Cold Enough for You?
Grand Ole Creamery
750 Grand Ave., St Paul; (651) 293-1655
What does ice cream sound like in winter? Imagine a bunch of different drummers tooting their own horns on a road less taken. In summer, ice-cream parlors are cheery bedlam: the crowds, the kids, sticky door-handles, drip-front shirts, go-go-go, brou-ha-ha. But after the first frost, they become the quiet province of the idiosyncratic, the solitude-seeking, the seasonally liberated, and generally those with no great interest in following the crowd.
Or that's what I've concluded hanging around the winter-silent premises of the Grand Ole Creamery. Take, for instance, the woman who walked in with a stack of photocopies, ordered a scoop of Black Hills Gold in a homemade waffle cone ($3.40), and without so much as a preliminary lick upended the cone into a cup--utterly disregarding the elegant Creamery arrangement of a malted milk ball in the bottom of the cone to catch the drips. She then ate the whole arrangement as if it were chips and dip, taking airy crisps of cone and scooping up bits of the praline-and-Oreo-cookie-studded caramel ice cream. An hour later, copies highlighted and annotated, she went back to a world where ice cream is eaten in summer and cones remain right side up.
Another woman brought a miniature tape recorder and spent about an hour sulking, recording messages to herself and staring out the window over her enormous banana split ($4.95). By the time she left, she looked as if she had worked up the resolve to do something rather unpleasant, and I felt sorry for whomever was in her way. There was also the dad who got to read fully half the newspaper while his kids plotted elaborate Hot Wheels crashes in the deserted room that houses the Creamery's second ice-cream counter--the one that's closed in winter.
As for me, I managed to make my way through three months of accumulated magazines while spying on unsuspecting patrons and putting away lots of single splits--cones made with one scoop each of two flavors ($3.60 for a homemade waffle cone or $2.95 for a sugar cone, cake cone, or dish). Thus I learned all about Greco-Roman erotica (for sale recently at a New York auction house), cannibalism in the pre-Columbian Southwest, and that "coffee break"--coffee ice cream with Oreo bits--goes rather well with that Black Hills Gold.
All the Creamery's ice cream is handmade and rich as cheese, with a 14 percent butterfat standard. The strawberry's not the pinkish fluff you might be used to, but more of a piebald red and white; it's just that full of strawberries. The chocolate malt banana is so fruity, it almost seems healthy. And the almonds in the chocolate almond aren't those little pulverized nibs that pass for nuts elsewhere--they're easily identified and crunchy. No wonder crowds spill out onto the streets in the summer.
Granted, there are upsides to the warm season: While Creamery ice-cream maker Jenna Cook offers between 16 and 24 flavors in winter, summer sees from 32 to 40, including black walnut and lemon poppyseed (lemon poppyseed!). Then again, hard-core fans are rewarded with a number of winter-only flavors--like the peppermint-chip-studded mint concoction called Winter Wonderland, and Mince, full of all the traditional pie spices.
Another advantage of the ice-cream off-season: The big players in the biz have time to chat. Had I been researching this column in the summer, I might never have gotten John Harrison, official taster at Edy's Grand Ice Cream and the inventor of Oreo-cookie ice cream, on the phone to pepper him with questions. Yes, he came upon Cookies n' Cream by happenstance in 1983, when he was taking an ice-cream break and his snack was served with cookies. Yes, he tried many other cookies, including Lorna Doones and Hydrox, but they didn't cut it. And, sadly, no, his co-workers don't treat him like an ice-cream king for having invented the country's fourth most popular flavor: "They just want to know what I am going to do tomorrow."
