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I've crash-landed into the post-holiday wasteland. The parties and planning are over. Where needed, gifts have been returned or exchanged. The Christmas tree has kept its date with the wood chipper, and the holiday decorations are packed away. Kisses at midnight on New Year's Eve eased me into 2005, but now I'm sad. Time to curl up by the fire with husband Patrick and a big bowl of coffee ice cream, my preferred low-effort pick-me-up. It satisfies my sweet tooth and gives the swaddling comfort of cream, but the hint of bitter coffee gives it just a touch of sophistication.The Christmas account actually had a few pennies left over this year, so I decided to treat myself. I bought all the high-end grocery store brands and then hit three local boutiques: MooTime Creamery in Coronado, MaggieMoo's in Mission Valley, and Cold Stone Creamery in Grossmont Center in search of the crème de la crème of coffee ice cream. Three gal pals joined Patrick and me for a round of taste testing.

We started by scooping into the Breyers [$5.99 for 1.75 quarts at Vons]. All agreed that it had a light coffee flavor and a slight caramel finish. Said Lynn, "If you didn't really like coffee, this would be a good coffee ice cream -- it's so creamy and mild." Everybody agreed that Ben & Jerry's [$3.99 for one pint at Vons] was mild to a fault, and more icy than creamy in texture.

For Elisa and Shawn, texture was the sticking point when it came to the Hagen-Dazs [$4.19 for one pint at Vons]. "It's sticky in my mouth, like peanut butter," complained Shawn. "That's because you didn't let it soften a bit first," rejoined Elisa. "Once it sits, the texture becomes very smooth, with hints of nutty flavor. I like the way it has a sudden strong coffee flavor that dissipates after I swallow. It doesn't leave a bitter aftertaste." Shawn thought better of the Starbucks Classic [$5.89 for one quart at Vons]. "Yum. A vivid coffee flavor, balanced by cream." Lynn added, "It tastes like a Frappuccino."

We rounded out the grocery store samplings with Double Rainbow [$3.29 for one quart at Trader Joe's]. The intensity of the coffee flavor perked me right up. I rolled the melting mouthful over my tongue and let the flecks of espresso bean tickle my taste buds. It reminded me of how I like my morning coffee -- very strong, but lots of cream and milk and a touch of sugar. Lynn thought it came on too strong in the coffee department, and was also "too rich, like a double fudge torte." Elisa joined me in admiring the intensity, but was turned off by the espresso flecks. "It's gritty in my throat when I swallow."

Among the boutique brands, both Patrick and I gave the nod to MooTime [$2.95-$3.95 for a single serving plus an add-in]. "It's got that coffee bitterness, balanced by an acidity I might find in well-brewed espresso," marveled Patrick. "And the texture is practically like gelato." Everybody agreed that Cold Stone's coffee [$3.19-$3.99 for a single serving plus an add-in] reminded them of butter, so fat was the sensation on the tongue. The coffee flavor was detectable, but sweet cream was the overwhelming force on the palate. MaggieMoo's [$3.79-$4.49 for a single serving, an add-in, and a plain waffle cone] sported a fresh, clean texture, but an odd minty flavor distracted us from the already-minimal coffee taste.

The next day, I called David Spatafore, MooTime's owner, to get the scoop on his ice cream. "The coffee is my favorite," he explained, "so I make it strong and bold. I make a heavy coffee paste, using coffee grounds, vanilla, cocoa, and very hot water. To make ice cream, I drain it off and strain the paste through the cream; it has an intense flavor profile. From there, the character of the ice cream depends partly on the fat content you want. I use heavy cream, buttermilk, and egg yolks, which makes it more dense and gives it a custardy flavor. Our ice cream is 16 percent butterfat." When I said that MooTime's ice cream reminded me of gelato, he replied, "It does, a bit. I like gelato, too, but most people in America don't care for real Italian gelato, because the fat content is down around three percent butterfat."

The other thing that determines character is "how much air you put into it when you whip it and freeze it," said Spatafore. "You have to have some air, otherwise, you couldn't scoop through it. It would be a big block of frozen milk. Most commercial companies put in over 100 percent air. That means, if they put in a gallon of ice cream mix, they get two gallons of ice cream. We put in more like 30 to 40 percent air."

Spatafore gave a brief rundown of the process. "You've got to turn it and freeze it at the same time. It's made with a continuous freezer, which is like a big washing machine that's frozen. We can put up to 80 gallons of mix into our freezer barrel. We run the mix through tubes, and it spins around in the tubes and freezes. When it comes out, it looks like soft serve. From there, it goes into a deep freezer overnight at negative 40 degrees. The freezer is called a hardening cabinet; the ice cream gets rock hard. The cabinet freezes it fast enough that it doesn't collapse. It holds the air in. Then it goes to an ice cream shop, where we bring it up to 0 to 10 degrees. That way, it can be scooped."

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