If there is one thing I have a notable passion for, it is Ben and Jerry’s. Not only do they produce a wide variety of inventive flavors, but they also speak out on a variety of important social issues. And what is better than a company with a product you love that you can also support morally? Their website publishes regular articles on climate change, criminal justice reform, civil rights issues, mental health issues, and other political and social issues that they want to bring to the attention to the worlds ice cream lovers. They also try their best to produce their product in an ethical manner, using recycled materials for their packaging, energy efficient systems in their production facilities, and utilizing the waste produced from the factory to supply energy to two of the farms that produce their ingredients. In addition, the vanilla, cocoa and banana used in their product are now certified Fairtrade.
But what hooks us all into Ben and Jerry’s love is the ice cream. These originators of the now iconic chocolate chip cookie dough flavor have mastered the art of chunks and swirls. And at the end of the day, while I love a well-crafted, full-bodied ice cream flavor that stands on its own, the beauty of an ice cream is in its mix-ins. Of course the ice cream itself is where it’s at, but it cannot help but be enhanced by gobs of cookie dough, chunks of cake, fully-baked cookies crumbled in, some chewy brownie bits, or swirls of peanut butter. And this is why Ben and Jerry’s reigns supreme. Every flavor they create is the perfect balance between a great ice cream base and a killer mix-in combination. It was actually learned at the factory that when concocting their flavors in the beginning, Ben and Jerry kept making them more flavorful and full of chunks because Ben has a sinus condition preventing him from having a normal sense of taste. Therefore, the flavors must really come through for him to get anything, and he judges food mostly on mouthfeel, giving us the ample amount of chunks we love in a Ben and Jerry’s pint.
So after years of Ben and Jerry’s appreciation both through scoop shop orders and pints eaten at home, it was time to make the pilgrimage to the factory itself and see where it all comes from. After making our mid-way stop at King Arthur Flour (as discussed in last week’s post) we continued our way through the Green Mountains of Vermont until we arrived in Waterbury, home to the Ben and Jerry’s factory. At the base of a hill sits the colorful building of ice cream creation, with ample parking behind and a well-equipped playground. We parked next to another famous attraction of the site, the flavor graveyard, where flavors that have been retired throughout the years have received their own gravestone to be memorialized forever. As we strolled through the graveyard there were some that we wished were still around, like Peanut Butter and Jelly, Miz Jelena’s Sweet Potato Pie, and Crème Brûlée. Others made a more sense to be retired, such as Dastardly Mash (I don’t want raisins in my ice cream).
After paying respects to flavors past, it was time to go on a tour to see the production of flavors present. The factory was extremely crowded, though this did not come as a shock at all given that it was still summer vacation time. We got a ticket for the next time slot, and waited a short ten minutes before being lead up to a screening room where we watched a short video on the history of Ben and Jerry and the organization throughout the years. Most interestingly, we learned that Ben and Jerry originally wanted to create a bagel business, but found it too costly, which is why they turned to ice cream. How ice cream was less expensive to produce than bagels I don’t know, but can you imagine the kinds of bagels we might have if things had gone the other way?
Once the video was finished we ventured into a room overlooking the factory operations. Pasteurizing chambers, mixing vats, and pint-lidding machines all covered the factory floor as a batch of chocolate fudge brownie was getting prepared for production. Unfortunately, there had just been an incident with the fire alarm, and production had paused to bring operations back to speed after the forced stoppage. But we were still able to see just where each ingredient goes in each step of the process, and the intricate journey our pints make before getting to our grocer’s freezer case, and subsequently our homes.
We then traveled down to the sampling room, where we each received a small sample of their Strawberry Cheesecake ice cream. I would normally never choose this flavor for myself, as I am not huge into fruits in my ice cream, but I gotta say that it freakin’ ROCKED. The strawberry came through strong, but not in a super fake sort of way, and the graham cracker swirls were a perfect crunchy foil to the soft strawberry chunks. It was light and refreshing, something I would happily have again on a really hot summer day, perhaps with some pie.
Once we were done with our tour it was time for the most important part: the scoop shop. The treachery of a Ben and Jerry’s scoop shop is that there are so many amazing options, indecision paralysis is inevitable. Especially when you are at the factory, and there are some flavors you just can’t get at your local neighborhood scoop shop or your regular grocers freezer case. I decided to force myself to use this as an opportunity to get at least one flavor that I hadn’t tried before in my classic two flavors in a waffle cone. I settled on Bourbon Brown Butter as my new exploration, having many elements I love as well as a nod to my recent legal status as of a couple months ago. To go with it I picked Totally Baked, the inverse version of the number one selling pint Half Baked of which I am very much a fan. I actually got into loving Half Baked through being such a fan of Totally Baked from our local Ben and Jerry’s shop in Manchester, but they don’t carry it in pints and rarely do I see it in a scoop shop anymore. So with my combo I both returned to my Ben and Jerry’s roots, and looked ahead to new flavor experiences.
