I love the pink double-breasted chef’s coat I’m asked to wear. But I could do without the paper booties and poufy shower cap — a real hair flattener with no style. I didn’t realize these things came with the Golden Ticket that gives me the chance to play in Woo City Ice Cream’s factory.
Woo City is sold by the pint at Whole Foods Market, Zagara’s Markets, Nature’s Bin, Cleveland Food Co-op and Danny’s Organic Market in Willoughby. For just a scoop, try Parkwood Organic Ice Cream at 758 E. 222nd in Euclid or the roving FlavorOasis (Fridays only) in front of 1001 Huron Road, Cleveland.
Cream of the Crop
Though they may take a different approach to their cold concoctions than Woo City, here are some other places churning out tasty summer creations.
Brunswick, Fairview Park, Lyndhurst, Mentor, Parma Heights, Shaker Square, Solon,
Stow Strickland’s Frozen Custard www.stricklands.info
Akron, Cleveland Heights, Cuyahoga Falls, Jacobs Field
Still, I feel as lucky as Charlie Bucket. No other outsider has ever been invited to create, name and sample their own flavor (fresh from the sleek little Italian machine that turns liquids into luscious frozen solids), so I’m willing to dress up in pretty much anything they tell me.
Woo City’s two co-owners have a history as food Wonkas: David Steele is a former chef and caterer, and Lauren-Michael Tyler is a professionally trained pastry chef. But ice cream has been their obsession since they bought the company in 2003.
And not just any ice cream. Nothing less than nature’s chemically free best will do for Steele and Tyler, who have thrown their hearts, minds and retirement savings into turning out something so pure and wholesome it practically qualifies as health food. (Not really, but I keep trying to convince myself of this.)
Step inside and Tyler and Steele will persuade you with talk about the benefits of low-temperature pasteurization (it retains all sorts of nutrients, including Omega-3’s) and small-batch production (organic, unrefined sugar is a key component in the top-secret process).
Woo City is the state’s only ice cream maker working with certified organic milk. It’s produced on family-owned farms, mostly Amish, in Wayne and Holmes counties, where cows graze only on grass and hay.
The milk is transformed into a beautiful, golden-colored cream base by a 100-year-old dairy in Utica. At $9.95 a pound, seven times the price for what most manufacturers use, the cream ends up in Woo City’s refrigerator just days after Bessie has chewed her cud.
But best of all, it smells like a green meadow on a warm summer day. Open a bag and the scent wafts through the 14,400-square-foot North Canton factory floor. Filled with stainless steel work surfaces and a plethora of sinks, the facility is hospital clean.
The walk-in blast freezer is packed with ice cream, plus enough sorbet and tofu-based Woo Fu to make lactose intolerant and vegan alike quiver with joy. (I wouldn’t mind being left in this negative-40 degree paradise with nothing but a parka and a spoon.)
But right now, it’s time to work my dairy mojo. The crew is on holiday, and we have the place to ourselves.
The first step is to choose a primary flavor element. I scan the supply shelves in search of inspiration. They’re a miniature market stocked with the most delicious things to eat and drink: bottles of Guinness, crème de cassis (black currant liqueur) and champagne; containers of pecans, macadamia nuts and pistachio brittle. I spot mango nectar, Dutch cocoa and dried cranberries. There are flower petals that will be steeped in herbal teas. Steele shows me a gorgeous ruby-red hibiscus sorbet (made specifically for an Indian wedding), and then pops the lid off a large plastic tub, releasing the heady scent of lemon grass.
“Infusions like these,” he says, “are one of the secrets of our deliciousness.”
I’m determined to break frozen ground. No traveling down any rocky roads for me. The truth is I want to impress Tyler, Woo City’s mix-meister and chief creative officer. But a glance at Woo’s 244 flavors, with new ones being added with astonishing regularity, reveals that this won’t be easy. Coming up with original, even quirky combos — Brown Sugar and Ricotta, Balsamic Vinaigrette Peppercorn — is his idea of fun.
In his previous life as a baker, Tyler specialized in wedding cakes. “People never wanted anything too exotic,” he complains. “Now, I can take risks, experiment.”
His tinkering has resulted in Green Tea, Brandy Orange Zest, Toasted Marshmallow and Sarsaparilla, expressions of his knack for thinking outside the container.
