Fifteen years ago we set out to make ice creams that tell stories—of growers and place, of history and tradition, art, and pop culture. And to do it in a way that brings people together and celebrates community.
The day we opened Jeni’s in late November 2002 was Ohio State-Michigan football game Saturday. In Columbus that means everyone is watching the Buckeyes play the Wolverines. Everyone. The whole town comes to a screeching halt. So we figured it would be a fine day to open. A good way to ease into the coming chaos of the holidays and test the waters. A nice, quiet day selling the odd cone to one of the few Columbus residents not afflicted with Buckeye fever.
We didn’t have employees yet, but we figured that was OK, considering we didn’t really expect anyone to show up anyway. But we had gotten the word out to some of our fans who supported me during my early days running my first ice cream business, Scream. Much to our surprise and delight, customers were lined up all day long. We were exhilarated.
Fast-forward 15 years and you all are still lining up. And I couldn’t be more grateful. In honor of the last decade and a half, I’ve reached into the archives of my mind and come up with 15 ice creams that, I feel, have defined the way we make ice cream. Here we go…
Queen City Cayenne. My catalyst. The flavor that cracked open the sky and helped me realize the enormous potential of ice cream as a host for flavor. I originally made it on a whim, mashing cayenne essential oil (which has no real flavor, just a throat-burning heat) into chocolate ice cream. The lesson to me was that ice cream is the perfect carrier of scent. In fact, all ice cream can be viewed this way from the most synthetic vanilla to an exquisite chocolate. Within six months from the first time I made this flavor I was so sure of my own future in ice cream that I quit school and started my first ice cream business. My whole life began with this flavor. The vision I had in that moment—that American ice cream could be so much better and more interesting—is the quest I am on now, 22 years later.
Salty Caramel. A menu original and now considered our signature flavor. When I began making Salty Caramel in 1996, people would drive from neighboring states for a taste. We call it “salty” because that’s how a French chef friend of mine described the salted caramel of his hometown. I thought he meant salty like Swedish licorice, so I have always made mine with a very perceptible level of salt. Turns out, the caramel there isn’t really salty, per se (it’s more of an imperceivable amount of salt). My mistake helped usher in a pretty dang big American trend.
But more than that, this flavor meant that I had to learn the science of ice cream. You can’t add caramel to a pre-fab ice cream base (what most companies use) because the ice cream won’t freeze. So I needed to know how to make ice cream from the ground up—to rearrange the molecules to support the flavor. This flavor set me off on a decades-long pursuit learning about dairy science, agriculture, milk transportation, etc. And this flavor was only the beginning.
Darkest Chocolate. This flavor, in so many ways, is my white whale. Making real chocolate ice cream—overflowing with rich, bittersweet chocolate flavor and that is dense but still creamy—ain’t easy. It took me five years to perfect this flavor. When I finally got it right, we had to reformulate it again. Because I had packed so much cocoa in it we could no longer legally call it ice cream. It didn’t have enough butterfat. Darkest Chocolate is an amazing testament to the way we make ice cream. And it is the foundation of our Dark Chocolate Peppermint, which has been a mainstay at the holidays in my ice cream cabinet since time immemorial.
Lemon Buttermilk Frozen Yogurt. When I was little and living in Illinois in the early ’80s, our family would head to O’Hare airport to pick up friends from Germany. Though I was pretty young, maybe 7, I recall the yogurt guy like it was yesterday. He would stand outside of the airport terminal with a bag of frozen yogurts. Real yogurt, just frozen. And I LOVED it. There’s nothing like real yogurt (froyo doesn’t cut it). So, on my first day in business in 1996, I made my own version of raspberry yogurt, simply frozen. And it took me back in time. I made lemon on the same day, and it became my favorite. Like everything we do it has only gotten better over time. Made with lemon juice and the fragrant oil from lemon zest, we add fresh yogurt and buttermilk, which helps thicken the cream for an almost creme fraiche texture. I love this flavor on a wafer cone.
