Eating Ice Cream - Hartford Magazine

Hartford Magazine - 2006 


In Search of the Perfect Ice Cream

So how much ice cream do you eat in a year? Can you believe that the average American consumes 48 pints? That’s 4 pints a month!? And that’s more per person than any other country.

Although Americans are hooked on this wickedly delicious iced confection, they are not the ones who invented it. The origin of ice cream dates back to 17th century Europe, while desserts resembling snow cones were fashioned as early as first century Rome.

The first recorded mention of ice cream in America was in 1744.

More than 250 years later, ice cream has become more of a dietary staple than a rare and treasured treat for the well-to-do. Ice cream can be had on virtually every suburban street corner, to say nothing of the frozen dairy case at your local supermarket.

But as purveyors of fine food, we couldn’t help but wonder: Where in Greater Hartford could we find some truly exceptional ice cream — ice cream that was, well, a scoop above the rest?

Not content with checking out our neighborhood ice cream counters, we hit the road, traveling throughout Hartford County and beyond on our quest for flavorful frozen concoctions.

Our first goal was to taste test the ice cream from a working dairy farm. So over the Connecticut River and through the woods we go, to hunt out Collins Creamery on Collins Powder Hill Farm in Enfield. The farm is off the beaten path, but well worth the detour. Named for a gunpowder factory—the gunpowder barn is still standing—dating from the Civil War, Collins Farm sits on the top of Powder Hill. On the way up the drive, we see a small sign that says “Ice cream for Sale”—all but eclipsed by a much larger one advertising compost and manure.

This is still a working dairy farm owned by Jack and Mavis Collins. They are the fifth generation of Collins.

This is also tobacco country. It’s in this verdant landscape that world re-knowned cigar wrappers are harvested. The pretty rolling countryside is dotted with large and aged red barns. Jet liners circle above, preparing to land at Bradley.

One would think that the milk for their ice cream would come from the cows peacefully grazing on the nearby pastures. But we found out this isn’t the case. Instead, their milk is sold to “dairy processors.” The milk used for their ice cream is bought in the form of an ice cream base mix. Flavors and other components, including candy and nuts, are mixed in at the ice cream shop on the farm in a large stainless steel ice cream maker. Apparently the cost of the equipment and the highly regulated process of pasteurization and homogenization would be cost prohibitive for small dairy farms. But we learned what they buy is a “super premium” product containing 16% butterfat. The high butterfat is what makes this homemade ice cream so rich and creamy.

This operation is a very neat and tidy affair. A smart white building houses an immaculate ice cream making facility. In the front, a nicely tended garden bed sports electric blue iris, salvia, aquilegias and voluptuous sedums. Umbrella-covered picnic tables overlook the distant vista. On a clear day, you can even see the Traveler’s building in Hartford.

The ice cream offerings here are many, and include a concoction we’ve never heard of before. Called The Raging Bull, it contains three scoops of ice cream, 2 toppings, 1 banana and two sugar cones sticking out like bull horns. Cherries are used for eyes.

But we opt for their two bestsellers—coconut chocolate chip, and peanut butter. As much as we love Reese’s peanut butter cups and Collins ice cream version is chock full of large chunks of the candy, we favor the coconut for its fresh flavor, with subtle hints of vanilla. You’d think that coconut flavored ice cream would be more like a sherbet, thinner than ice cream. But this taste as though it was made with thick cream. With its chocolate base with walnuts and white and dark chocolate chips, Collins Creamery’s signature ice cream flavor is called “cow chip.” It’s a firm favorite for both young and old.  We definitely plan to come back in the fall, when their seasonal special is a pumpkin and an apple crisp flavored ice cream.

Because of economics many of Connecticut’s working diary farms sold their herds and reinvented their farms by adding on related ventures including ice cream stands.

