In Philadelphia and beyond, soft serve ice cream is about more than chocolate, vanilla, and twist

Philly empties on summer weekends when the Shore crowd pours down the Expressway. Streets are quiet, parking is plentiful and the city’s businesses are gearing up for the off-season.

That made the line outside Small oven pastry shop‘s walk-in window on a last Sunday afternoon – with 100 degrees heat – all the more surprising. They came for the soft serve.

“Between cold brew and ice cream, this weekend has been crazy,” said Small Oven owner Chad Durkin. Ever since Memorial Day, which began with strawberry rhubarb and malted vanilla bean, he’s been whipping up seasonally flavored soft serve ice cream in-house every weekend. Durkin started the warm-weather project last summer and has been refining recipes ever since.

Late last month, Point Breeze Porchetteria/Bakery sold out 72 liters of candy corn and blackberry soft serve in a single Saturday. Customers wanted more, so Durkin made a 22-quart overnight batch of Madagascar vanilla topped with chunks of cornbread and blackberry compote. It was gone by 4 p.m. Sunday.

Small Oven’s homemade soft serve is rare, and the range of flavors it will offer throughout the season – from lychee and lemongrass to butterscotch and apple pie – is also quite unique. While hand-dipped hard serve ice cream is often brimming with swirls of dough and cookie sprinkles, its lighter cousin needs to remain fluffy and smooth, meaning soft serve is typically only found in chocolate, vanilla, and twist.

But elsewhere in Philly, the suburbs and South Jersey, ice cream parlors and restaurants are peddling soft serve bases with increasingly imaginative flavors: brown sugar, sweet cream, German chocolate, hazelnut, graham crackers, blueberry, chocolate tahini, ube, and even avocado. The Inquirer went on a quest to find the many strips of soft serve and learn how they are made.

at laser wolf In Kensington, staff cooks up a batch of brown sugar soft serve base every few days. “Milk, powdered milk, cream, granulated sugar, brown sugar,” said chef Andrew Henshaw, rattling off the recipe. Rounding it out are two other esoteric ingredients that give it its signature texture: xanthan gum thickens and stabilizes the mix, preventing it from going icy; Trimolin, a sugar syrup, keeps it nice and smooth.

While soft serve ice cream tastes rich, it actually contains less fat than hard ice cream, which typically contains between 14% and 17% butterfat. Soft serve rarely tops 10% – and that’s key to getting the silky treat into cups and cones. (Softserving machines usually have room for two flavors plus a twist.)

A soft-serve cabinet constantly chills and mixes a liquid base to maintain its consistency. If you put a higher-fat base in the machine, “it would wobble. The butter would come out of solution. You’d get greasy or even butter stains,” said Ryan Fitzgerald, owner of Fishtown’s 1-900 ICE CREAM.

While the 1-900 brand is best known for its nostalgia hard serve, Fitzgerald launched soft serve last year after acquiring a Scoop shop in downtown Ardmore. Since then, he’s been creating new flavors weekly, blending purees, juices, nut butters, biscuits and more into a soft serve base from an undisclosed Lancaster dairy. Recent entries include Concord Grape and Salted Peanut Butter, Roasted Sicilian Pistachio and Strawberry Nesquik, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Banana. Toppings, dips and aroma injections complete the experience.

“That’s our high-low theory,” Fitzgerald said. “Take some awesome locally sourced grass-fed dairy and just let ’em go nuts.”

The soft serve envelope will be moved elsewhere in the area. at Càphe Roaster in Kensington, owner Thu Pham and chef Jacob Trinh have switched experimental flavors in and out to complement their condensed milk soft serve, a mainstay of the Vietnamese cafe. A swirl of tropical pandan-coconut soft serve ice cream tops lychee black tea at the cafe’s newest float, but previous flavors have included mocha, avocado, and honey butter — inspired by a popular Korean potato chip flavor.

“It’s a learning curve every time we try something new,” Pham said. “We’re going to try some things and clog the machine, and then we’re just going to adjust the ratio of certain ingredients.”

At Levittown milk delicacy On Old Bristol Pike, owner Dave Scott had previously used a bright purple “mystery flavor” of soft serve, the flavor of which he kept secret even from his workers. The flavor became so popular that Scott had to change his method (and eventually solve the mystery). He had made his own ube puree, roasting and blending purple yams, then mixing them into a softserve base.

“It’s a lot of work for one man, so I ended up buying extract,” he said. Scott still makes the purées for other soft serve flavors, including blueberry, banana, apple, and pumpkin. It has its downsides.

