I don’t know about you, but I rarely follow through on my New Year’s resolutions. Whether it’s a promise to lose weight or to call my parents on a more regular basis, I always start out strong and with the best of intentions. But by late January or early February, I’m making excuses for not following through…and I’m always a little disappointed in myself!
Last year was the exception, as I resolved to further my education…to work on improving my knowledge and help our business at the same time.
I had had my eye on several ice cream-making courses offered either at Penn State or the University of Wisconsin-Madison for years. When the course at Madison opened up last winter, I didn’t hesitate to sign up. You see, these courses usually fill up the day they are posted. They’ve become famous for having students like Ben & Jerry and Jenni. (If you have to ask who these people are, you’re not eating enough ice cream!) The class itself was the last week of November into December. I got one of 10 coveted spots in the course.
The class itself was fantastic. It was taught by the head of the food science dairy division, in the famous Babcock Hall on the Madison campus. Babcock Hall is where dairy students and staff bottle milk, make cheese, and freeze ice cream for on-campus use and donate to schools and fire stations for miles around. The Babcock Hall Dairy Store is a must-see destination for visitors to the area. Anyone who knows anything about dairy has heard of the famous Babcock Hall!
In between lectures on ice crystal formation, denatured proteins and homogenization, we spent time on the production floor, test kitchen, and laboratory. We’ve been making gelato at Jones Family Farm for just over five years now, so it was very helpful to me to understand many of the processes covered, such as pasteurization and terms like “hydrophilic.” I was particularly excited to spend time in the testing lab and got lots of questions answered—for every test we performed on expensive, university-owned equipment, I asked how I could perform the same test at my farm, using little more than a microwave. The lab teacher seemed to appreciate the challenge.
It was also very instructive to be in an environment both familiar and enlightening. Unlike my classmates, who had no experience making an ice cream base from scratch (mixing and pasteurizing raw milk + sugar + stabilizers + emulsifiers), or had never been in an inspected food production facility and therefore had a hard time with “standard operating procedures,” this was all very familiar territory for me. What was enlightening was what ice cream production looks like on a much larger scale.
At our farm, we use what is called a “vat-pasteurizer” to make and pasteurize our gelato mix. After picking up raw milk direct from our neighbors’ farms, we make as much as 50 gallons at a time. The mix has to heat up from approximately 40° to 155° and hold for 30 minutes to properly destroy any pathogens. Including cooling time, this process can take the better part of a day. On the Madison campus, we used what is called an HTST (high temp/short time) pasteurizer. This beauty is continuous flow, processing hundreds of gallons at 175° for 30 seconds. The head of the department, having decades of experience at this larger scale, was full of questions about our on-farm processing, and seemed at least a little amused at our farm’s small set up.
When it was time to freeze the mix, we learned how to use a continuous freezer, also larger in scale than anything I had ever seen. At our farm, we use what is called a “batch freezer,” which freezes at most 3 gallons of mix at a time. The continuous freezer could pump through hundreds of gallons in an hour and had fancy bells and whistles that added variegates and inclusions at exactly the desired rates. Ice cream geek alert!
No ice cream course would be complete without lots of taste-testing, and this was no exception. What amazed me, however, was that I actually have a limit to how much ice cream I can eat! This was news to me, and is perhaps a newly discovered and disappointing character flaw. The point wasn’t to binge out on ice cream (although I have no problem with that!)—the point was to taste lots of different types of ice cream and to see if we could identify the different ingredients used. High fat certainly lends itself to a richer mouth feel, but can dull brighter flavors. A “graham cracker” taste is a signal of cooked cream and is not necessarily a bad thing. Corn syrup is instantly identifiable, as are non-nutritive sweeteners, while added powders like whey protein and maltodextrin leave an unmistakable coating on the tongue. Stretchy or gummy products had higher levels of stabilizers, which ran the gamut from carrageenan to guar to xanthan gum. And although our farm’s gelato makes minimal use of these ingredients (if at all), it was highly instructive to see how others use them.
After the class, I was able to spend the weekend with my parents and sisters, who all live an hour north of Madison. I brought them gallons of ice cream made during the class (it would all melt if I tried to bring it home!) and got to enjoy the feeling of actually following through on a New Year’s resolution. I have to admit, it felt (and tasted) really good!