Tulmeadow Farm, nestled in picturesque farmland west of Simsbury, has been in the Tuller family since 1768. They started making and selling ice cream 226 years later, in 1994. As we approach, the highway seems to drive right through the farm. On the right are classic old faded red barns. Behind the barns, three silver clad silos thrust skywards. Previously used to store corn, they’re vestiges of the previous incarnation of this farm, and many others in Connecticut, when the milk cow was king. To the left are two stone houses dating back to the mid 1800s. Don Tuller lives in one of them; his mother lives in the other.

Tulmeadow Farm is no longer a working dairy farm. Today, they have a farm store selling local cheeses, homemade pot pies, spices, jams, jellies and even their own farm meats. Their largest crop is hay. In front of the farm store and ice cream stand, there’s a kaleidoscopic barrage of plants for sale under a candy colored striped awning. Plants are everywhere—festooning the tables, and hanging from the walls. They garland the low, aging gray building housing the farm shop, where the ice cream is sold. The structure was formerly a cider making facility.

We asked Don Tuller how many ice cream flavors he makes. He said there are too many to count. The red raspberry chocolate chip is the best seller, but ginger flavored ice cream is his own personal favorite. We tried the red raspberry chocolate chip and the no-sugar-added caramel pecan. The red raspberry chocolate chip would satisfy both the fruit lover and the chocoholic. The velvety texture of the rich raspberry ice cream contrasts with the cold chards of hard dark chocolate. Very delectable! The sugarless caramel pecan would fool anyone into thinking this was the real thing. Unlike most products containing sugar substitutes this wasn’t too sweet. We planned to taste only a teaspoonful. But it was that good, we bought a full order.  Don has fun making up crazy flavor concoctions. His most unusual is his grape nut cinnamon nutmeg, a flavor we’ll be sure to try next time.

There’s one dairy farm that has a different take on reinvention. Tucked away on a country road just off Route 2 in Glastonbury is Robb’s Ice Cream Stand. The farm, it’s been in Rob Armando’s family for 100 years, not only features expansive views, but about 200 goats, three pot bellied pigs, three donkeys, three miniature horses, two llamas and numerous chickens. There is also a baseball diamond and batting cage.

Just like the two previous farms we visited the ice cream is made fresh daily. It’s dished out from a small red cape with a white picket porch, which used to be a farm stand selling produce. Rob and his wife now oversee the ice cream stand that sells up to 32 different flavors. The interior uses simple country pine decorated with black-and-white photos of the original dairy farm. One particular ice cream flavor they offer would stir the taste memories of many. It’s their orange-pineapple, the flavor of which is reminiscent of creamcicles (sp?). Their version has bits of fresh pineapple mixed in. It’s smooth and refreshing. But we were ready for serious chocolate tasting so decided on their best selling flavor - chocolate caramel turtle. It was dense, chocolaty and creamy with a burst of caramel flavor. We were afraid to follow this with a “no fat-no sugar added” chocolate. But if lower calories are your thing, and you didn’t try the full fat variety first, you’d be just as happy with this. Not quite as creamy but still rich with intense chocolate flavor. The Armando’s cater mostly to the local after-dinner crowd during the evening summer months, and to little league baseball games. Where else can you savor delectable ice cream, watch a baseball game and pet farm animals, all in the same place?

Seems dairy farmers, or former dairy farmers, know how to make great ice cream.

Elmer Mortensen, a dairy farmer known for his milk delivery business, saw the writing on the wall back in 1963. He realized that the days of local milk delivery were coming to a close. Elmer and his wife Joan sold their dairy farm in Newington and opened Mortensen’s Dairy Bar.

Today, four of their seven children and three of their grandchildren work in their two locations in Newington and Cromwell. The dairy bars use cream from Connecticut dairies, make their ice cream daily, and carry a specialty seasonal ice cream using “native” fruits that include strawberries, blueberries, peaches, cantaloupe, pumpkin or apple, depending upon the season. Banana was their seasonal fruit flavor when we visited. Fresh and creamy, it had chunks of fresh banana mixed in. We plan to return soon for Strawberry – it’s their next seasonal fresh fruit flavor. The eldest son, Albert, works at the Cromwell stand, and although he taste tests each two-and-a-half gallon batch, none of the 100 plus ice cream recipes are written down. That important information is carried around in the heads of his two brothers, Rodney and Ronald. Their most unusual flavor? It’s “Graham Central Station,” This has a base of graham cracker flavored ice cream with swirls of chocolate covered graham crackers mixed in. It’s a wonderful contrast of textures.

