Ice Cream School (The Best Kind Of School)
Doug Goff lifts the plate of cherry cheesecake ice cream up to eye level as a sommelier would hoist a prized vintage Bordeaux. He scans the ribbon of cherry running through it, takes a taste and nods his approval to those huddled closely around him.
“We’re making sure the cherry is well-distributed,” says the slender Nova Scotia native. “We want to make sure it’s in every bite, not clumped on the side.”
It might feel a little more refined if we weren’t all wearing lab coats, hair (and beard!) nets and straining to listen over the hum and whir of the industrial ice cream machinery. And if that was actually a plate and not the lid to a plastic ice cream tub.
But none of that matters. This is ice cream school and the assembled crowd of about 40 hangs on every word of Professor Doug Goff, a noted world expert in the cold, creamy stuff.
Today is the much-anticipated day three in a week-long Ice Cream Technology course at the University of Guelph in southwestern Ontario — when the talk of milk solids and freezing-point suppression moves out of the classroom and onto a real-life dairy factory floor.
The campus facility is dominated by an enormous stainless steel “continuous freezer,” which can transform liquid ice cream “mix” into 700 litres of ice cream an hour through a vertical tube. (It will only churn out about 400 litres today.) It’s a machine that inspires the assembled ice cream aficionados, business owners and entrepreneurs to lean in giddily and take selfies.
Then there is a smaller option, the “small batch ice cream freezer” that others are hovering around. It makes just three liters at a time and if dozens of frustrated Food Network cook-off chefs are any indication, is not a total cinch to operate.
As Prof. Goff said a few minutes ago before both machines are flicked on, “We’ll play with it until we get it right.”
It’s a machine that inspires the assembled ice cream aficionados, business owners and entrepreneurs to lean in giddily and take selfies.
This course, offered just once a year, is indeed part theater, part chemistry, part technology, and a lot of food science. With participants from as far away as Costa Rica and Australia, it’s also an exercise in global networking.
While it’s a snowy December day outside, winter is actually the ideal season for ice cream course work, a time when those in the industry can regroup and plot next summer’s treats.
If ice cream keeners don’t attend this course, they’re likely headed to a similar one at Pennsylvania State University next month (January 4-10). That is, if they’re already registered. The 130-person class dubbed “From Cow to Cone” is full and there are 75 folks on the waitlist.
At Guelph, this session is more packed with speakers and symposiums as it is the course’s 100th year, an anniversary Prof. Goff says make it the longest-running ice cream course in North America. Yet it turns out that despite their Willy Wonka tendencies, ice cream academics aren’t above a little scholarly tension over the fine print.
Robert Roberts, who runs the ice cream course at Penn State insists his institution has been in the ice cream teaching business longer, since their dairy manufacturing school opened in 1892 and included ice cream as a topic.
“I don’t think there’s any dispute at all,” he says drifly in a telephone interview. “We are the oldest.”
Prof. Goff maintains that Penn State started a separate break-out course in ice cream in 1925, which would make Guelph’s 1914 start date the older of the two.
When asked if there might be a friendly rivalry on this matter, Prof. Roberts laughs and says, “I don’t know if it will be that friendly, we’ll see!”
Regardless, there is much for each scholar to cover, from emulsifiers and flavours to food safety and distribution. Prof. Goff is excited to share how, for instance, newer “extrusion” freezing technology makes for both better energy efficiency and creamier ice cream; because it freezes the ingredients faster, fewer ice crystals and air pockets are formed.
Then there’s the news that sugar and booze can depress an ice cream’s freezing point to the point of disaster. This phenomenon can be a good thing when you want a fruit-flavoured ripple not to freeze, but in today’s class Prof. Goff admits to an ill-fated attempt at rum raisin flavor.
“We made great slushies, but it just didn’t freeze,” he says.
Student Cathrine Osterberg is a Masters student studying with Prof. Goff. She also runs an ice cream store in Copenhagen, Denmark. The sugar factor was just one of the epiphanies she’s had in the course, she says.
“So by having a good understanding of the different sugars you can change the sweetness, softness and scoopability of the ice cream,” she says, adding that her work is about how egg yolks and whole eggs influence ice cream structure.
Ain’t ice cream academia grand?
The ice cream is airy and so creamy it somehow mimics the consistency of whipped cream. As they might serve in heaven.
Many of the students admit they considered both the Guelph and Penn State programs. Some chose Guelph because of Prof. Goff’s reputation as the author of the textbook on ice cream, called, well, Ice Cream.
May Chow, chef-owner of the hot Hong Kong boite Little Bao, serves tiny perfect ice cream sandwiches as dessert. She was leaning toward Penn State due to its proximity to New York City, but it was already full. Still she’s chuffed to be picking Prof. Goff’s brain, she says during a coffee break.
While the tubs of finished ice cream are immediately whisked into the walk-in freezer, metal bowls are left out for sampling. At this stage in freezing, the ice cream is airy and so creamy it somehow mimics the consistency of whipped cream. As they might serve in heaven.
And in the end, this is at the heart of ice cream study. Even if the historical facts are in some dispute, Profs. Goff and Roberts can be certain that their sweet gigs will remain secure as long as ice cream lures customers.
“I don’t think it gets much better than this. Ice cream is a dream job,” says Prof. Roberts.
All images Courtesy Kevin Gonsalves, University of Guelph.