A few years ago, on a hot summer day, I took my friends John and Jan Bebout for their first visit to Hank's Ice Cream on South Main. Jan is trim and extremely fit, and also a dainty eater. We'd just had a large dinner of barbecued crabs. Jan surprised me when she ordered two big scoops of Hank's vanilla on a cone. I was even more shocked at how fast she devoured them both. After that, I was ready to get in the car and go home, but Jan wasn't. Declaring Hank's the best ice cream in Houston, she got a cone with two more humongous scoops of vanilla and ate those too. I stood there with my mouth open watching this petite woman eat four huge scoops of ice cream.
Ice cream on a hot day will do that to people. There is a sort of delirium that overtakes enthusiastic ice cream eaters. They become lost in the experience. It's not an addiction, exactly — more like a mind-blowing rush that you just can't get enough of. A drugless high. As Voltaire said, "Ice cream is exquisite — what a pity it isn't illegal."
My friend Paul Howell and I sometimes play golf in the morning, then go eat lunch. But recently, the temperature on the golf course topped 100 degrees by the time we finished 18 holes. When Howell asked where we were going for lunch, I didn't know what to say. Standing in the baking asphalt parking lot changing my shoes beside my car, I felt more like fainting from heat exhaustion than eating. It was just too hot for lunch.
Houston ice cream
"Let's go eat ice cream," I proposed.
Hank's Ice Cream is located in the shadow of Reliant Stadium. Hank and Okemah Wiggins opened the place in 1985. They used to make their ice cream in the back of the store, but the operation got too successful, and they had to move the ice cream factory a couple of doors down to a bigger space.
While Okemah Wiggins was scooping our ice cream, I asked her about the butterfat level. She wouldn't disclose the secret recipe, but she assured me the butterfat content is much higher than in the standard commercial stuff. "It's a premium ice cream," she said.
If you love church-supper desserts, you'll love the homemade Southern flavor of Hank's ice cream. Butter pecan is the No. 1 flavor, followed by banana pudding. I asked Howell, who grew up as a minister's son in a small town in East Texas, if he thought that Hank's butter pecan was so popular because it tasted like pecan pie. He said that he thought the roasted pecans might be salted, which added another flavor dimension.
What Howell remembered most about the hand-cranked ice cream they made at East Texas ice cream socials was the combination of sweet and salty that resulted when the rock salt solution sloshed into the vanilla ice cream a little. When we finished our cones at Hank's, we got back in the car.
"Let's go eat more ice cream," I said. I wondered if we should invite Jan Bebout.
After working my scoop of Mexican Vanilla up and mixing it with fresh strawberries on the stonework surface, Amy's scoop-slinger Jennifer Cotton threw the ball of ice cream high in the air and caught it with a cone. Then she stood there for a second looking like the Statue of Liberty, with an ice cream torch and a big smile. Such antics are part of the training at the Austin-based Amy's chain. The company even holds an ice cream-trick Olympics every year.
Mexican Vanilla is Amy's No. 1 flavor companywide, according to manager Nathaniel Scott. It's also the top seller in Houston. After a few bites, I could see why. Scott said the vanilla used in this ice cream isn't a typical vanilla pod, but a hybrid of vanilla and another member of the orchid family. He didn't have any more detailed botanical information, but after a couple of mouthfuls, I could attest that there was something different about this vanilla flavor. It was intoxicatingly good, at least in my opinion. Howell liked Hank's better.
The Amy's ice cream location on Farnham in Houston makes its own ice cream on the premises. Sweet cream, Belgian chocolate, dark chocolate, Just Vanilla and coffee are a few of the other regular flavors at Amy's. Rotating flavors include alcohol ones like Guinness and orange blossom. The wacky antics with the ice cream at Amy's aren't all for show. Softening the ice cream by working it on the stone brings the superhard frozen ice cream down in temperature and makes it taste better.
Softened or not, some people love Amy's ice cream, and some can take it or leave it. "When I eat Amy's ice cream, I feel like my mouth gets coated with Crisco, and I can't taste anything," one ice cream fan commented. That's because Amy's ice cream is relatively high in butterfat, at 14 percent.
Ice cream must contain at least 10 percent butterfat to meet the legal definition of the term; national commercial ice cream brands average around 11 percent. A level of 12 percent butterfat qualifies an ice cream as premium. Amy's is 14 percent butterfat, which makes it a super-premium. Ben & Jerry's and Häagen-Dazs are ultra-premiums at 16 to 18 percent butterfat. To some people, higher butterfat makes ice cream taste richer (count me among this group). For others, it ruins the experience.