Sweet Corn with Black Raspberries. Most of my career I had a reputation for being “weird,” though that was never my intention. I would never put anything in my shop that I don’t love and that I don’t think is a worthwhile scoop. That said, Sweet Corn with Black Raspberries probably tops the list of examples for odd flavors we’ve made. Though maybe less so these days now that many other companies make a similar flavor. But it certainly was unconventional at the time because savory leaning ice creams weren’t yet a thing.
This is a flavor that makes so much sense to me. Sweet corn and black raspberries are summer sisters; in the market at the same time, peak summer. I am a sweet cornbread fan, have always thought of corn as sweet. So, of course it makes sense to put black raspberry jam on it!
Kona Stout. One of the first beer ice creams we ever made, Kona Stout shocked the world of ice cream at the time because no one was using beer this way. Back then I used to walk across the North Market parking lot to Barley’s Brewing and get the darkest beer they had, a Russian imperial stout. I’d add chocolate covered pretzels or just leave it dark and rich. Then we began a triple collaboration—Barley’s would make a stout with Columbus roaster, Stauf’s, and I’d make an ice cream using both. Many beer ice creams and sorbets have followed since, most notably Yazoo Sue with Rosemary Bar Nuts. But Kona Stout is still my favorite beer-based ice cream. If you want to try it, the recipe in my first book (page 64) mimics it precisely.
Cheese ice creams. I have churned just about every cheese in the cheese shop into ice cream. Parmesan and Zucchini Cake, Gorgonzola Dolce (which tastes oddly like graham crackers), Young Gouda with Moonshine Cranberries, and Manchego with Mango are a few standouts. By far the most popular of the cheese flavors is goat cheese with red cherries. And it’s a great example of how our company works as a community.
We rely on our vast network of farmers, makers, and growers to supply us with quality ingredients. Because NOTHING hides in ice cream. Use a subpar cocoa or vanilla and, trust me, you can taste it. The same is true of goat cheese. If it’s too “goaty” or aged a tad too long, then this flavor can taste off-putting. Mackenzie Creamery makes the best goat cheese I’ve ever tasted. The Northeast Ohio small-batch and family-run creamery churns out naturally tangy goat cheese with an ultra fresh flavor and clean finish. We have made this two ways: with cognac figs and red cherries. Both have a cult following.
Beet ice creams. I love beets. Their strange sweetness. Their vibrant hot-pink-red color. Even the way they look like shrunken heads when you pull them from the earth. Beets are raw, unpolished vegetables. They smell like the soil and have creepy, spindly roots. When you slice into them, though, the color is breathtaking, almost glamorous. They are so sweet and full of sugar—a gift from the universe. I like to do many things with them. Beet cake with cream cheese and toasted walnuts. Or beet and grapefruit shrub sorbet. I once enjoyed a ravioli at Al Di La Trattoria in Brooklyn filled with beet and mascarpone, and covered in lemon and poppy seeds. Beets have played a supporting role in so many of our ice creams, even if you didn’t know they were there. Because we don’t use synthetic colorings, we rely on beets to color anything we make pink. I’m giving beets their own category because they inspire me so!
Collaboration flavors. We have always been inspired by pop culture, art history, and people. And we’ve gotten to do some amazing collaborations and inspired-by collections over the years. Andy Warhol-inspired pushups, George Bellows-inspired macaroons, and an ice cream pop collaboration with Diane von Furstenberg—just to name a few favorites over the years. We also created this really awesome J Bar in honor of the Giacometti exhibit at the Wexner Center for the Arts several years ago. We filled an ice cream cone with chocolate ganache, submerged in into a block of ice cream on a stick, then dipped the whole thing in chocolate. Like an inside out ice cream cone that we cleverly called Gia-CONE-metti.
