Phila. churns out luscious array of ice creams

A creative group of ice cream makers are restoring Philadelphia's reputation for sweet innovation.

Once famed for pioneering ice cream technology and the reach of its national brands, Philadelphia has been quietly reclaiming its ice cream cred, this time as a center of artisan and small-batch makers.

If plain and pure vanilla was once the city's hallmark, now the rainbow's the limit: At Capogiro, with two Center City counters and a surging wholesale business, golden margarita sorbetto has joined the stable of fresh-fruit and herb flavors, along with a gelato flavored with English sea salt. Fresh blueberry holds forth at Franklin Fountain, a restored old-fashioned ice cream parlor in Old City.

At upstart Bellissimo's, under the tutelage of former Le Bec-Fin pastry chef Robert Bennett, the Jack Daniel's chocolate pays respect to a brand new world.

And Coleman Poses, owner of Chilly Philly Ice Cream, churns out an historic homage to vanilla along with vanilla malt chip.

Many restaurant kitchens also offer handmade ice cream for dessert: Chocolate habanero takes a bow at Tequila, the Mexican dining room. Daniel Stern's elegant Rae is turning out balsamic fig, S'mores and Cocoa Crispy (yes, from the cereal).

To celebrate this resurgence, Bassetts (the nation's oldest ice cream company) is hosting the city's ice cream artisans at the Ultimate Philadelphia Ice Cream Festival Saturday at the Reading Terminal Market from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Poses, who founded Chilly Philly in 1999, will talk about our ice cream history at 11:30 a.m.

The movement has an element of back-to-the-future about it: When the city was still young, Washingon and Jefferson were known to indulge a taste for the delicate, small-batch ices of the day.

"It's exciting being in Philadelphia with its rich ice cream history," said Capogiro's John Reitano, who believes that gelato is going to follow in the footsteps of upscale coffee.

Reitano guides Capogiro's thriving wholesale business, supplying specialty markets, restaurants and hotels as far away as Chicago and Miami.

Wife Stephanie manages their two scoop shops (at 119 S. 13th St. and 117 S. 20th) and is responsible for making the gelato. They are poised to move Capogiro into Philly's big league ice cream void. A new facility with 10 times the current capacity is pending; they are scouting sites for more retail shops.

However much they grow, the Reitanos insist, their gelato will remain handmade. They'll just need more hands.

Across the river, in Cherry Hill, Bellissimo, a division of AHB Foods, also is growing. Says Bennett, they too are planning expansion.

Gelato, by the way, is the Italian style of ice cream, made with less cream (less fat, fewer calories) and less air, and served slightly warmer.

Capogiro, with more than 300 flavors, has some of the more unusual: Black Mission fig (a violet-hued delight), wineberry, strawberry tarragon, lime cilantro, golden margarita sorbetto, along with Stephanie's favorite, salt.

"I love it, but it hasn't sold well," Stephanie mused.

And then there's rosemary-honey-goat's milk gelato. Improvised to utilize an excess of those ingredients, it earned a place on the menu.

"It turned out to be my 10-year-old daughter's favorite," said Stephanie. "And my son loves basil gelato."

But exotic flavors aside, there will always be a place for comforting, familiar tastes.

Ice cream is, after all, an ultimate comfort food.

"Ice cream reminds people of their childhood," says Eric Berley, co-proprietor of Franklin Fountain, the nostalgic re-creation of an early 1900s ice cream parlor in Old City.

For brothers Eric and Ryan Berley, about half their sales are vanilla and chocolate. And most of that is vanilla, simply because it is used in so many ice cream floats, sodas, sundaes, brownies or pie a la mode.

Indeed, plain-old vanilla is by far the most popular ice cream flavor, according to the International Ice Cream Association, topping the charts with 29 percent. It is followed by chocolate, nudging near 9 percent. Strawberry and butter pecan are tied for third place at 5.3 percent.

While Rae's pastry chef Elizabeth Brozoski says they always have vanilla because "some people don't want to do anything different, ever," she pushes the limits of ice cream creativity. Last week, Peanut Butter & Jelly, S'mores and Balsamic Fig ice creams were offered. Oatmeal and stout-infused beer ice cream (with cinnamon-sugared pretzel "beignet" nuggets) is another favorite.