Our third stop was Nundini's on North Shepherd. My chocolate and pistachio gelato cone looked like a miniature version of a regular ice cream cone. It tasted like frozen fudge. Most gelato doesn't qualify as ice cream under the legal definition in the U.S. because it typically contains only 4 to 8 percent butterfat. The texture is denser, and the flavor of the ingredients is more intense.
Nundini's gelato shop is really a small showroom in front of a much larger wholesale Italian food importing business. Owner Giampaolo Nundini produces over a hundred flavors of gelato and currently provides much of the gelato eaten in Houston Italian restaurants.
The company is preparing to introduce a line of gelatos and sorbettos to area grocery stores under the name Gelato Italia. The product will contain 6 to 8 percent butterfat and hence fewer calories than most ice creams. But don't jump to the conclusion that all gelato is good for your diet. As Houston ice cream expert Steven Young points out, there are no legal definitions for gelato, so it can be made in a variety of ways. Ciao Bella Gelato, a leading U.S. brand, has 12 percent butterfat, which means you could also call it premium ice cream. Other Italian gelato makers use egg yolks to produce a custardy base, which is lower in butterfat but still high in calories.
But gelato, super-premium and ultra-premium ice cream have something in common — all are made with less air than commercial ice cream. Whipping air into the ice cream mixture (called overrun) increases the volume and softness. It also makes cold ice cream easier to scoop. The airy quality was very popular with consumers when it was first introduced. But consumers who grew up on airy ice cream (like me) were astonished at how rich ice cream tasted when you took some of the air out.
Commercial ice cream averages 60 percent overrun; gelato is usually somewhere between 20 and 30 percent. When Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry's were first introduced in the late 1970s, both achieved a denser texture by decreasing the overrun and a richer flavor by increasing butterfat.
Giampaolo Nundini produces mountains of gelato, but Houston gelato connoisseurs swear by the eccentric homemade flavors at a little gelato and espresso shop on Memorial. I visited Gelato Blu a few days after our ice cream binge and got a scoop of the Raffaello, a scoop of the Michelangelo and a double espresso. The barista asked me if I wanted that affogato. "Affogato," which means "drowned" in Italian, is a traditional Italian way of serving gelato in a cup with a little espresso. The whole thing melts together in a sort of a coffee float. If I had been eating chocolate or vanilla gelato, I might have said yes.
But the gelatos named after famous artists at Gelato Blu are too delicate to mix with coffee. The sublime Raffaello flavor is one of the best fruit gelatos I have ever eaten. It's made by simmering sun-dried apricots in Pinot Grigio and adding roasted pistachios after the gelato is frozen. The Michelangelo flavor is made with a custard base. Dried mission figs are cooked down into a fig paste using a secret recipe that contains a rare Italian liqueur. The fig mixture is then piped through a pastry bag and swirled into a custard-based ricotta cheese-and-cinnamon gelato.
Owner Chuck Irwin learned to make gelato from the owners of tiny artisan gelaterias in Tuscany, where he lived for several years after dropping out of the investment-banking business. His company Piazze now sells gelatos, sorbettos and custom desserts to Houston restaurants.
I never really thought of Houston as an ice cream center until I set out to taste the best ice creams in town. Along with the old-fashioned Southern flavors at Hank's, the trendy Austin taste of Amy's, and the intense Italian gelatos, we have several other ice cream styles to choose from here.
For a really intense chocolate fix, Houston chocoholics flock to the Chocolate Bar on Alabama Street. Owner Gilbert Johnson and his crew make more than 20 flavors of ice cream — all of them chocolate. For cutting-edge ice cream, we look to pastry chef Plinio Sandalio, who once competed on the Iron Chef television show. Sandalio makes desserts at the upscale Textile restaurant in the Heights, where he regularly serves such alluring combinations as fresh peaches with buttermilk ice cream. But he is most famous for his bacon ice cream.
Indika is another top Houston restaurant where the chef makes ice cream. Indika's saffron-pistachio ice cream is sliced in a square and served with more roasted chopped pistachios sprinkled on top. Another popular flavor is chicoo — an Indian fruit with a flavor that might remind you of a cross between dates and peaches — which is served with a caramel sauce.
