Cold Comfort

Frozen confections take the heat off — and melt stress

By Pam George

In 2012, Angie O’Brien was tasked with bringing a dessert to her gourmet dinner club. The choice was up to the host, who sent O’Brien a recipe for blueberry-lemon ice cream layered between blondie cookies. 

“When I went home, I thought, ‘Oh, man, I could make these in lots of fun flavors,’” she says. So, she did just that — for friends, family and other events. “I kept accumulating flavors and experimenting — and people kept encouraging me …” she recalls. 

In 2014, the former software developer launched ISwich, a frozen dessert and ice cream company incorporated in Delaware. Made in her West Chester commissary, the gourmet ice cream sandwiches are available in Whole Foods Markets and at Longwood Gardens.

“We just entered New York City,” she says proudly.

O’Brien is on the forefront. Fortune Business Insights estimates that the global ice cream market will soar from $70.9 billion in 2019 to $91.9 billion in 2027 — a 30% jump in less than a decade. The frozen novelties category — including pops and ice cream sandwiches — is particularly strong. Dollar sales jumped 8.4% to $6,871.3 million in 2021. 

Stress has helped fuel the trend. Snacking is one way to cope with anxiety, and no good rom-com is complete without a heartbroken character dipping into a quart of ice cream. 

At this time of year, however, a frozen sweet is also a time-honored way to beat the heat, and on June 25, the Old-Fashioned Ice Cream Festival will return to the Rockwood Park & Museum.

A Step Above

Ice cream and frozen desserts might be popular, but today’s customers won’t waste calories on just any confection. If they’re going to indulge, they want a premium product, O’Brien maintains. 

What takes ice cream to the next level? Start with the source. For instance, Woodside Farm Creamery in Hockessin raises Jersey cows, a British breed that produces milk with more solids and higher butterfat content than many breeds. 

The creamery’s uber-rich ice cream has made the farm a destination for families and retailers; Chip Hearn buys custom-made Woodside products for his exotic concoctions at The Ice Cream Store on Rehoboth Avenue.

Good ice cream must be worth the weight — in more ways than one. “Most people don’t know this, but air is an actual ice cream ingredient,” O’Brien explains. After the ice cream is spun and frozen, air is inserted to soften the mass, which otherwise would remain a hard frozen block. Inexpensive ice cream typically has more air — known as overrun — than premium versions.

When Hopkins Farm Creamery outside Lewes first started making ice cream, the late Burli Hopkins tossed away the machine’s instructions. Instead of operating the device at the suggested 220 revolutions per minute, he ran it at 175 to 180. Consequently, the amount of air made the ice cream rich and creamy. By the time he realized the mistake, his customers were hooked.

More Than Ice Cream

In Delaware, not all top-shelf frozen delights are traditional ice cream. Water ice is a Philly-area and northern Delaware favorite.

 “That’s what we’re famous for,” declares Dino Thompson, owner of Dino’s Ice Cream & Water Ice in Wilmington’s Little Italy section. 

Derived from granita, an Italian treat, water ice was introduced by Italian immigrants, which is why it’s a frequent sight in Little Italy. Banish the thought of a snow cone. Those icy treats are coarse ice topped with syrup. Authentic water ice is a thoroughly combined sugar, water, and fruit mix. Cajun ice, meanwhile, is fine and fluffy.

There’s also a market for sorbet, fruit and sugar churned in an ice cream machine. There’s no dairy, which makes it suitable for those who are lactose-intolerant. Then there is frozen custard, the darling of the festival circuit. While ice cream is made with milk, cream and sweetener, frozen custard also contains egg yolks. Credit the invention to brothers Archie, Clair, and Elton Kohr (as in the Kohr Bros. Frozen Custard), who debuted the dessert in 1919 on Coney Island. 

Gelato might mean “ice cream” in Italian, but it is only about 25 percent air and made with less milk fat. Consequently, it’s denser, and there’s less butterfat to coat the tongue. The flavor, therefore, is more intense. 