Michael Strange, president of Bassetts, endorses the new flavors and the whole direction of ice cream in the city. "We're going back to the hand-crafted product," said Strange.

And we're growing again.

Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at 215-854-5743 or

Our Ice Cream History

For more than 200 years, Philadelphia led in the development of ice cream in America and was known as the nation's ice cream capital.

Philadelphia-style ice cream - made without the eggs used in the French custard-based ices - was born here. So, too, the hand-cranked ice cream freezer.

By the late 1800s, about four dozen companies were churning out ice cream in the Philadelphia area, among them Bassetts (1861) and Breyers (1866). Sealtest and Abbotts were also produced here.

But in 1974, California took the lead in ice cream production. Through mergers, Breyers emerged as the top domestic ice cream maker, but then moved to Wisconsin (as Good Humor-Breyers) and, in 1995, closed its last Philadelphia plant.

Tips from the pros

Here are some hints from the ice cream makers interviewed for this story:

Don't use ultra-pasteurized cream. The super-high heat treatment extends shelf life but compromises flavor. Choose pasteurized heavy cream instead.

Do strain your hot custard. It removes any bits of egg that may have coagulated.

Chill your custard in an ice bath. This step cools the custard quickly so it doesn't remain in the danger zone, where bacteria proliferate, for too long. Do not cover it while it's still warm.

Remember that freezing mutes flavor. Your ice cream base should be a little stronger in flavor than you want the ice cream to be. If you aren't sure your base is strong enough, put a small amount in the freezer until it hardens, then taste it.

A pinch of salt heightens flavor. Most good recipes call for it.

Allow time for ripening. Although ice cream tastes great straight from the ice cream maker, it's difficult to scoop. Experts recommend "ripening" the ice cream for a few hours in the freezer before serving.

Ice cream tastes better when it's not freezer-cold. Give it some softening time - the pros call it tempering - in the fridge. About 15 minutes should do.

Don't overfill. Never fill the canister more than two-thirds full, or beyond what the manufacturer recommends.

Don't stop churning too soon. Some models shut off automatically when the ice cream is stiff enough, but others rely on your judgment. "A lot of people turn the machine off when it's looking solid, but the last 10 minutes is when you get the rise," says Lebovitz. Wait until the ice cream begins climbing up the side of the machine - the telltale sign it's ready.

Fresh fruit turns rock hard in ice cream. If you want to add fruit, cook it first with sugar or puree it with sugar.

Wet the scoop. To make a neat serving, dip your ice cream scoop in cold water before using. Hot water will soften the ice cream too much.

Fresh Blueberry Ice Cream

Makes about 2 quarts or 16 servings, 1/2-cup each

11/2 pints cleaned blueberries

1/4 cup blueberry honey

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

3 cups heavy cream

2 cups whole milk

3/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract or blueberry vodka

1. Over low heat, simmer the blueberries with honey and lemon juice for 30 minutes. Let cool. (This reduces water content and brings out flavor.)

2. Combine the cool fruit mixture with the cream, milk, sugar and vanilla. Let steep, refrigerated, for 4 hours.

3. When chilled, pour mixture into an ice cream freezer and process as directed by manufacturer. Serve at once or, for smoothest texture, within two days. Store in an airtight container and freeze in the coldest available freezer.

- From co-proprietor Eric Berley, Franklin Fountain, Philadelphia

Per serving: 241 calories, 2 grams protein, 19 grams carbohydrates, 17 grams sugar, 18 grams fat, 65 milligrams cholesterol, 30 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

Balsamic Fig Ice Cream

Makes about 1 quart or 8 servings (about 1/2-cup each)

8 ounces fresh figs

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

2 cups heavy cream

2 cups half-and-half

6 large egg yolks

3/4 cup sugar

1. In a small saucepan, on low heat, cook the figs and vinegar until the liquid is reduced to a syrup.

2. In another pan, combine and scald the creams.

3. Whip the egg yolks and sugar until light and fluffy.

4. Temper the yolk mixture with some of the hot cream, whisking constantly. Stir the warm yolk mixture into the creams and return to heat, stirring, until the base coats the back of a wooden spoon

5. Strain the base into a freezer canister over ice. When cooled, use a hand blender to combine the base and figs.

6. Using an ice cream freezer, following manufacturer's directions, process the mixture to a soft freeze. Serve at once or store in an airtight container in the freezer.

