- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2007

MILWAUKEE — Grape-Nuts in New England. Blue Moon in Wisconsin. Red bean in Hawaii. Date in Palm Springs.

Vanilla and chocolate may rule America’s collective palate when it comes to ice cream, but regional — some would say unusual — variations thrive throughout the country.

These are ice creams loved as much for their familiarity as for their exotic taste. It’s a comfort-food thing. Breakfast cereals and beans may seem odd additions, but for the right people, they provide ties to regional or ethnic flavors from childhood.

That’s why when Roger Gifford and his brother, John, began making ice cream at their family’s Skowhegan, Maine, dairy in 1980, they turned to decades-old recipes saved from their grandparents’ ice cream business in Connecticut.

One of their original flavors, Grape-Nuts, ranks behind only vanilla and chocolate in supermarket sales for the company, says Mike Brandt, sales and marketing director for Gifford’s Ice Cream.

“Grape-Nuts is a phenomenon,” he says.

Many people combine it with another New England staple, drizzling warm maple syrup over the ice cream.

“It is a northern New England traditional flavor,” Mr. Brandt says. “You won’t see that outside of northern New England.”

People begin to develop their ice cream preferences early in childhood, often associating their favorite flavor with positive experiences, says John Nihoff, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

“Ice cream gets set up as a reward for kids,” he says. ” ‘You did well on your report card, so let’s take you for ice cream.’ ”

That may explain the popularity of Blue Moon ice cream in Wisconsin and Michigan, where it is made by several small dairies. The bright blue ice cream with a taste reminiscent of Froot Loops breakfast cereal was created in Milwaukee around 1950, says Andrew Plennert, owner of Chicago’s Edgar A. Weber & Co., which owns the formula.

Ann Filip, 45, of New Lenox, Ill., says she and her family discovered it during a stay at the Kalahari resort in the Wisconsin Dells. She and her husband already were fans of Superman, another brightly colored ice cream with a hard-to-define taste. “So Blue Moon was just cool,” Mrs. Filip says. Fourteen years later, her family doesn’t have time for long vacations at the resort, but they’ll drive three to four hours, have some ice cream and come home.

“My husband’s just a fanatic on that Blue Moon ice cream,” she says.

Many adults who grew up with it still love it, making it a top seller not only in the region, but also on the Internet ice cream dealer IceCreamSource.com.”It’s a very Midwestern flavor, and why it’s so popular with us is that you can’t find it anywhere else,” says Steve Sauter, founder of IceCreamSource.com.

His company’s top seller is black licorice, a popular flavor from the 1930s and 1940s. Many orders come from senior citizens who remember it from their younger days, Mr. Sauter says.

Lappert’s Ice Cream of Richmond, Calif., makes red bean ice cream with the adzuki beans used in Asian cuisine. It sells well in Hawaii, where Asian influence is strong, “but you can’t give it away on the mainland,” says sales manager Bob Marker.

Ray Ford, who owns Christina’s Homemade Ice Cream in Cambridge, Mass., has had success with Asian flavors such as green tea, ginger and red bean and also Hispanic-influenced varieties such as ancho chili. (It’s a mild heat.)

Specialty flavors often develop from food already found in a particular area.

Lappert’s Ice Cream owner Mike Lappert says he hadn’t considered making date ice cream until he opened a new shop this year in Palm Springs, Calif.

“I had never heard a request for date ice cream, but all the sudden, we were getting requests for date milkshakes,” he says, “so we started making them and throwing some dates in.” Now his company makes date ice cream that it sells only in Palm Springs.

Many Northwestern berries, such as loganberry and boysenberry, have a similar limited appeal, Mr. Lappert says. When he goes to Seattle, he finds a number of desserts made with huckleberry, but he wouldn’t try to make that into an ice cream. “Nobody would even buy it; nobody would even know what it is,” he says.

Mr. Nihoff, the culinary instructor, says people usually eat foods that are affordable and accessible wherever they grow up, and as they age, they tend to favor those foods and flavors even if they have moved. Mr. Brandt keeps that principle in mind when looking for new flavors for Gifford’s. For example, Gifford’s whoopie pie ice cream incorporates the inexpensive cream-filled cake sandwiches found in bakeries and convenience stores throughout Maine.

“When I go to a food show and I walk the floor, I’ll be looking for ingredients that work in ice cream and that resonate with the consumer in some way already,” he says.

“When you come up to the state of Maine, whoopie pies are everywhere.”

The local flavor principle also has paid off for Gary Dowling, owner of Dakota’s Best in Rapid City, S.D. In 2003, he took two of his state’s most popular products — sunflowers and honey — and had them mixed in an ice cream made for his store.

