Lobster ice cream? Yup and bacon, tomato and chili, too

  • Flynn tears apart 40 ounces of waffles that will be usein the waffle ice cream. Andrew Whitaker / Gazette Staff

  • Clara Flynn pours the ice cream mix into the ice cream maker for waffle ice cream at Herrell's Ice Cream. The waffle ice cream has bite-sized pieces of waffle in it, made with maple ice cream, and is one of 374 different recipes available at the store. Gazette Staff/Andrew Whitaker

  • Clara Flynn stirs the ingredients for waffle ice cream at Herrell's Ice Cream Tuesday, July 19, 2016 in Northampton. The waffle ice cream has bite-sized pieces of waffle in it, made with maple ice cream, and is one of 374 different recipes available at the store. —Andrew Whitaker / Gazette Staff

  • Clara Flynn grabs ingredients for waffle ice cream at Herrell's Ice Cream Tuesday, July 19, 2016 in Northampton. The waffle ice cream has bite-sized pieces of waffle in it, made with maple ice cream, and is one of 374 different recipes available at the store. —Andrew Whitaker / Gazette Staff

  • Herrell's Ice Cream Tuesday, July 19, 2016 in Northampton. —Andrew Whitaker / Gazette Staff

  • Amanda Parnell mixes a batch of buttered lobster ice cream at Ben & Bill's Chocolate Emporium in Northampton which is being sold during Northampton’s Sidewalk Sales this weekend. Parnell carefully distributes the lobster pieces in layers throughout the still-soft ice cream mix, then freezes the batch for 24 hours. KEVIN GUTTING / Gazette Staff

  • Amanda Parnell mixes a batch of buttered lobster ice cream at Ben & Bill's Chocolate Emporium in Northampton. Parnell carefully distributes the lobster pieces in layers throughout the still-soft ice cream mix, then freezes the batch for 24 hours. —KEVIN GUTTING / Gazette Staff

  • Amanda Parnell puts a freshly mixed batch of buttered lobster ice cream into the freezer at Ben & Bill's Chocolate Emporium in Northampton to harden for 24 hours. —KEVIN GUTTING / Gazette Staff

  • Lobster pieces ready to be mixed into the still-soft ice cream mix that will then be frozen hard for 24 hours. —KEVIN GUTTING / Gazette Staff

  • A bowl of lobster pieces is ready to be worked into still-soft ice cream mix. KEVIN GUTTING / Gazette Staff

  • Detail of lobster pieces ready to be mixed into still-soft ice cream mix before being frozen. —KEVIN GUTTING / Gazette Staff

  • Amanda Parnell mixes a batch of buttered lobster ice cream at Ben & Bill's Chocolate Emporium in Northampton. Parnell carefully distributes the lobster pieces in layers throughout the still-soft ice cream mix, then freezes the batch for 24 hours. —KEVIN GUTTING / Gazette Staff

For the Gazette
Published: 7/29/2016 3:33:19 PM

Once every year lobster is hand churned into ice cream in a downtown Northampton basement at Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium, a candy store on Main Street.

The lobster flavor is spot on. It’s not sweet, but rather buttery, said ice cream maker Amanda Parnell, 30.

It has a butter base and a tad of caramel that, though hidden from your taste buds, brings out the crustacean flavor.

For three years, Parnell, of Westfield, has concocted a batch for the annual Northampton Sidewalk Sales on Main Street, an event which began Thursday and runs through Sunday.

Lobster ice cream is just one example of the experimentation unfolding at local creameries over the last few decades. No ingredient is out of bounds, no meat is too salty, no vegetable too crunchy, to be transformed into a frozen dessert.

It is hard to believe there was a time when vanilla, chocolate and strawberry were the only options at the local ice cream shop. There is now a flavor for every meal of the day: Hadley Scoop shop’s maple bacon ice cream for breakfast, its ghost chili ice cream for lunch and asparagus ice cream for dinner from the Flayvors creamery, also in Hadley.