It appears that ice cream melded with chocolate candy are the best sellers at ice cream stands. Mortesens has a best seller that we couldn’t pass up, or even guess what was in it. Called Moose Tracks, it has a vanilla base with chunks of chocolate fudge and peanut butter cups. We don’t pretend to understand why, but the combination of chunks of semi frozen fudge and peanut butter cups is a wonderful taste amalgamation, married with a sensual texture – all at the same time!

During our ice cream adventure we conclude that there are four ice cream food groups—chocolate, nuts, fruit and candy, with most people consistently only ordering from one of those groups. But if you’re having a big party, and you don’t want to leave anyone out, you can always get some of each. How about 50 scoops from each of the four ice cream groups? That’s what’s in Mortensen’s Wheelbarrow Sundae, the largest sundae in Connecticut. The 200-scoop treat takes 45 minutes to make and hours to eat. And yes, it’s served in a wheelbarrow!

All of the diary bars we visited carry the full range of ice cream fountain specialties, including milkshakes, sundaes, splits and ice cream sodas—plus frozen yogurts, sherbets and sorbets. Most also have non-fat and no sugar added varieties. But Mortensen’s carries a soft serve ice cream in chocolate and vanilla with a full 10 percent butterfat, as opposed to most fast food chains, whose ice creams have just five percent butterfat.

There was only one Connecticut dairy we found that actually makes ice cream from the cows grazing on the nearby pastures. From the outside, the UConn Dairy Bar at the University of Connecticut in Storrs doesn’t look like a place that sells ice cream. There is one small blue informational sign pointing the way to the bar.

Once inside, the place looks like a 1950s ice cream fountain shop, with its black and white checked floor, red walls and red spinning stools sidling up to the ice cream bar. All that is needed to complete the scene is a jukebox and girls in poodle skirts.

The UConn Dairy Bar is run by Dr. David Dzurec, a professor of food science. The bar is manned by students who raise the cows, milk them, then process, pasteurize and homogenize the milk before whipping up their frosty flavors. It’s a costly process that produces about 20,000 gallons of ice cream a year. The butterfat content is 14 percent.

Dzurec explains that the slower pasteurization process they employ makes for a smoother, creamier product, so the extra butterfat is undetectable—and you can eat more of it!

But you don’t have to go to Storrs to try their ice cream; 59’ers in West Hartford is the only outlet outside of the university that carries the ice cream. Try their award winning  chocolate—they double the recommended amount of the main ingredient, and boy, is it decadent and sultry!

At first we were slightly disappointed we were not eating ice cream made from the dairy cows we saw lazily chewing the cud on the farm’s green pastures. But after tasting through dozens of flavors offered by the ice cream stands we encountered, we found no reason to complain. The key is that the ice cream is “made fresh daily on the premises” by creative proprietors who love their craft.


An Immaculate Topping

So you’ve tried the ice cream and decided to bring back a quart, or two, of your favorite flavor for special occasions. Here’s a decadent addition to your favorite ice cream pick that’s so self-indulgent, it should probably be made illegal. The topping? A delectable, and very special, sherry.

Pedro Ximenez  (pronounced “zimenez”) is bottled decadence. This is not the familiar Fino or Amontillado, or even Oloroso sherry—all wonderful aperitifs. PX is in a class of its own. It’s a sweet, velvety and harmonious wine with intensely dark lashings of raisin, dried fig and dark chocolate flavors. And when it’s poured over ice cream—our own preference is unadulterated vanilla—be prepared to enter nirvana, or at least Seventh Heaven!

Osborne Pedro Ximenex 1827 Sherry - $18