“Once in a while [the flavor’s] not consistent. I hear things like, “Last week it had…” and I’m like, “Well, some bananas have more sugar content than others.” That’s part of being homemade.”

There are easier ways to flavor soft serve ice cream. Jen Wheeler from Levittown’s other milk delicacy, on Woodbourne Road, stirs commercial strawberry puree from I. Rice & Co. of Northeast Philadelphia into four quarts of Crowley vanilla ice cream mix. It comes together in seconds. All that’s left is to pour it into the machine — the other factor that often limits soft serve choices.

“We switch flavors, otherwise we’d need seven or eight machines,” said owner Dave Wheeler. It has four soft-serve machines with room for eight flavors. Chocolate and vanilla are staples, of course, so the other cabinets are stocked with a variety of alternatives: banana, orange, or raspberry sorbet, no-sugar-added vanilla, pineapple dole whip (a vegan soft serve), graham crackers, and more. Some flavors, like pumpkin, are seasonal. Others he rotates when he gets calls from customers: “Where’s peanut butter?” or “When are you getting lime?”

“It’s consumer-centric,” Wheeler said.

For some business owners, eight flavors just isn’t enough. You can turn to the 24 Flavor System, a system that uses syrups, a blender and an extruder to infuse plain soft serve with a spectrum of flavors, from bubblegum to guava. That’s how it is done Primo water ice in Westmont, NJ, does. The syrup collection there, stored in plastic pump bottles, looks like paints for an art project. You can tell which flavors are popular by how spotty they are: cotton candy, black cherry and espresso are the best examples.

The 24-flavor system has some downsides, explained Primo owner Adriana Adams, who also runs a Mister Softee retailer in Runnemede. It takes about two minutes from start to finish – steeping vanilla soft serve, adding flavor, mixing, steeping again – meaning the soft serve gets even smoother. The blender must be cleaned between each use. On a busy night at an ice cream shop, Backup can pull it off.

“Sometimes a whole family orders all kinds of flavors,” Adams said. Even more intimidating is a gelati with flavored soft serve: “You have to premix it [the soft serve], squirt it out into the cup, then go get the scoop, come back to that machine, squirt again – hope nobody else needs it in the meantime. It might take a little while, especially for the newcomers.”

That doesn’t deter Joe Mosco, co-owner of dairy on the hill in Blackwood, NJ, which bills itself as the “King of Flavors.” Hilltop offers so many flavors that Mosco needs to get a new sign that fits them all.

“We have over 40 flavors, maybe even more,” he said. “I lose track because I just buy every flavor that comes out. We got peanut butter and jelly and jalapeño just a few days ago, believe it or not.”

Mosco acknowledges that the 24 flavor system is a bit dated. “They came out with a new machine that makes 12 flavors that people could wear – I want to buy it but I’m waiting for that machine to break. I heard it’s great.”

This high-tech machine, the ElectroFreeze Fuzionate, can dose different flavors of soft ice cream at the push of a button. You’ll find it in six out of seven Richman’s Ice Cream shops in the region. (The Glenside store can’t fit one.) Like any soft serve flavoring method, the Fuzionate has its pitfalls, but it also has many benefits.

“We’re able to actually flavor the ice cream at the point of contact as it comes out of the spout, but to do that it has to come out more slowly,” said Richman co-owner Steve Matthews. “It probably takes three or four times as long to make a waffle as it would for just a machine that puts out plain vanilla or chocolate.” This time difference can mean longer lines, but also colder soft serve and richer flavor.

People don’t seem to mind the wait. Richman’s sells more soft ice cream by volume than hard ice cream over a year — but that’s all dependent on the weather, Matthews said.

“If it’s 60 degrees or colder, everything is hand-dipped,” he said. “Only when it gets above 70-80 degrees is it served about 80% soft…when it hits 85 degrees or more all ice cream sales go down because dairy doesn’t quench people’s thirst.”

The equation may be different closer to the beach.

“Soft serve, it’s kind of like bread and butter,” said Jason Plum, co-owner of Pudding Hut in Somers Point and Ocean View, NJ “There’s part of the mystique of coming to the shore. So, let’s get a soft serve and hit the boards.”

Custard Hut also uses modern machines and blends flavors like mint chocolate chip, espresso, strawberry and banana. Plum said he’s motivated to offer different flavors to please customers — something he’s uniquely positioned to do.

“There aren’t many jobs where people come in for your services and they smile,” he said. “As ice cream shop owners, we don’t take it for granted that people will actually smile, and our job is to make those smiles grow.”

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