Let's see . . . a shady swimming hole . . . some sizzling steaks . . . and bowls of first-rate ice cream. There you have the basic ingredients for one great summer.
Although I can't do much about what's happening on your side of the pool or who hangs around your Weber, I am, with all due modesty, The Queen of Ice Cream. And for you, my loyal, overheated subjects and in honor of National Ice Cream Month I will reveal some of the best spots in the area to score your daily ration of sweet, cold, and creamy.
First, some background: When you slurp a cone or chug a shake, you are enjoying a treat with a two-thousand-year-old pedigree, going all the way back to the Romans, who bless 'em came up with the notion of topping snow with flavored syrups and calling it good.
Of course, as any third-grader can tell you, that's not actually ice cream. What Roman high society was lapping up was more like what we call sorbet: a soft-textured, frozen dairy-free product made from sugar, fruit flavoring, citric acid, and water.
Sorbet is not to be confused with sherbet, a firmer-textured, fruit-flavored frozen dessert that can contain up to 5 percent dairy product. Nor is it the same as an "Italian" ice, or granita, which is stirred less conscientiously during freezing and therefore has a coarser, grainier texture.
And delicious as they may be, none of these can be mistaken for real ice cream, that guilty pleasure that lubricates the palate, cools the body, and soothes the soul.
Two factors primarily influence the perceived sensory quality of ice cream: milk-fat level and overrun.
In general, the higher the level of milk fat, the richer and more luxuriant the ice cream will feel in the mouth. By law, any product labeled as ice cream must have at least 10 percent milk fat; premium ice creams often contain as much as 16 percent milk fat.
Overrun refers to the amount of air beaten into the ice cream during freezing. Theoretically, overrun can range from zero (no air) to 200 percent (all air), but in practice the law requires no more than 100 percent overrun. At that level, ice cream is still mushy, with an unpleasantly "fluffy" texture and a tendency to melt quickly. On the other hand, with less than 10 percent overrun, ice cream is too hard to scoop and has a "flat" texture. Ideal overrun levels between 10 and 50 percent produce a firm but scoopable product that melts slowly in the mouth.
Frozen custard is the final rung on the ladder to gustatory nirvana. Creamier, richer, and smoother than even premium ice cream, custard is required to have at least 10 percent milk fat, no more than 30 percent overrun, and at least 1.4 percent egg. In general, custard doesn't store well, so it is usually prepared fresh daily and hand-dipped. (The hand-dipping makes it easy to tell custard apart from soft-serve ice cream, which comes directly out of the machine and into your cone, and may contain as much as 90 percent overrun.)
Nationally, ice cream is an $11 billion industry, with Ohio ranking a big, fat third among the states in ice cream production. That being the case, it's pretty much your patriotic duty to get out there and eat some. Here then, in no particular order, are five outstanding spots to get your fix.
East Coast Original Frozen Custard, 5618 Mayfield Road, Lyndhurst, and locations in Fairview Park, Garfield Heights, Mentor, and Parma Heights.
Season: Lyndhurst location is open year-round.
Summer hours: Open daily at 11 a.m.; Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m., other days until 10 p.m.
Originator Ivan Platt has begun franchising his Coney-Island-style frozen custard business, and this location is now one of five where you can pig out on flavors of the day like Bailey's Irish Cream, Vanilla Malt Crunch, and Orange Creamsicle in addition to made-fresh-daily vanilla and chocolate custard.
East Coast Custard is a dense, buttery product, with a dreamy 12.8 percent butterfat content and low overrun. The vanilla is pure and sweet, and the chocolate has the big, round taste of a premium candy bar; both flavors coat the palate with cream and send shivers of pleasure down the spine.
Tired of cones? Try the sweet, thick, and absolutely smooth Café Mocha Shake, topped with cocoa powder and a big mound of real whipped cream, and feel the earth move.
Large Custard Cone: $1.85
Café Mocha Shake: $2.70
Tommy's Dairy Whip, 1208 East Aurora Road, Macedonia.
Season: April through October.
Summer hours: 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., daily; closes earlier in the spring and fall.
This old-fashioned roadside stand in the suburbs is home to some of the most delicious and authentic-tasting Italian ice around: lemony, but not puckerish; sweet, but not gooey; and with a velvety, ephemeral texture more like a fine sorbet than a grainy granita.