Then I sprang the question that had been nagging me: Lemon poppyseed? Mince? Harrison told me I was a mere babe in the woods, as far as ice-cream flavors go. He has seen it all--tomato-sauce-flavored ice cream, garlic, broccoli, fish. One can make ice cream out of anything, he explained, provided one doesn't mess too much with the basic chemistry--for example, too much alcohol can prevent freezing. Furthermore, ice cream is a big (didja know the average American eats 46 pints of ice cream annually, and Alaskans eat slightly more?) and highly fad-driven business, so the flavor paradigms are constantly in flux. In the 1930s the popular flavors were English toffee, butter brickle, and maple walnut; in the '50s the fad tastes were tutti-frutti--a mincemeat-style combination of candied fruit and fruit peels--and something called "Nesselrode" (named for Count Karl R. Nesselrode, a 19th-century Russian statesman), which seems to have been vanilla with maraschino liqueur, raisins, and almonds, with optional chestnut puree. Sounds much, much weirder than chocolate-chip cookie dough, which, if you'll recall, was considered quite the sensational oddball when it debuted a decade ago.
As for the future, Harrison's money is on "unusual fruits like kiwi, papaya, and mango," which will vie for popularity with ice creams featuring as-yet-untapped "candy bars or baked pieces." Does this mean that three years down the road, you'll be sauntering along with a cone of kumquat/Twix-flavored ice cream? Prickly pear/Kit Kat? Star fruit/focaccia? If January 2003 finds you hiding out with a quiet dish of lemon poppyseed, well, you read it here first.
MILL CITY RISES AGAIN: (Adopt your best monster-truck voice:) Europain! Europain! Europain!!! No, not pain, pain, French for "bread." Try again: Europain! Europain! Europain!!! The world's biggest bread fair, this year in Paris! Paris! Paris!!! The Americans walked away with the gold medal in bread two years ago--and it's time for a rematch. Or should we say grudge match? Yeah, the French invented the baguette, but this year the American team will make them cry maman!
Seriously, folks, Europain is the world's biggest artisan bread convention, it's held in Paris every three years, and it is the site of the big La Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie contest, in which nations compete to see who makes the best baked goods. This year the competition is in February, and the American team is being coached by Minneapolitans. Here's the lineup: Tom Gumpel, from the Culinary Institute of America, will be doing sculptural bread; his colleague Robert Jorin will compete in the viennoiserie category (layered, laminate doughs like those used for croissants and danishes); and Jan Schaat, who runs the Il Fornaio baking school in San Francisco, is up in the plain bread competition. The coaches are Minneapolis's own Didier Rosada (bread) and Philippe LeCorre (pastry). OK, OK, Rosada and LeCorre are actually French, but they really do live in the Twin Cities, because they're the instructors at the National Baking Center at the Dunwoody Institute.
In fact, the entire American baking team will be here in January for some last-minute training with LeCorre and Rosada, and to attend a fundraiser for the Baking Center. If the monster-truck howling in the first paragraph got you sufficiently excited, call (612) 374-3303 to reserve your tickets for the January 14 cocktail-and-hors-d'oeuvres event. Tickets are $100, or $150 at the door, which is a lot of hot cross buns, but nothing compared to the $250,000 the German chocolate company Schokinag recently kicked in for overhaul of the Dunwoody pastry lab--so don't even think of whining.
I couldn't find anyone in Vegas who was making book on the event, but Greg Tompkins, director of the National Baking Center, has some predictions:
"From what I've seen so far, I don't know that we have anybody as good as Craig [Ponsford, last round's Europain bread winner and this year's U.S. team manager] in the bread category. I think our best shot is in decorative bread. Tom has made molds from African soapstone carvings, and he can make the bread into masks, and I've seen where he's made woven blankets out of bread to wrap around these figures. It's just astonishing, incredible stuff." The Americans didn't win the final grand prize last time because the competition is judged by adding together the decorative, viennoiserie, and plain bread scores--but that an American won the latter category was shocking enough to the French. "The French have been ridiculing Americans as a bunch of Wonder Bread eaters for years," says Tompkins, "and when we swiped the gold medal with a baguette, it put them on notice that there are some people over here that know what they're doing." Yeah! Bake this, Jacques!
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.