A few days a week at my office, we conduct something known as the 4 p.m. shame spiral. A small group of us makes a discreet exit from our building to the fro-yo joint across the street, where we pile all manner of cereal and macerated fruit over an overly generous portion of frozen yogurt that has oozed from a giant machine.
Lately, however, I have begun to steer us toward something better: frozen custard, served from behind the counter of a deli, and topped with exactly nothing. While this does spark some grumbling among those who prefer frozen desserts in flavors like “birthday cake” and one or two misguided calorie counters (Hello? You put a mountain of Oreos on that nonfat yogurt!), most of my colleagues concede that this move is the end journey to the sublime.
“You were right,” said my yogurt-scarfing pal Mark, who then skulked back to his desk, attempting to hide his cup from lurking bosses.
Somewhere between the re-emergent frozen yogurt (elevated some years back by Pinkberry, now ubiquitous) and highfalutin artisanal ice creams (flavored with things like cracked black pepper and small-batch bourbon), there is soft serve, a staple that is due our love.
Soft serve – superwhipped to make it creamier and yet stiffer than traditional ice cream – is generally doled out by the ice cream trucks that cruise the streets of many American cities bleating out the essential anthem of summer, or by a mildly sullen teenager toiling at a Dairy Queen.
A twist of vanilla and chocolate, perhaps covered in sprinkles that taste of nothing and stick in your molars, or a plain vanilla cone dipped in a slick of chocolate are among summer’s greatest culinary pleasures.
A soft serve cone should be procured whenever possible at the beach, while hopping from foot to foot to avoid the searing heat of sand that has baked in the midafternoon sun, or after Little League practice, preferably with a passel of 8-year-olds who smell vaguely equine.
Soft serve is essentially ice cream with a semisolid consistency. In some places it is frozen custard, which is ice cream fattened up with egg yolks. At others it is ice milk, the confection that contains less than the 10 percent of butterfat required by the government to earn the ice cream designation, and no egg yolks.
But no matter where you buy it or what it’s called, it will always come out of a machine that churns it up after adding air to the mixture, and be frozen at a slightly higher temperature than ice cream. It is never hardened to be packaged in stores. Its unique semifrozen, creamy texture makes it amenable to being dipped in heated flavor toppings that adhere to it like a sexy evening gown before melting promptly on your chin.
Certainly, sweet-corn ice cream loaded with butterfat from my favorite ice cream shop in Los Angeles, fruit-laced gelato purchased near Capitol Hill and a fat pint of Häagen-Dazs all make me long for July. But sometimes it’s soft serve pressed into a cone (plain cake, please) that calls. Sometimes this happens twice in one day.
While soft serve is considered universally lowbrow, its quality varies, as those who love to consume it will attest. “You can put a lot of effort to make an exquisite soft serve,” said Steven Young, a food technologist and an ice cream expert in Houston. “It depends on the age of the mix, how long it has been in the vessel,” and how much it gets churned, he said.
“The whole functionality of that mix can change so that when the product comes out it can have more or less of what we call ‘fat conglomeration,’ ” Young added, “which is desirable to make it smooth and creamy. But if you go overboard with the churning it can be icy and brittle.”
Dairy Queen is widely viewed as the mother of all soft serve. The chain began through innovation; a father-and-son team in Illinois in the late 1930s had been trying to come up with a new way to serve frozen desserts, and happened upon the soft serve process (though many insist it was Tom Carvel, of Fudgie the Whale fame). A chain was born: the first store opened in Joliet in 1940 and there are now more than 6,000 Dairy Queens worldwide; Texas has the most.
But many towns have their own local spot. My friend Paul grew up in Rochester believing that soft serve was a product of his town, thanks to Abbott’s Frozen Custard, which boasts of its fruit purées and slow-churning process. My children spent part of their childhood in Los Angeles, and a soft-serve cone from Fosters Freeze, a California chain, was a post-swim ritual, even if they were shivering.
New twists on the classic soft serve cone abound, everywhere. In a strip mall in Cabin John, Md., there is a deli with a soft-serve machine that goes beyond the chocolate-vanilla standard; the vanilla cherry twist is outstanding, but I will leave the vanilla-cotton-candy combo to the 10-year-old who sampled it with me.
Mildly obsessed with this topic, I recently took a drive out to Silver Spring, Md., to Rita’s, which has a cool version of the shave ice that President Obama favors when visiting Hawaii.
Shave ice features a clump of vanilla ice cream at the bottom of a cup of ice topped with fruit syrups. Rita’s dumps its custard on top of flavored ice (high five to the wild black cherry with vanilla!) and also makes outstanding malts with its soft-serve custard.
No matter what form it comes in or what it’s called, soft serve has a universal appeal, summed up in Rita’s motto: Ice-Custard-Happiness.
“It’s cold. It’s sweet. It hits the spot,” Young said.
Even frozen yogurt fans would likely agree.