Perhaps the best-known gelato purveyor in the state is Caffé Gelato, founded by Ryan German in April 2000, a month before he graduated from the University of Delaware. German got the idea for the Newark restaurant while sampling Italian-style gelato in Spain. The restaurant has since evolved into a full-service dining destination.

Despite the café’s longevity, many people still don’t understand the difference between ice cream and gelato, says Petra Heiss, owner of Gotta Lotta Gelata on Philadelphia Pike in North Wilmington. Education is part of her job. 

Gelato and sorbet recipes are the foundation for Janine Crawford’s Pop In Artisan Pops in Middletown.

 “I’ve always had a sweet tooth, and it just evolved over time to include frozen desserts,” says Crawford, who attended a special school to learn the art of gelato- and sorbet-making. Made in small batches, the flavors might include pink lemonade, strawberry cream, cookies and cream, and banana-hazelnut fudge with a chocolate hazelnut drizzle and Heath bar crumble. 

Have to Have a Gimmick

Creativity counts, and flavors are one way to demonstrate innovation. For instance, at Le Cavalier at the Hotel du Pont, Chef Tyler Akins has whipped up a mascarpone ice cream sundae with house-made strawberry-rhubarb preserves, chocolate whipped cream and candied pistachios. Speaking of cheese, Gotta Lotta Gelata has offered Blue Goat — goat cheese gelato with a blueberry swirl — and Heiss is currently working on an Earl Grey tea flavor. However, her most popular is Oreo. 

O’Brien now offers six iSwich flavors and seasonal selections, such as pumpkin crunch and apple sorbet in fall and peppermint bark for the holidays. The ice cream is sandwiched between brownies, blondies or graham cracker cookies.

In Kennett Square, La Michoacána is known for its corn ice cream, but you may also find rice pudding, banana tequila, queso fresco and guava cheese. Not to be outdone, Thompson of Dino’s Ice Cream & Water Ice is up to 20 assorted flavors of water ice, although only six to eight are available at a time. 

“We do an incredible pina colada that’s fantastic,” says Thompson, who created “Purple Rain” for an idol, Prince. 

There are other tasty ways to stand out. For example, La Chispa Creamery in West Grove, Pa., piles it on high. Garnishes might include a kebob of toasted marshmallows, whole cookies and edible trim around glass rims. The shop’s menu showcases a funnel cake sundae, churro split and waffle cone “taco” sundae. 

If you want your ice cream and your cake, head to Sweet Lucy’s Ice Cream & Treats in Brandywine Hundred, whose ice cream cupcakes are a hit at weddings. This summer, the shop offers ice cream cakes shaped like watermelon and beach balls.

For another festive dessert that combines two favorites, there’s V&M’s Boozy menu for customers 21 and up. Spoon up a shot of whiskey chocolate hazelnut, rum pina colada and vodka mint chocolate chip. No espresso martini is needed.

Coming to a Community Near You

The delivery is also a differentiator, as attendees at the Old-Fashioned Ice Cream Festival will see. Good Humor isn’t the only brand that hits the road in style. 

Dino’s Ice Cream and Water Ice started as a food truck before opening a brick-and-mortar location. Meg Hurst, who owns Sweet Lucy’s, started with Cajun-Sno, a truck selling Louisiana-style water ice. Similarly, Gotta Lotta Gelata operated as a food truck for three years before opening a store on Philadelphia Pike.

The process works both ways. Along with a wholesale operation, O’Brien now has vans to transport premade ice cream sandwiches and ice cream cups to events. Crawford has a vintage-looking tricycle with a farmhouse chick storage box that she takes to showers and other events.

But, in the end, all the bells and whistles won’t work if the product doesn’t appeal to customers’ taste buds. Succeeding in the industry takes talent.

“Frozen dessert is a competitive market,” Crawford acknowledges. “We bring a unique perspective and a high-quality handcrafted product made on-site daily using all-natural ingredients. Our customers appreciate the quality and craftsmanship we provide.”