If the key to running a successful business is wearing many hats, Jeni Britton Bauer should be pictured with a least a dozen on her head. Between running her namesake ice cream company,Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, along with her desire to constantly improve on the product she sells, the Ohio native seems to have the mind of a scientist, the palate of a pastry chef, the nose of a perfumer and the drive of a CEO.
Jeni’s flavors are simple but not basic (see: roasted strawberry buttermilk, as well as sweet corn and black raspberries), and the flavors change often, with seasonality and access to fresh ingredients driving the rotation. Localvorism shows itself in all things Jeni’s: Bauer visits the cows on Ohio farms that supply the milk that becomes Jeni’s ice cream, and she name-drops her favorite snacks made by companies out of Cleveland and Cincinnati. She walks the walk andtalks the talk.
Bauer chats about how her love of pickles has found its way into her drinks and (possibly) ice cream and how her Hamilton obsession inspires her to think of new flavors based on that time in America.
Jeni’s lemon buttermilk frozen yogurt, Ndali Estate vanilla bean ice cream and sun-popped corn ice cream, from left (image: Jeni’s Art + Design)
You studied art in college and are certainly creative, but there’s a real science behind what you do. Do you identify as much as a scientist as you do an ice cream maker? Do you feel there’s more science involved in your job than anything else?
Without question, I feel much more in the camp of science than any other area; even though I came from the art world, I’m squarely in the science world. If I want to achieve this end result, I have to understand things like viscosity and how molecules work together and even the technical elements of the machinery we’re using. It’s very much chemistry; it’s very much a math problem. I’ve definitely moved from art into science, and I’m much more a scientist than an artist, but it all serves the experience, the end result: the ice cream, which is where the artist comes in.
Is there any flavor you’d never work with?
I would say meat, which kind of sounds obvious, but from my perspective, just because it’s not bad doesn’t mean it’s good. Sometimes ice cream makers will do something that’s relatively shocking, and for me, not bad is not the same thing as good. I did bacon in the ’90s but haven’t gone back to it, because I feel like we did it then and we’re over it. I never make flavors for shock value or to follow trends.
Jeni Britton Bauer (image: Jeni’s Art + Design)
Is there any flavor you’d make year-round if you could?
I love every season. When the seasons change, you can smell it when you come into our kitchens—when it shifts from strawberry season to pumpkin. Thepopcorn flavor we’re doing now right now is so good; it’s from these guys calledBjornqorn from New York State, and their popcorn is off-the-charts-insane good. We’re making ice cream out of it, and I can’t get enough of it. I’m sure we’ll make it every year because it’s so good.
Outside of ice cream, what do you eat?
Because we’re in the sweet world, Ithink in ice cream, and so my brain is always in sweets, so I’m always craving savory. There’s this kettle chip company out of Cincinnati calledHen of the Woods; it does this barbecue chip that’s off-the-charts amazing. I’m a super pickle person. There’s this guy in Cleveland,Randy’s Pickles. I will eat the whole entire jar in one sitting and drink the juice!
(image: Jeni’s Art + Design)
Have you thought of combining your love of pickles and putting it into ice cream? Isn’t that the pregnant woman’s dream flavor?
I cannot tell you how many times people have asked me for that. I think weirdly maple syrup and pickles go together. So I’ve always thought, What if there was a sorbet?
Is it safe to say you’ve done a pickleback shot?
Oh, yeah, I love it. I’m such a pickle juice drinker—my Martini is half pickle juice. [Lately] I’ve been drinking Vermouth Spritzers, made with vermouth, club soda, a slice of orange and olives. It’s light, and you can drink a couple of them. Green olives and orange—here’s another sorbet!—are so good together. It’s crazy.
It does sound weirdly refreshing, and you’re right on trend withlow-ABV cocktails. Speaking of, you’ve incorporated whiskey into your ice cream. Have you experimented with other types of spirits in ice cream?
We make a juniper cream with a lemon curd; Scott Fitzgerald use to make bathtub gin, and we’re using elements from his recipe. We use so much riesling in our pear ice cream that we buy it by the barrel. We used to use Maker’s Mark in our butter pecan.
Bauer used to use Maker’s Mark in her butter pecan ice cream.
How’d you get into drinking vermouth?
A friend turned me onto a cocktail she had in Spain: Carpano Antica Formula and soda with orange and a green olive garnish. I like the low-alcohol content, and orange plus green olives is a fantastic combo. I always go for a giant slice and three big olives.
Is there any spirit you’re dying to work with in ice cream and anything you’d absolutely avoid, like maybe red wine?
I love pastis and Pernod [absinthe], and I’ve been thinking of making an ice cream with one of those again (I haven’t in about five years). We’ve also done absinthe and meringues as a tribute to the 100th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. We’ve also used a farm cheese with moonshine cranberries (yum!), so we’ve used booze often. I’m dying to make a crabapple cider. In the early colonial days in America, people used sour grapes or crabapple juice, which was sour and bitter, instead of vinegar. It’s called verjus. I’ve wanted a very tart dry cider, and that’s how I want to make it—with crabapples as a part of the recipe—then make that into sorbet or just drink it with ice cream, because it would be perfect to wash the fat away!
Bauer has been thinking about making ice cream with absinthe again.
Do you think with your nose first when you’re coming up with new flavor ideas?
Yes, even while I’m reading! I’m reading Hamilton right now, and I’m trying to imagine what it smelled like when he was walking down the street. Scent is more important to me than anything else. I’m always thinking in scent; it’s the lens through which I see the world.
Would you ever develop a recipe around Hamilton, perhaps inspired by what ingredients were available then?
The 1790s were an interesting time in the world for innovation; it mirrors what’s going on right now. Everything was so bright and had so much potential. I’m inspired by that: How does the idea of what’s possible influence what actually happens? I’m not sure it’ll be exactly Hamilton inspired, but everything I do is from the foundation of American ice cream and telling the American story through ice cream.