While ice cream lovers are often eager to try these flavors, reactions vary. Even the ice cream maker herself at Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium isn’t wild about crustaceans in dessert. 

“I like lobster, but eating it cold — in an ice cream — No. It’s not a bad flavor. It’s getting over the texture because when you bite into ice cream, you are not expecting shreds of fish,” said Parnell.

A novelty treat

After working at Ben & Bills Chocolate Emporium for more than a decade, she found the lobster ice cream recipe a few years ago on a yellowed, falling-apart piece of paper hidden in a folder in the store. She decided to give the ice cream a try, simply for the novelty.

The store employees thought it would be fun to bring out a new treat during the sidewalk sales. “You won’t know until you try it,” said Colleen Wickland of Chesterfield, another candy shop employee.

That old recipe emerged from the experimentation of twin brothers, Ben and Bill Coggins, the storeowners from Martha’s Vineyard. They started dabbling in lobster ice cream 25 years ago, not long after deciding to go into business together.

An oddity from the start, they thought the concoction would draw in customers.

“We thought it would be fun because of the strong reactions,” said Coggins. “You have to try it. You never know how it’s going to hit people. Some people love it and some people hate it. There is a strong opinion of it, one way or another.”

The production is a relatively uncomplicated process and takes only minutes. About three pounds of lobster is shredded in a food processor, then Parnell coats the meat in melted butter.

The lobster gets churned in a two-gallon bucket. A speck of vanilla might be added. About half a pound of butter is mixed in. The ice cream ends up tasting similar to a butter pecan, said Parnell.

Because it’s seafood, she makes the ice cream only two or three days before the sidewalk sales begin to make sure that the lobster is fresh.

This recipe wasn’t perfected overnight. The brothers kept tweaking it over days and weeks back in the 1980s, said Coggins. Now at their three other stores, closer to the coast, they go through buckets of lobster ice cream in the summer months. At their store in Bar Harbor, Maine, they can sell five gallons a day.

“If you were an artist — you know you did better work — but there is that one dumb song that catches people’s attention,” said Coggins.

The lobster ice cream is still relatively unknown to most passersby here. Not being close to the ocean, seafood is not a big seller and the lobster ice cream has never seen much popularity in Northampton, said Parnell, but there are a few loyal customers who start calling the store in the weeks before the sidewalk sales looking for their fix of frozen lobster.

“It’s one of those things, you’ve just got to try it just to say you’ve had it,” said Parnell.

The lobster ice cream is heavy, filling and also not cheap to make. The cost of the lobster fluctuates, but it is undoubtedly more costly to create than the chocolate ice cream. Two scoops typically sell for $6, said Coggins.  

“You get what you pay for. It’s like when you get a really good prime rib…” said Wickland. “You come to a specialty ice cream shop and you are going to get quality ice cream.”

Only about 50 people will sample it each day of the sidewalk sales, says Parnell, while only three to four customers are able to finish a full cup. Yet, she expects the batch to sell out this weekend.

Bacon and cream

If lobster doesn’t tickle your fancy, try the maple bacon ice cream from the Hadley Scoop on Route 9, a good topping to a stack of waffles for breakfast.

The maple, creamy base is mixed with tiny, chewy bacon bits. Expect to get pieces of pork in your teeth with little bursts of bacon flavor in every bite.

“We didn’t want to overwhelm your mouth with the bacon, but we wanted you to get a taste of the salt and the flavor,” said Bruce Jenks of Hadley, co-business owner of Maple Valley Creamery and the Hadley Scoop. He came up with the recipe.

Jenks and business co-owner Laurie Cuevas, 48, of South Deerfield, established Maple Valley Creamery about six years ago, but it sold only wholesale dairy items until they opened the scoop shop this summer and their store, the Mill Valley Milk Co. in January. The later is a small-scale operation in Hadley specializing in producing and selling unpasteurized cows’ milk.

So far, