There’s much more to coffee ice cream than the classic affogato.
By Jeremy Martin
A couple of years ago, Taylor Monen had a minor problem. The owner of Milk and Honey, a Chattanooga, Tenn. coffee shop and gelateria, found herself sitting on a few bags of Counter Culture Coffee that were on the verge of losing peak freshness. Taylor could have composted them; she could have served filter coffee for a couple days that was just a little shy of perfect; or she had the option to do something that would, in a way, change the course of her business: she could use the coffee to make gelato.
You can guess what she did, right? Now that coffee gelato is one of Milk & Honey’s best sellers.
“We ran into situations where we had coffee that wasn’t the correct age [for use as filter roast], and rather than brew something beyond its date, we decided to make some coffee flavored gelatos ,and it turns out they became some of our most popular flavors,” says Taylor. “Coffee and Cream is the one we sell the most of. It has the flavor of a sweetened, milky espresso drink.”
But as any experimental chef will tell you, inspiration can strike fast, but execution takes time.
“It was not simple,” she says. “Our process has a lot to do with balancing sugars and fats, and every coffee is a little different in terms of sugar content, and the age of the coffee effects it as well. [Creating gelato] has a lot to do with water content. Water can come from varying places—milk, cream, brewed coffee. When I make the coffee gelatos, they have a little less dairy then I would normally use; I’m backing down on the dairy because I’m getting more of the water from the coffee.”
When crafting coffee-based ice creams and gelatos, there are plenty of pitfalls to avoid. First, balancing the flavor of the coffee with the texture and consistency of the base can be tricky. Correctly cutting down the proportions of all other liquids takes trial and error and, of course, making sure the caffeine content isn’t such that one late-night cone keeps a customer up until sunrise.
“We’ve determined there is one sixteen-ounce cold brew per pint of our ice cream,” says Forbes Fisher of Steve’s Ice Cream in Brooklyn. “There is caffeine in there—it does carry though. That’s an unintended consequence of using real coffee.”
Steve’s Ice Cream currently uses Grady’s Cold Brew for making its two varieties of coffee ice cream: a non-dairy Cinnamon Coffee, as well as Coffee and Donuts, which uses a triple concentrated version of Grady’s made specially for Steve’s.
“The biggest thing from our standpoint [is using quality coffee], and it kind of helps and hurts us,” says Forbes. “I think a lot of people are used to what that instant espresso or instant coffee tastes like, so when you eat our coffee flavors, they are a bit muted, but it’s a real coffee flavor.
“The cheaper bean just isn’t as clean, for me it was all about the purity of the ingredients, providing a true flavor of that coffee,” Forbes says.
That’s why coffee ice cream chefs will often try dozens of coffee varieties and origins before settling on what they feel is the perfect bean for their creation.
“We tried a variety of their more seasonal blends, which were phenomenal,” says Liz Pierson of Jeni’s. “But we really liked the caramel notes of the Guatemala Antigua Finca El Valle as compared to the more acidic, floral characteristics of the others. It’s mild and rich—we love it—and steeped in our cream, the flavor is soft and cuddly like a fuzzy kitten or a cashmere sweater. And who doesn’t love that?”
Of course, when you’re talking about that warm, fuzzy feeling, is there anything more simple, and luxurious than a classic affogato?
“It’s the perfect coffee ice cream—the fresh aroma of the espresso combined with the vanilla. It adds just a little sweetness to it,” Andre Sadowski of Boston’s Thinking Cup said.
Affogato had been an Italian café dessert staple for generations before coming stateside sometime in the mid 1980s. Though plenty of other coffee-and-ice-cream combinations do exist, the traditional vanilla-ice-cream-with-espresso tandem seems to still be the basis of what all other coffee-flavored ice creams are based on, whether they were created by design or by necessity.
Portland, Ore.’s trendy Salt & Straw ice cream company wasn’t afraid to take on a challenge when its chef, Tyler Malek—who owns the company with his cousin, Kim—decided to craft a coffee ice cream. Partnering with the legendary Stumptown Coffee was a no brainer for Kim and Tyler, since Salt & Straw is rooted in city loyalty as much as Stumptown. But rather than choose one kind of Stumptown coffee with which to creat an ice cream, Tyler decided to use seasonal coffees as a guide for different flavors and concepts.
“While doing tastings with the team at Stumptown Coffee, we realized that since our ice cream is less sweet than most, you could tell the difference in flavor when we used different single origin coffees,” Tyler says. “Ever since, we’ve been following the seasons of coffee around the globe and churning up ice creams according to the region that happens to be producing that time of the year.”
This has resulted in such Salt & Straw coffee ice creams as Stumptown Coffee Cold-Brewed with Cocoa Nibs, Coffee & Bourbon (which brings in another local collaborator, Eastside Distilling and its Burnside Bourbon), and others.
Forbes summed it up by saying; “In general we love the whole element of working with popular, classic beverages and finding a way to innovate [with] them. It’s starting with that marriage of dairy and coffee, and taking it to the next level.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeremy Martin is a freelance writer and photographer who has reported on coffee, craft beer, college sports, and business for a variety of publications over the past six years. A veteran of the café industry and graduate of Western Michigan University, Jeremy lives in Seattle where can often be found making sandwiches from whatever is left in the fridge and cracking wise for the amusement of his adoring wife Amanda.