- From pastry chef Elizabeth Brozoski at Rae, Philadelphia

Per serving: 421 calories, 5 grams protein, 30 grams carbohydrates, 25 grams sugar, 32 grams fat, 258 milligrams cholesterol, 54 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

Vietnamese Coffee Ice Cream

Makes about 1 quart or 8 servings (about 1/2-cup each)

11/2 cups sweetened

condensed milk

11/2 cups brewed espresso or very strong brewed coffee

1/2 cup half-and-half

Big pinch of finely ground dark roast coffee

In a bowl or container of ice cream maker, whisk the condensed milk, espresso, half-and-half and ground coffee to combine. Chill the mixture thoroughly, then freeze it in an ice cream maker following manufacturer's instructions.

- From The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz

(Ten Speed Press, $24.95)

Per serving: 208 calories, 5 grams protein, 33 grams carbohydrates, 31 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 85 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

Philadelphia-Style Vanilla Ice Cream

Makes about 1 quart or 8 servings

3 cups heavy cream or 2 cups heavy cream and 1 cup whole milk

3/4 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

1 vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise

3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Pour 1 cup of the cream into a medium saucepan. Add the sugar and salt. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the saucepan, then add the pod to the pot. Warm the mixture over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves.

2. Remove pan from the heat. Add the remaining cream, milk (if using) and vanilla extract.

3. Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator. When ready to churn, remove the vanilla pod. (Rinse and reserve it for another use.) Process the mixture in an ice cream freezer according to manufacturer's directions.

- From The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz (Ten Speed Press)

Note: For ripple or swirl ice cream, layer 1 cup caramel, fudge or other desired sauce into the churned custard.

For Philadelphia Peach Ice Cream, chop 2 pounds ripe peaches, pitted and peeled, to desired consistency in a blender or processor with 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Omit the vanilla bean and extract. Prepare the cream-sugar base above. Chill and add the peaches to the cold cream base. Process as directed. (For more flavor, sweat the peach pits and skins in the cream on low heat for 15 minutes before adding the sugar. Strain and discard the skins and pits.)

Per serving (with cream-milk mix): 297 calories, 2 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams sugar, 23 grams fat, 85 milligrams cholesterol, 64 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

Gianduja Chocolate Chunk Gelato

Makes about 1 quart or 8 servings (about 1/2-cup each)

1 cup hazelnuts (filberts)

21/4 cups whole milk

1/3 cup heavy cream

4 large egg yolks

2/3 cup sugar

Dash of salt

2 ounces unsweetened

chocolate, finely chopped

1 tablespoon hazelnut liqueur 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 chocolate-hazelnut bar (3 to 4 ounces) chopped in small pieces and chilled

1. Toast the hazelnuts on a baking pan until light brown and fragrant, about 10 minutes at 325 degrees. Rub nuts in a towel to remove skin. When cool, coarsely chop the nuts.

2. In a heavy saucepan, mix the milk and cream. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Stir in the nuts; remove from heat. Cover. Let stand 30 minutes to develop flavor. Strain to remove nuts. Return hazelnut milk to the pan.

3. In a large bowl, whisk the yolks, sugar and salt until well blended. Whisk in 1 cup of the warm hazelnut milk. Whisk the warm yolk mixture into the remaining hazelnut milk in the pan. Cook on medium-low heat, stirring, until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon (170 to 175 degrees) Do not let boil or yolks will curdle.

4. Strain the custard into a clean bowl. Add the chocolate and whisk until melted and smooth. Stir in the liqueur. Refrigerate, covered, until very cold, at least 6 hours.

5. Stir in the vanilla. Pour the custard into an ice cream freezer canister and process as manufacturer directs. Add the cold chocolate chunks and process 1 minute more.

6. Transfer the gelato to a covered container and freeze until it is firm enough to scoop, at least 3 hours.

- From Ice Cream and Frozen Desserts by Peggy Fallon (DK Publishing)

Per serving: 365 calories, 8 grams protein, 31 grams carbohydrates, 26 grams sugar, 25 grams fat, 123 milligrams cholesterol, 83 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.