We’re in the market for a second ice cream churn, and as part of the decision-making process, we closed the kitchen on Friday morning and we all went to try make ice cream in a soft serve machine, using our normal ice cream custard. This is not as silly as it sounds, since our current batch churn makes soft-serve-textured ice cream, which we freeze in containers until it’s hard enough to scoop.
Despite the best efforts of our kitchen team and the nice tech guys at our churn supply company, we couldn’t get our custard to work in the machine. Soft serve machines are usually filled with a powdered mix or UHT bagged liquid, rather than a hand made custard. The commercial mix is pretty impossible to overchurn, since it has loads of stabilizers and no fresh dairy in it. But our lovely handmade custard turned to butter before it froze in the powerful rotation of the churn blades.
One interesting piece of information we picked up from the tech guys is that the fanciest soft serve machines, used by large fast food chains, are designed so that you do not need to empty out the custard and clean the machine for as long as three weeks. It doesn’t matter if traces of soft serve mix stay in the machine for three weeks, because every night the machine pasteurizes any remaining custard at high heat to kill any pathogens, and then chills it to keep it at a safe storage temperature overnight. Having freelanced for corporate food companies, and seeing the way certain fast food restaurants clean (or rather, do not clean) their equipment, this should be reassuring to me. But it’s not.
Heating and chilling, heating and chilling, constantly for three weeks. Imagine microwaving and freezing a meal in your home repeatedly again and again. If you did this with normal food, the texture would break down and all flavour would be destroyed. But because commercial soft serve is made from a lab-designed premix, it is totally stable. Or what I would prefer to call flavourless and sterile. It’s lacking the key elements that for me define food: a nutritive product made with identifiably organic (as in, from living plants or animals) ingredients. Food’s capacity to go off , while irritating and certainly illness-inducing if we eat it regardless, is a sign that, like us, food both comes from and sustains life, and therefore it is part of and subject to the laws of nature. Not so with commercial soft serve. So why, exactly, do we want to put this in our bodies? Do we actually digest this quasi-food? Do we want to absorb it and have it be part of us? Or does it pass, inert, through our systems, taking and giving nothing? I’m not sure which scenario is worse.
Making our own custard from local, ethical ingredients is what we do at The Creamery because it makes sense to me. And yet people in commercial food industry often express surprise or horror that we make everything ourselves by hand, from scratch. Stuff like three week old sterile soft serve mix makes me wonder: who’s really crazy here, guys?