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Market freezer cases make room for homemade ice cream

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Local specialty ice cream, like 5 Boroughs Ice Cream's Bakla-Wha?!, is as popular as ever. The ice cream is made using local ingredients: in this case, bits of baklava from a Greek bakery in Queens, New York. (Heather J. Ciras/CNS)

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Local specialty ice cream, like 5 Boroughs Ice Cream's Bakla-Wha?!, is as popular as ever. The ice cream is made using local ingredients: in this case, bits of baklava from a Greek bakery in Queens, New York. (Heather J. Ciras/CNS)

localicecream003.JPG

Local specialty ice cream, like 5 Boroughs Ice Cream's Bakla-Wha?!, is as popular as ever. The ice cream is made using local ingredients: in this case, bits of baklava from a Greek bakery in Queens, New York. (Heather J. Ciras/CNS)

As they peer into the ice cream freezer at the local grocery, shoppers are inundated with brands, flavors and fat contents. Varieties like Baklava ice cream, soy latte and green tea ice cream compete for consumers’ sweet tooth.

The same is true of ice cream parlors and dessert carts at restaurants: The choices are ever expanding. Amid the latest concoctions in the $20 billion a year ice cream industry, one particular variety of ice cream is hoping to play on people’s nostalgia for the past: homemade specialty ice cream. Increasingly, local small businesses are peddling a mom-and-pop ice cream and doing a brisk business.

“Consumers are, now more than ever in all facets of food and beverage, looking for diversity,” said David Phillips, chief editor of Dairy Foods magazine, which charts trends in ice cream, yogurt, milk and cheese.

Phillips compares the upswing to the microbrewery craze. “The rise in microbrews was driven by consumers who had been to different countries and tasted their different beers," he said. “And there's more opportunities in ice cream."

Scott Myles, who co-founded 5Boroughs Ice Cream in New York City last summer with his wife, Kim, believes most people are bored with mainstream ice cream. The company, which names its flavors after New York neighborhoods, uses local products whenever possible, like hazelnut biscotti from an Italian bakery in Queens.

Other small ice cream businesses use their size to make the ice cream experience personal.

“Ice cream is a very social food,” said Nick Pappas, owner of Lizzy’s Ice Cream in Waltham, Mass. “A lot of times we have great memories of going out to ice cream with friends and family.”

So when Pappas created Lizzy’s, he focused not only on the quality of his ice cream but also on the ice cream experience, making his ice cream parlor spacious so that people could spend time lingering over their dessert.

Small businesses that make their own ice cream bring something to the cone that big business can’t: local flavors made shortly before you eat them, said Robert Roberts, an associate professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University.

For the last 115 years, Penn State has had an education program devoted to ice cream. Four years ago, it created the Ice Cream 101 class. Roberts saw a need to educate those who were interested in making ice cream, but weren't quite ready to jump right in. The weeklong series teaches the ins and outs of the business--production, quality control and trends.

“We do everything from the cow to the cone,” Roberts said. The course answers questions like “What will it take to make ice cream if I want to open my own shop?" or “What’s in an ice cream mix and why are they there?”

The first year Ice Cream 101 was offered, twice as many people as expected signed up for the class.

“It’s nice to have a market,” he said.

While there is no way to chart the popularity of homemade ice cream in definitive numbers, start-up businesses say they are expanding.

For example, Sheer Bliss ice cream in Hallandale Beach, Fla., has managed in a year and a half to expand sales to 3,000 stores in 25 states. Though it makes ice cream the old fashioned way in a continuous freezer with all natural ingredients, the company sees itself as something of a trailblazer.

“We’re the only company in the world packaging ice cream in a metal container," said co-founder Gary Barron. “We’re the only company that’s producing pomegranate ice cream.”

The combination of the metal container--which Barron says prevents freezer burn and adds a ”wow" factor--and the fact that four of their seven flavors contain pomegranate, has given them a lot of attention.

“The ice cream industry is dictated by shelf space,” Barron said. “Anytime you inject a product, it means that someone on the shelf you want to occupy needs to disappear or decrease.”

Also seeking to eat up some of that shelf space is 5Boroughs Ice Cream. Kim and Scott Myles are seeking to put their products on shelves throughout New York City. So far, they can be found in about 20 locations.

The Myleses work with a local dairy in upstate New York to produce small batches of ice cream. They are on site to supervise each batch. This means they are at the dairy when the milk, cream, sugar and assorted goodies are poured into the continuous freezer. The machine combines the ingredients, semi-freezing it, and injects air into the mix so that it won’t freeze completely. In all, they make 100 gallons per batch, which translates to 600 pints.

This process is why small ice cream producers can experiment with different flavors. In addition to flavors like Staten Island Landfill, replete with cherries, chocolate crunchies, brownie chunks and fudge swirls, 5Boroughs also experiments with flavors like Pumpkin Parade.

“The popularity with ice cream, it’s coming out in different ways,” said Scott Myles. “All natural, organic, no sugar, soy.”

But he says those looking for the low-fat variety should keep walking down the dairy isle.

“It’s like liquor. The days of buying cheap 40s are over," he said, referring to the 40-ounce size of malt liquor. "It’ll get you to the same place, but I’ll save up for the good stuff.”

E-mail: hjc2114@columbia.edu