It’s summer: we’re screaming for ice cream! This month, we asked our favorite ice cream experts to share their most-loved ice cream combos and how-to tips — see them all, then share your own on Instagram with the hashtag #icecreamsocial and tag @williamssonoma to join the fun. We’ll regram and share our favorites!
Meet Jeni Britton Bauer, a true ice cream queen. She’s famed for the frozen treats she makes at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Columbus, Ohio, and also sells her pints in markets across the country. As if that’s not enough, she’s authored two cookbooks: Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream Desserts. Here, she shares her ultimate ice cream combo, what’s in her freezer now, and everything she loves about ice cream.
Tell us about your background and how you got started.
In the mid ‘90s I was studying Fine Art and Art History at The Ohio State University, working in a French bakery, and had a serious hobby of blending perfumes and rare essential oils—the perfect foundation for a would-be ice cream maker. For a party one night, I decided to blend some cayenne essential oil into store-bought chocolate ice cream. It was cold, tasted like chocolate, and about five seconds later was bursting into flames in the back of my throat. I knew right then and there that ice cream would occupy my whole life. I had found what I was looking for—a place where food, art, and perfume collide. I dropped out of school soon after and opened Scream Ice Cream in Columbus’ historic North Market. It was there that I was able to experiment daily with ingredients, learn from fellow merchants at the market, and talk to customers every day over the ice cream counter. After Scream closed I took a few years off to learn and study more, and in 2002 opened Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, again in the North Market.
Why ice cream? What do you love about it?
Anything ice cream touches becomes richer, more flavorful, more deeply perceived. Sweetened cream, slowly dripping from a frozen scoop transforms a cake or sauce the moment it touches it. Butterfat-rich cream absorbs scent and flavor and carries it to your nose. What’s more, ice cream encourages you to be in the moment. It’s melting and changing each second. You have to pay attention to it—or it disappears.
Can you share any of your favorite ice cream memories from childhood?
My grandmother always made fresh strawberry freezer jam. We would serve it on our vanilla ice cream and eat it right before bed. In fact, that was when we always ate ice cream: before bed, watching Johnny Carson (if we stayed up that late).
Why is summer the best time for ice cream?
Because you have to attack it or it disappears. Lick it before it melts down your arm.
Do you incorporate seasonal flavors/ingredients into your ice cream?
That’s all we do. We have a small list of tried-and-true signatures that never change, but we spend every hour working on our new, seasonal flavors and the artwork that will accompany them in our stores, in their packages to our customers, and on our website.
How do your tastes change with the seasons?
I usually want colder, tarter, lighter flavors in summer and buttery, richer, more toasty or spiced flavors in winter. But that can also change with the days of the week. For some reason I think Sundays are for sundaes or richer flavors, but on a Saturday afternoon or a warm day I would probably go for a scoop of Lemon Frozen Yogurt on a cone and then go on a long walk.
What are some of the craziest ice cream combinations you’ve made?
Ice cream is wonderful because cream absorbs scent and locks it in when it’s frozen. All of that scent and flavor are released as it melts on your tongue. So you can build really cool experiences in ice cream. I don’t know what the craziest is. I have made ice cream out of many edible (and some poisonous) things like roasted veal, salmon, fresh wasabi, dried pork, fava beans, cherry pits, and all sorts of flowers.
After almost 20 years making ice cream I have this mantra: Just because it’s “not bad” doesn’t mean it’s “good.” Most of my flavors are based on historic combinations, or artistic visions that are usually simple and full of story or emotion. Like our Absinthe + Meringues. The flavor was a perfect combination from a culinary point of view. But the story that went with it made it even better. It was inspired by the 100th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which caused riots between the upper class and the bohemians at its debut in Paris.
The meringues represented the upper class (fussy, dry, inflexible). The absinthe represented Spring (change, rebirth, poetry, excitement, humankind). In the ice cream the absinthe-scented cream crushed the meringues over time. The ice cream was one of the most wonderful we’ve ever made in flavor and texture, but it also had a performance aspect to it that mirrored history. Of course, the bohemians won over the haute classes, and the legacy of that night lives on in jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, punk, and other modern things.
Are there any flavors you’ve tried that really didn’t work?
There are many, including Smoked Banana, which didn’t work at all, and Honey Butterscotch & Cumin, which I loved even though no one else did.
Also, I have found that, in general, anise or licorice flavor is not preferred amongst Americans. So, anytime I do Pastis, candied fennel, or other Anisette flavors, they usually go unnoticed, unsold. I do them anyway because I love them. The Cucumber Smoked Salmon Sorbet was pretty OK when served in a chilled soup, but I don’t think the world really needed it.
Any interesting trends you’ve seen lately?
Yes, ice cream makers at home and in business are just beginning to do what we’ve done for years, which is thinking about the body and texture of their ice creams instead of just buying an off-the-shelf ice cream mix and flavoring it. Anyone can flavor a mix, but there are still textures and body variations that can be explored and that’s what I get a kick out of. That’s what true artisan ice cream is. It doesn’t come from a liquid or powdered mix.
What’s your most popular flavor?
Salty Caramel. It’s not to be confused with salted caramel of Brittany. Ours has more salt. It’s more like Danish salted licorice. I only made it because a French chef told me that he likes “salty” caramel, and I thought he meant really salty (he really meant “salted”). But, I started making mine extra salty in 1996, and it stuck. It’s still our number one seller, accounting for more than 25% of our sales.
Caramel can only be one thing in my mind—caramelized. We caramelize sugar over heat in order to build flavor. It’s actually very dangerous and very precise. There is only a two- or three-second window when the sugar is perfectly toasted. Flavorings made in a lab can’t even come close to authentically caramelized caramel.
If you could only have one flavor for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Without question it is our Lemon Frozen Yogurt. It reminds of sherbets I had as a kid. It just bursts with fresh lemon flavor and scent.
What’s in your freezer at home?
Lemon Frozen Yogurt, Askinosie Dark Milk Chocolate, and some vegan corn dogs for the kids.
Any tips for building the ultimate ice cream sundae? Ice cream sandwich?
Go for a variety of flavors, temperatures, and textures in one bowl, in one bite. That’s what it’s all about. For sandwiches, make them fun. Go for color, nostalgia, or pop flavors. Also, don’t be afraid to serve an ice cream sandwich on a plate with a knife and fork and maybe some hot fudge on top.
How has your local community been a part of your business?
My business was raised by the community of Columbus. From the flavorful ingredients that come from the surrounding farms, to the wealth of knowledge around here from our universities, art colleges and museums, to the business and non-profit community. I learned from everyone.
Most important, however, I was able to start my business in a very tiny, safe way inside a 100-plus-year-old, open-to-the-public market. Over 8 years I made ice cream there and served it over the counter. The conversations I had with people taught me about customer expectations and preferences. I tweaked ice cream based on the quality and flavors that they demanded. That’s why we still continue to get better daily—my community expects that from me personally and from my business.
What’s the best thing about your job?
Working with rock stars. I get to work with an incredible, dedicated team of people from a variety of backgrounds. Art, horticulture, photography, writing, graphic design, business, music—they all bring something unique to my world of ice cream and make it better every day.