It’s no shocker that both flavors were perfection. Totally Baked was just how I remembered, and especially good because I happened to get mostly chocolate out of the chocolate/vanilla base combo, and plenty of brownie and cookie bits. While the brownie is fairly commonly found in ice cream in plenty a brownie batter variation, the fully baked cookie crumbled throughout is a little bit more rare. It is usually cookie dough that makes the appearance – and don’t get me wrong it is for good reason, for it is my personal favorite ice cream addition – but there is something to be said for the way the creamy texture of ice cream interacts with a hunk of cookie blended in there. Isn’t that the beauty so beloved by cookies and crème lovers? Why not mix some chocolate chip cookies into a chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream? Put some ginger snap bits into a festive fall flavor? Peanut butter cookie pieces into a peanut-y flavor? My new favorite example for the concept is Ben and Jerry’s Oat of This Swirld, a brown sugar base with fudge flakes and chunks of oatmeal cinnamon cookie. After being introduced to it this summer it quickly soared to one of my top flavors, in large part due to the greatness of oatmeal cookie inclusion (As well as the killer concept of a brown sugar base. Why have anything vanilla based when you can do that?). But before Oat of this Swirld, Totally Baked was the paragon of the concept. A perfect way to get out your Half Baked routine while still getting what you love.
While Totally Baked was a great trip down nostalgia lane, remembering how I fell for Ben and Jerry’s in the first place, Bourbon Brown Butter was truly the star of the show. Salty and sweet with a little bourbon-y kick, and little chocolate cups filled with whisky, this flavor was one of the most grown-up flavors I’ve had from them. While I often go for a Ben and Jerry’s flavor that has me feeling like a kid in a candy store, this felt classier, slicker, a little more complex. One of the great things about Ben and Jerry’s is that there is never an aspect from the flavor description that goes missing when tasting the ice cream itself. Bourbon Brown Butter is a perfect example of this. While an alcoholic aspect can often be so minimal in the end result of an ice cream or baked good that it barely warrants inclusion in the description, Ben and Jerry infuse their flavor with just enough that it’s certainly there, but it doesn’t make you feel like you’re drinking bourbon straight up. It is simply working alongside the brown butter, adding just the right kind of saltiness and richness to the party, all cut with a little pure sweetness from a chocolate chunk. Though not what I would have normally gone for at a scoop shop before, I’m looking for any opportunity to have it again.
All throughout the visit to the factory though, I could not help but think of a flavor recently lost to the perils of the end of a limited batch run: Gimme S’more. Yes, I’ve mentioned it often here on Scoutin’ it Out, but never have I had a more perfect pint. Introduced on free cone day 2018, I took a leap with Gimme S’more and was wowed. The toasted marshmallow base, the graham cracker and chocolate cookie pieces, the fudge chunks, it was a s’mores iteration unlike any other and utter perfection. Though some producers are getting on board with the toasted marshmallow base rather than chocolate, the chocolate cookie mixed throughout rather than a chocolate swirl or only chocolate chunks was totally unique and put it over the top. It became my pint of the summer, and I hoped that through sales to me alone it could sustain longer than its limited intention. But unfortunately its end did come, and the perfect pint was lost. Yes, they still have a S’mores flavor, and I have tried to see if it could hit me in the same way, but it is simply not as good. And so I pay my true respect to the ultimate flavor here and hope that maybe one day Ben and Jerry’s might realize their folly and bring it back from its limited run exile.
With our cones eaten, it was time to turn around and head back across the border into New Hampshire. A day full of baked good exploration and ice cream appreciation, I was feeling such gratitude for all the great food scientists and creators out there doing the good work creating new recipes for us to try in our own kitchens or products to eat in our houses in times of joy or despair, comforting us or highlighting the best moments of life. Along with that, I became excited to once again return to Scoutin’ it Out, and seeing what great food there is to find in this senior year in the city. But while I embrace the exploration of the new, I am glad to have Ben and Jerry’s to rely on wherever I go, always there with the best your grocer’s freezer case has to offer to enhance any multitude of life’s moments.