La Paletera, the Mexican fruit and paleta shop that started as a tiny family business in Corpus Christi, is now a franchise operation headquartered in Houston. The original shops only sold fruit cups and ice cream on a stick, but the new franchise version sells La Paletera's own ice cream in cones and dishes along with the paletas. Skip the ordinary-tasting chocolate and vanilla and go for the coconut and mango.
Then there's the Southeast Asian flavors at Gelato Cup on Bellaire. The durian-flavored ice cream tastes exactly like the fruit, with the same aftertaste of rotten eggs. Gelato Cup also has taro, black sesame and green tea flavors.
The Germans were one of the largest ethnic groups to settle this part of Texas. And their contribution to Houston's ice cream scene trumps them all. The Brenham Creamery was founded in 1907 by a co-op of German farmers looking to make a little extra money by turning their excess cream into butter. E.F. Kruse took over as manager of the failing company in 1919, and his family ran it for several generations. Kruse turned the butter-making operation into an ice cream plant and changed the name to Blue Bell, after an indigenous wildflower that blooms in mid-summer (not to be confused with the spring wildflower the bluebonnet.).
Until the 1970s, Blue Bell was only sold in Houston and a few neighboring towns. It remains our city's house ice cream. In 2006, Blue Bell held a 62 percent market share in Houston.
When you stop to think about it, Houston ice cream lovers are in an enviable position. Blue Bell, arguably the best commercial ice cream in the country, is made in our backyard. And we have a stunningly wide variety of ethnic ice cream styles and flavors to choose from along with the wild creations of elite pastry chefs. It makes sense that an extremely multicultural city in an extremely hot climate would become an ice cream mecca (see "Top 10 Ice Cream Experiences in Houston").
Kids in paper Blue Bell hats stood on the running boards of a 1930s-era truck parked in front of the entrance to the Blue Bell visitors' center while their parents snapped photos. Inside, next to the ticket counter, there was a display case full of cardboard Blue Bell packages from the ice cream's early days. Tickets for a tour are $3 for adults and $2 for kids and seniors.
The Blue Bell plant in Brenham gets an average of 1,000 visitors every weekday. The famous tour ends at the Blue Bell ice cream parlor, where guests partake of as much ice cream as they like. In the roasty-toasty summer of 2009, with temperatures topping the 100 mark day after day, some 1,800 people are showing up at Blue Bell every morning, and they are straining the capacities of the little creamery in Brenham, according to Blue Bell PR Director Bill Weiss.
Weiss led Paul Howell and me on a tour of the Blue Bell plant that started in the "milk bay," where the production of 50,000 dairy cows is received every day and rigorously tested for milkfat, milk solids and flavor before being piped into the plant. As you might imagine, an ice cream factory is a blessedly cold place to be on a hot summer day. We lingered beside the 60-gallon Cherry-Burrell freezers longer than necessary.
Blue Bell employees are allowed to eat free ice cream on breaks. I asked every employee I met what flavor was their favorite. Banana Split was very popular, but I have no idea why. It tastes like a jumble of too many ingredients to me. But the overwhelming favorite was Homemade Vanilla. Blue Bell makes four vanilla varieties. I used to buy Natural Vanilla Bean until I learned that the flecks of bean in the ice cream are purely cosmetic — all the flavor has already been extracted. I have since become a Homemade Vanilla convert.
The No. 2 Blue Bell flavor is Cookies 'n Cream, made with imitation Oreo cookies. No. 3 is Dutch Chocolate, made with chocolate imported from the Netherlands. The No. 4 flavor, the "Great Divide," is a tub with Homemade Vanilla on one side and Dutch Chocolate on the other. The flavor that surprised me most was a new one called "Southern Hospitality." It's Homemade Vanilla with a swirl of strawberries, pineapple and roasted pecans. If I am not mistaken, the pecans are lightly salted.
"When we're done with the tour, I'll let you taste some Homemade Vanilla right out of the freezer," Bill Weiss promised.
Ice cream tastes best when it first emerges from the freezer, Weiss explained. But when it's held at temperatures just below freezing, ice crystals grow and slowly rob the product of its creamy texture. To preserve the smoothness of freshly made ice cream, manufacturers rush it into a flash freezer, where it is hard-frozen at 40 degrees below zero. To really enjoy your ice cream and get the most flavor, you should soften it up a little before you eat it.
I was disappointed that my favorite flavor, Peaches 'n Cream, was not being made that day. And Blue Bell has decided not to make its legendary Cantaloupe 'n Cream flavor, made with Pecos melons, at all this year.
