It just so happens my alma mater, Cornell University, is home to one of the best food and dairy sciences programs on then planet, and an incredible dairy processing facility that churns out amazing ice cream creations, among other things. I did not participate in any of these programs as a student, and while I do not regret my choice of major, there are certainly moments in this crazy ice cream adventure of mine that I wonder whether I missed my calling. A recent visit to campus may have validated this for me.
I returned to Ithaca, NY one recent fall weekend to participate in the annual Cornell Trustee Council weekend. As fate would have it, one of the topics on the agenda was a “back to the classroom” session for Intro to Ice Cream. It’s was my second chance!
Professor Chris Loss and cooperative extension agent Kim Bukowski gave a fascinating crash course in the history and science of ice cream. My favorite fun fact: George Washington reportedly spent $200 on ice cream in 1790. Now, there’s a President that would have had my vote!
I also learned some interesting tidbits about the freezing process, suspension, stabilizers, density requirements, and other various scientific and regulatory details related to ice cream production. I won’t bore you with a full report here. One of the most important key takeaways: “Less air, less water, better quality.”
Instead, let’s get out of the classroom and go see where all the ice cream-making magic happens!
We suited up in very stylish lab coats, hair nets and booties to tour the dairy production facility, where earlier that day they had churned out a fresh batch of Bavarian Raspberry Fudge.
We tasted samples of special chocolate fudge chunks developed specifically for freezing in ice cream. They are soft and sensitive to heat, melting instantly in your hand, but providing the perfect consistency to not freeze so hard that when you take a bite you break a tooth.
The tubs of raspberry sauce used to create a lovely jammy raspberry swirl smelled like heaven. And all this comes together perfectly when mixed into a rich, creamy vanilla base. When sampling a scoop just made that day, it was all I could do to not shout “holy cow” out loud, it was so good! Just like with fresh produce, you can’t beat getting it straight from the source.
Following the tour of the plant, we visited the Food Science Sensory Evaluation Lab to taste test ice cream samples. We huddled into what looks like a dark room, dimly lit with low red lights. We each sat at a station with partitions between each spot, a computer screen above us, and a little hatched door that looks like a bread box. Armed with a piece of paper with a list of numbers that are coded to our samples, we received a little plastic dish through the hatch and one-by-one ranked each of the flavors on qualities like texture, flavor and aroma. Good thing I’ve had so much practice with my Scoop Scores!
All flavors were randomized, so no one necessarily got the same taste in the same order. The idea was to see how the group collectively ranked flavors. This is how food scientists and entrepreneurs who are developing new food products get consumer feedback on what might work and what might not.
Two of the three flavors were vanilla, one creamier and denser with a slight yogurt pungency, the other lighter and less flavorful. Interestingly, when both reappeared later in samples at the Dairy Bar, they were perfect in their final form paired with their respective mixers.
The biggest surprise for me was the last flavor. It seemed to have a hint of berry, which is generally not my first choice when given the option. But as compared to the others, I like this the best. More shocking, when we stepped into the lab and saw what flavors we tested, it was Strawberry – typically one of my last choices from an ice cream case (I’ve had some bad strawberry experiences in the past)! This was a real “wow” moment for me, illustrating the power of psychology when it comes to picking our food.
Finally, off to the Cornell Dairy Bar for full sized scoops. I will admit, I made more than one stop there over the course of the weekend. Here’s cumulatively what I sampled:
- Peanut Butter Mini – this is hands-down my favorite (see video below to see how much I mean this). It’s dreamy creamy, with a perfect balance of peanut butter that is not too rich or overwhelming. It also features a good balance of candy peanut butter cups, which are small and well distributed.
- Cookies and Cream – not nearly as densely packed with large chunks of cookies as you often find in other brands, which appropriately keeps the focus on the high-quality vanilla base versus overpowering it.
- Kahlua Fudge – great, powerful kahlua coffee flavor with a ribbon of creamy smooth fudge ripple that is well distributed and doesn’t distract from the base.
- Cookie Dough Dream – I think this was the base vanilla I taste-tested in the sensory lab and ranked in third place. But when paired with the super-sweet cookie dough pieces, it was the perfect balance.
To sum them all up: rich, creamy, and consistently delicious. Bonus points for all the creative flavors that the students come up with during the year.
Total score: 5 scoops
While I may regret sharing this, here is a video shot earlier this summer by the wonderful CALS marketing team about the Cornell Dairy Bar. I make a brief cameo at around 0:16, just long enough to profess my love for peanut butter ice cream. Don’t judge me.