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Refresher Course

In praise of ice cream’s frosty cousins

What’s it called when someone who savors haute cuisine for a living suddenly realizes she is lactose intolerant? Ah, yes. Ironic. I had just won the role of restaurant critic for a newspaper in Miami. Then came the seemingly innocuous dab of vanilla ice cream on a molten chocolate cake one evening. But my newfound sensitivity didn’t end my career. Rather, it compelled me to seek out frozen desserts even I could enjoy. I became a specialist in frosty treats (and a stockholder in Lactaid). It’s helpful when faced with today’s surfeit of frozen yogurts, sorbets, sherbets, ice milks, ice creams, and other chilly confections.

Accidents of body chemistry aside, which ice-cold sweets are right for you depends not only on your tastes and your temperament but also on the weather. “Gourmet” ice creams, made with eggs and marble-slab mix-ins, whether from Maggie Moo’s or Cold Stone Creamery, typically offer a satisfying mouthfeel but can leave you craving water. Frozen custard, also made with eggs but containing less air and served warmer and softer, can be uncomfortably rich. Invented at Coney Island and offered at franchises such as Freddy’s Frozen Custard or Culver’s, custards inspire odes from their devotees. But in the dead of summer, when the humidity pulls at you like a toddler, this style, too, can be less than refreshing.

At such times, take a tip from the Italians and dive into a cup of gelato. Unlike American ice creams, ice milks, and custards, gelato is not inflated with air. The best stuff, the authentic gelato artigianale, is made in batch freezers by hand daily and has very small ice crystals, lending it a velvety texture. Indeed the gelati at Paciugo, an all-natural chain, have 80 percent less fat than many ice creams, yet feel just as silky on the palate. And because they are made with whole milk and water instead of thicker liquids, they are more thirst-quenching. The company has also rolled out a new line that features combinations of fruits, vegetables, and herbs—such as strawberry-celery and lime-chile-mango. The result is nutritious and energizing, with smaller pieces of flavoring agents keeping the viscosity on the light side.

If gelato doesn’t appeal, don’t forget Italian ices. You can generally choose from lemon, watermelon, chocolate, cherry, and mango. Smooth and flavorful with a wet consistency, these water ices can be found at pizza parlors, concession stands, and grocery stores. Most of the time they are fluffier and more palatable from a vendor, simply because supermarket freezers keep temperatures so low a penguin could get frostbite, but reliable store-bought brands are available, including Luigi’s Real Italian Ice and PhillySwirl. The latter has a funky edge, with nifty mixed flavors (rainbow, sunburst, and hurricane aren’t exactly what nonna had in mind), but the texture is the real thing. Scoop up this ice with wooden paddles and you’re down the Jersey shore, or at the ballpark, or wherever nostalgia takes you.

If you can’t quite give up the creaminess of custard, though, you can cut it with Italian ice at Rita’s, a national chain whose motto is “Ice•Custard•Happiness.” Launched in 1985, Rita’s is known for its misto shakes—a cooling blend of homemade Italian ice and the store’s special vanilla or chocolate custard.

And finally, if the heat is so oppressive you can’t even make it out of the house, you can always jerry-rig a granita. First, fill a shallow pan with whatever juice you have handy (lemon and orange are traditional flavorings, so Tropicana works just fine). Then place the pan in your freezer and stir every 20 minutes with a fork. You’re aiming for a rough, slightly chunky texture—an almost-ice. On a hot day, a flute of slowly melting granita can be the most bracing indulgence of all, particularly if spiked with Prosecco or another sparkling wine. You’ll wonder why you ever settled for mere ice cream.

JEN KARETNICK, J90, this issue’s Connoisseur, is the features editor for Wine News; the dining editor for SoFlorida; the restaurant critic for Miami; and the arts and culture expert for VisitFlorida.com. You can keep up with her at www.kitschn.blogspot.com or www.jenkaretnick.com.

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