"We use the best ingredients we can get, and we produce our ice creams based on what's available. If Texas peaches are great, we use Texas peaches. If Georgia peaches are sweeter, we use Georgia peaches," he said. Texas pecans are preferred for their superior flavor. And Blue Bell's Buttered Pecan flavor, made with lightly salted pecans, is No. 6 on the hit parade.
Weiss won't discuss formulas or recipes, but there are some other obvious differences between Blue Bell and other commercial ice creams. A half gallon of Blue Bell weighs 52 ounces, while a half gallon of Dreyer's weighs 40 ounces, suggesting Blue Bell has less overrun. And Blue Bell's butterfat content is around 13 percent, only 1 percent short of super-premium level.
In 2006, Blue Bell sales topped $400 million. Although it is only distributed in 17 Southern states, Blue Bell is the No. 3-selling ice cream in the nation, behind the West Coast's Dreyer's and the East Coast's Breyers. Why don't they expand to national distribution?
"It's a cinch by the inch, but it's hard by the yard," is a favorite Kruse family saying. Ice cream quality deteriorates quickly if it isn't stored and transported very carefully — especially in a very hot climate. If it melts and refreezes, ice crystals ruin the texture. By maintaining tight control of every aspect of production, transportation and distribution, the Kruse family has kept the quality of Blue Bell exceptionally high. But such total control has made national distribution next to impossible.
The 100-year history of Blue Bell parallels the history of the ice cream business in the United States. A recent book called Ice Cream: The Delicious History by Marilyn Powell begins with the disclaimer that the history of ice cream is too complicated to sum up. People have been mixing snow and pulverized fruits, sweets and syrups since the Stone Age. Real ice cream emerged in Europe in the 1700s, but remained a rarity because it had to be made with ice cut from lakes and stored in icehouses through the summer.
The history of ice cream as we know it really begins in 1926, when the continuous freezer was invented. Blue Bell bought its first continuous freezer in 1936, the same year the company bought the first refrigerated delivery truck, the ones the kids like to climb on at the visitors' center. Ice cream ceased to be a novelty and became a part of everyday life during Prohibition, when the soda fountain replaced the tavern as a gathering place and ice cream sodas replaced alcoholic beverages.
Blue Bell started making ice cream two gallons at a time in 1911. Blue Bell Supreme emerged as the top brand of ice cream in this part of Texas in the 1950s, at about the same time that home freezers became common. The market for ice cream soared when home consumption became practical. In the 1960s, Blue Bell opened branch offices in Houston, using its own employees to drive route trucks and stock store freezers.
In 1969, Howard Kruse, a graduate of the dairy science program at Texas A&M and the son of Blue Bell's manager E.F. Kruse, came up with the formula for "Homemade Vanilla." It was intended to replicate the flavor of hand-cranked ice cream. It has remained the most popular flavor in the Blue Bell line for 40 years. Also in 1969, Blue Bell hired a Houston advertising genius named Lyle Metzdorf, who created the "best ice cream in the country" campaign. In the 1970s, Blue Bell expanded into the Dallas market.
Houston has great ice cream. I feel guilty that I don't go out for ice cream more often. My enthusiasm for gelato remains strong, though I only visit a gelateria once a week at most. I occasionally get excited about an ultra-premium flavor or an enticing combination like the Chocolate Bar's chocolate and orange. But maybe I don't go out for ice cream as much as I might because the ice cream in my home freezer is so good. And that ice cream is usually Blue Bell.
True to his word, Bill Weiss brought us a tub of Homemade Vanilla straight from the freezer after the tour. It was soupy, but it tasted amazing. A Blue Bell customer once wrote a letter to the company confessing that she had filled an old-fashioned ice cream crank with the Blue Bell flavor and taken it to an ice cream social, where it was unanimously acclaimed the best homemade ice cream in town. It's easy to see why.
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New York Times food writer R.W. Apple guessed that maple syrup was the secret ingredient that made Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla so distinctive. I thought the secret might be cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, but the ingredient list on the package proved me wrong.
Weiss shared a surprising memory as we ate the "Homemade Vanilla." "We made homemade vanilla ice cream at home when I was a kid, and we used to dip saltines into the ice cream," he said. "Sometimes when I eat Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla at home, I still eat it with saltine crackers."
Of course, I bought a half gallon of Blue Bell "Homemade Vanilla" and a box of saltines and tried the combination at home. I liked it almost as much as Dutch Chocolate with pretzels.