He finds ideas everywhere. Walking through the supermarket once he spotted a bottle of raspberry lemonade. “That sounded so good. I went back to work, pureed fresh raspberries, prepared a lemon reduction and, voila, a wonderful new sorbet was born.”
Within “voila” you’ll find ingredients measured precisely, added in tiny increments, so the recipe can be reproduced. The liquid mix is sipped like wine, swished across the tongue and evaluated: Is it intense enough? Are the flavors balanced? Sometimes the taste isn’t as good after freezing, so it’s back to the drawing board.
Even tried-and-true recipes may need adjusting, explains executive cold chef Cathy Bartko, who joined the staff a few months ago. “If we get a bushel of strawberries that aren’t quite as sweet, we add more fruit, extra sugar or some natural strawberry oil to give a batch a boost.”
Chefs can call on Monday with an idea for a flavor and have it custom blended and delivered to their door by Friday.
Tyler usually starts with an established formula that bears some resemblance, however small, to what the chef is looking for. “Then I add and subtract ingredients to modify the recipe, and keep tweaking until it’s just right,” he says. It rarely takes him more than three attempts to come up with a winner.
A new flavor is honey vanilla, made with wildflower honey from Ashland, Ohio. Bartko put it together at the request of Larry Parella, the owner of an ice cream shop in Euclid. He was hoping to reproduce what he remembered getting as a kid 50 years ago from a little place on Memphis Avenue. Bartko nailed it on the first try, Parella says. Now’s there’s a honey chocolate too.
I’m ready to do some blending and tweaking of my own. Impulsively I reach for a can of lychees from Thailand. I love their crisp, juicy flesh, reminiscent of grapes but sweeter and intensely fragrant. Tyler instructs me to bring five cans to the counter, where I open them, drain off the liquid into a measuring cup and watch as he purees the fruit, then combines the pulp with 5 gallons of cream base.
Though finding the right accent notes isn’t a complicated science, you do need to know what flavors work well together. I’m leaning toward an Asian influence, because lychees are a common finish to a meal in Chinese restaurants. The spice rack is a riot of possibility, from the predictable (cinnamon, ginger and cloves) to those that seem unlikely to ever show up in dessert (turmeric, basil, whole cardamom pods and wasabi powder). I sprinkle a teaspoon of nutmeg into the bowl, along with some of the thick syrup from the cans in place of sugar.
Tyler mixes it all up with an immersion blender. We taste. It’s nice. But not there yet. We gradually increase the level of syrup and nutmeg, with Tyler noting exact quantities like a chemist in a lab.
Still, it needs something. Then it comes to me. Almonds. Finely chopped. So in they go.
What else? Don’t we need emulsifiers, stabilizers and colorings? What about polysorbate 80, carrageenan and all those other things usually listed on the side of the grocery store pints? Steele clues me in. Real ice cream, the kind people churned at home 75 years ago and the kind Woo sells, is nothing but cream, sugar and flavorings. The recipes are surprisingly simple, usually only three to six ingredients.
This mix is ready to be poured into the Carpigiani, a high-tech, computer-controlled machine that does the rest. While we’re waiting, Tyler warns me that soft, freshly made ice cream eaten straight from the machine can be addictive. “I try to get a taste of every batch,” he confesses. “I call it quality control. Really, I just love it.”
Ice cream must contain some air. That’s what creates the distinctive mouth feel. But standard commercial machines whip a lot of it in — “overrun,” it’s called. The three-sided blade inside the Carpigiani turns very, very slowly, so what comes out contains less than one-third the air found in regular and premium brands. That’s why their ice cream is so dense and rich with the consistency of gelato.
The moment of truth arrives. My ice cream is ready. I swirl some into a bowl and spoon it up. It’s great, dare I say, ambrosial. Steele and Tyler agree. The lychee puree and almonds give the light, satiny cream a texture reminiscent of shredded coconut. It’s fruity and refreshing.
Every lick elicits more “wows,” and “mmmmms.” I’m practically dancing around the room. Steele announces that he knows at least three chefs who would want this. Tyler kindly refrains from mentioning that he’s already invented two flavors featuring lychees, and allows me my moment of triumph.
We discuss names. The Woo guys insist on giving me star billing, and I must admit, though I’d never ask for it, I’m thrilled. Henceforth this recipe will be known as Laura’s Lychee Almond Cream.