Brown Butter Almond Brittle. I grew up in a family that had zero expectations of who I “should” become. I was encouraged to roam free and make things and be my wild self. So, as a result, I looked to authors like Roald Dahl to guide me. When I wanted to know more about who he was as a child, I discovered his favorite ice cream flavor: krokan, this toffee-like nut candy popular in Norway where he grew up. Of course I had to make it. That year, in 2009, Brown Butter Almond Brittle went viral for us. So many Norwegian-Americans and ex-pats helped us spread the word. We thought it must be spot on to earn that kind of word-of-mouth buzz. It’s been on our menus since—and I don’t think we will ever remove it, lest we wish for a riot of splendiferous proportions.
Roasted Strawberry. While cream actually heightens fat-soluble scents like mint, vanilla, cocoa, and coffee, it can actually dampen water-soluble scents like berries, melons, and citrus juices. Which is why so many strawberry ice creams have dull flavor. I learned early on that adding buttermilk—which is low in fat, but high in flavor and tartness—wakes up the cream and helps carry the flavor of strawberries to your nose. The flavor becomes a synergy of cream, strawberries, and just the right brightness from fresh buttermilk. It’s a summer staple.
Coriander Raspberry. Those who know me know I am obsessed with pure, edible essential oils and perfuming. Focusing on ice cream as a carrier of scent is what got me in the game in the first place. Perfumers use fats or alcohols to hold and deliver scent to your skin. I use ice cream. Over the years, we’ve experimented with a lot of flavors scented with essential oils. This is one of the first, and one of my favorites. (Find the recipe on page 66 in my first book).
Sweet Potato with Torched Marshmallows. I come from a region in America where cinnamon rolls are considered a pre-dinner roll, and where we roast sweet potatoes to the death with brown sugar, then cover with marshmallows and caramelize them and call it a vegetable. It’s how I imagine hobbits approach their food. With other fresh garden staples, of course. So, making this flavor was inevitable. Roasted until practically caramelized sweet potatoes and homemade blow-torched marshmallows. I mean, what else is there to say? It’s been a staple on our holiday line up for years.
Toasted Brioche with Butter & Jam. It was an early one that became so many other flavors. Dry-toasted bread crumbs absorb the sugar syrup in ice cream and become almost cake-like. It’s a technique that can be employed to make many kinds of flavors and is, I’m told, very popular in Ireland—like brown bread ice cream, which we have also made. Our first real toast and ice cream hit, though, was a collection inspired by Marie Antoinette’s story—her biography by Antonia Fraser and Sophia Coppola’s excellent movie on the French queen.
Though it wasn’t actually she who said it, but another princess, and the actual phrase wasn’t cake, but brioche, another common (and yes, more expensive) bread of the time, we sprinkled brioche crumbs into the butter base as we removed it from the machine and layered it with house-made jams. It also felt like a decadent breakfast that may have been enjoyed at the time. We released the flavor with three jams that randomly showed up to scoop shops: apricot, blackcurrant, and strawberry.
The Mints. I know everyone loves mint, but I never did. As an ice cream maker if you don’t offer mint then you are not really in the game. Which is why we’ve created all these mint flavors—Savannah Buttermint, Dark Chocolate Peppermint, White Chocolate Peppermint, Backyard Mint, Rockette Mint (white chocolate peppermint with marshmallows), and finally, Green Mint Chip. Because I was always searching for one that I liked.
It started with Savannah Buttermint, one of two truly signature mint ice creams we’ve created. A slightly salty, buttery, white chocolate mint ice cream colored with a bit of turmeric. It’s addictive. Then came Dark Chocolate Peppermint, or as we call it DCP. Which drove everyone nuts, as it does each holiday.
For most of my career, I avoided mint chocolate chip like it was my job. Until January 2016 when I wanted to revisit 20th century flavors with a collection I called American Licks: Ice Cream as a Living Artifact. Through the collection, I asked, “What’s more true: what you remember or what actually happened?” It was a timely moment for a discussion on truth. The flavors were meant to live up to your memory, which was slightly ironic because of how much they actually differed from the real artifact, the original recipes/techniques/ingredients. This is one of those flavors. And through the process of showing these flavors and presenting them without context, even I was able to see green mint with new eyes and my love affair with the flavor began. I guess this ice cream maker is still open to new tricks.