Owner Tom Olivo Jr. uses a secret family recipe that dates back to the days of the Depression to make his fat-free, dairy-free Italian ice, and he says that the big difference between his product and other so-called Italian ices is that his is whipped and served straight out of the machine. "I don't put it in a cup and let it sit in a freezer until it gets rock-hard," he sniffs.
Olivo also makes an incredibly delicious orange sherbet, with the same perfect balance of fruit and sugar, and an even creamier texture, thanks to the addition of a little milk fat.
"The lemon ice and orange sherbet only make up about 1 percent of my business," he says, "but I do it because nobody else does."
Large Bowl of Italian Ice or Orange Sherbet: $2.50
Honey Hut Ice Cream Shoppe, 4674 State Road, Cleveland, and locations in Parma, Parma Heights, and Brecksville.
Season: St. Patrick's Day through Thanksgiving.
Summer Hours: Daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Although owners Bruce Page and his sister, Marcia Rosati, now have four Honey Hut locations throughout the area, this one, within spitting distance of the Metroparks Zoo, is the original. Equally original is their super-premium ice cream, made fresh daily by brother Mark.
Their signature flavor is Honey Pecan, a honey-sweetened vanilla ice cream gently mixed with loads of slightly salty toasted pecan halves. For those who favor the dark side, there's a Chocolate Pecan version. A third popular flavor, Orange Blossom, is snowy white but carries a delicate taste of orange.
Some advice? Portions are huge. Only a fool, or a hardcore ice cream fanatic, would ever order a large size of anything here.
Tired of cones? You can't miss with the Honey Hut's Turtle Sundae, a huge bowl of vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, caramel, pecans, and whipped cream.
Large Honey-Pecan Cone: $2.40
Small Turtle Sundae: $3.50
Stoddard's, 1321 Main Street, Kent.
Season: April through September.
Summer Hours: Monday through Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. to 10 p.m.
The folks at Stoddard's have been cranking out a superlative frozen custard at this location for more than fifty years. Ask owner Lisa Kaye what makes the product so good, and she doesn't hesitate. "I think it's the machines," she says. "They're almost sixty years old, and the new machines just don't work the same."
With "only" 10 percent butterfat, this isn't the creamiest custard around. But the overrun must be very low indeed, because the stuff is amazingly dense. If you're used to huge portions of high-overrun soft-serve, Stoddard's servings may seem skimpy. But they are priced by weight, not volume, and it won't take your tummy long to realize a little of this ambrosia goes a long way.
Creamy, all-natural-tasting vanilla custard and an almost-bittersweet chocolate custard are available daily; popular flavors of the day include banana and white chocolate-macadamia nut.
Tired of cones? Try a Wild Cherry Sundae: pure vanilla custard, white as the driven snow, robed in a ruby-red syrup bursting with plump, whole sour cherries. Mmmm . . . make it a large.
Large Cone: $2.25
Large Wild Cherry Sundae: $2.80
Country Maid Ice Cream, 3252 Streetsboro Road (Route 303), Richfield.
Season: May to Labor Day; open weekends only during the remainder of the year.
Summer Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Brothers Don and Steve Torma carry on a fifty-year tradition of making small-batch premium ice cream on the edge of the Cuyahoga Valley. Their assortment of flavors includes all the old standards, plus hard-to-find pleasures like Penuche Fudge, White House, Pistachio, and Butterscotch. The all-natural ice cream, with 12 percent milk fat, is made fresh daily in ten-gallon batches, and many of the flavors come from locally grown fruits.
The vanilla ice cream has a lighter taste than some, but the chocolate is outstandingly sweet and creamy. Another flavor fave is coffee a smooth, rich concoction that tastes like a cup of creamy iced brew.
The Tormas also make four flavors of sherbet: orange, raspberry, lemon, and pineapple. Although their texture tends to be rather coarse, they each have a delightfully pronounced fruity flavor.
Tired of cones? Try a double-dipped bowl of coffee ice cream and raspberry sherbet. The sophisticated combo is reminiscent of a creamy frozen raspberry truffle, and the complementary textures are divine. No need to thank me.
Double scoop: $2.10
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