about the ice-cream sandwiches.
Like everything we do, they are hand-made to a dizzying degree. We make the almond meringue cookies; if we color them we do so with vegetable powders. Each cookie is hand piped onto parchment-covered baking sheets. They are baked in our ovens and cooled then filled with scoops of ice cream.
We chose this style of cookie, which were inspired by the French macarons, because of the way they melt as you eat them. They are always tender, even when frozen, and by the last bite, the cookie is almost melted right into the ice cream.
I often serve them at parties by cutting them into four and serving them directly from a cutting board in the center of the table. People love to try all of them and the array is very colorful. Perfect after a long slow dinner!
Anything else you would like to share about yourself or your ice cream!
Hmmm. Let’s see. If you know of anyone selling an early ‘70s Camaro (not a showroom piece, but a street-ready job that’s ready to roll and equipped with a cassette deck), send them my way.