“It has that little salty taste with sunflower seeds, and then it’s sweet with honey,” says Laurie Durr, co-owner of Fjord’s Ice Cream Factory, which makes the ice cream for Mr. Dowling.

Honey Sunflower Vanilla has become Mr. Dowling’s top-selling flavor.

On the Internet:

Gifford’s Ice Cream: www.giffordsicecream.com

Lappert’s Ice Cream: www.lapperts.com

IceCreamSource.com: icecreamsource.com

Christina’s Homemade Ice Cream: www.christinasicecream.com

If you’re looking to surprise your sweet tooth this summer, consider mixing up some unusual ice cream flavors such as Grape-Nuts ice cream or avocado ice cream. Neither uses the traditional custard base of most American ice creams.

Grape-Nuts ice cream

This recipe is from David Lebovitz’s “The Perfect Scoop” (Ten Speed Press). From start to finish, it takes about 7 hours.

3 cups heavy cream

3/4 cup sugar

Pinch salt

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup Grape-Nuts breakfast cereal

Maple syrup, to serve

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine 1 cup of the cream, the sugar, salt and cinnamon. Heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar is dissolved.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the remaining cream and the vanilla extract. Transfer the mixture to a bowl, cover and refrigerate until well chilled, about 6 hours.

Process the mixture in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. When the mixture has just begun to thicken, about a third of the way through churning, add the cereal and continue processing. To serve, drizzle with warm maple syrup.

Makes about 1 quart.

Avocado ice cream

This recipe, also from “The Perfect Scoop,” takes about 1 hour from start to finish.

3 medium ripe Hass avocados (about 1½ pounds)

3/4 cup sugar

1 cup sour cream

½ cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Big pinch salt

Slice the avocados in half and remove the pits. Use a spoon to scoop out the flesh, then cut it into chunks.

In a food processor or blender, combine the avocados, sugar, sour cream, heavy cream, lime juice and salt. Puree until smooth and the sugar is dissolved. Freeze immediately in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.

Makes about 1 quart.

Time to savor tastes of home

While vanilla and chocolate remain America’s favorite ice creams, a number of smaller dairies make flavors that appeal to local tastes. Here are some of the more unusual flavors:

Blue Moon. Dairies in Wisconsin and Michigan use a fruity flavoring produced by Chicago’s Edgar A. Weber & Co. to create a unique bright blue ice cream that appeals to children.

Grape-Nuts. This old-time New England favorite still does well in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. The vanilla ice cream with Post Grape-Nuts often is served with warm maple syrup drizzled over it.

Date. Lappert’s Ice Cream of Richmond, Calif., began making a date ice cream for its store in Palm Springs, Calif., after customers requested the flavor.

Honey Sunflower Vanilla Ice Cream. Made by Fjord’s Ice Cream Factory for Dakota’s Best in Rapid City, S.D., it incorporates sunflower seeds and honey, both popular local products.

Buckeye. Chocolate and peanut butter are popular nationwide, but the combination has special meaning in Ohio, where many families enjoy homemade Buckeye candies — peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate — at Christmas.

Black licorice. Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream in Madison, Wis., and several other dairies make black licorice, a flavor popular during the 1930s and 1940s.

Red bean. A number of specialty ice cream makers produce red bean ice cream made with adzuki beans found in Asian cuisine. The flavor can be found in Hawaii and some mainland Asian restaurants.

Ancho chili. Christina’s Homemade Ice Cream in Cambridge, Mass., has made ice cream with this mild chili, other ethnic ingredients such as green tea, and spices including saffron and fennel pollen.

Bumbleberry. Gifford’s Ice Cream in Skowhegan, Maine, makes a Special Batch Bumbleberry Crumble that mimics the flavor of New England pies containing a mixture of raspberries, plums and strawberries.

Blueberry cream pie. Mayfield Dairy Farms in Athens, Tenn., makes a cream cheese ice cream with blueberry swirl and pie pieces. The company also offers other flavors based on Southern desserts, such as coconut cake and blackberry cobbler.

The top 10

The nation’s top 10 ice cream flavors as measured by percentage of sales for in-home consumption, according to the NPD Group’s National Eating Trends In-Home Database, are:

Vanilla: 26 percent

Chocolate: 12.9

Neapolitan: 4.8

Strawberry: 4.3

Cookies ‘n’ cream: 4

Chocolate chip: 3.8

Butter pecan: 3.2

Chocolate mint: 3.2

Vanilla and chocolate: 1.9

Rocky road: 1.6

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Black licorice is a popular ice cream flavor that dates to the 1930s and 1940s.

Blue Moon ice cream, a favorite in the Midwest, has a fruity flavor and a bright blue color that appeals to children.

Associated Press photographs

Warm maple syrup is often drizzled over Grape-Nuts ice cream, an old-time New England favorite.

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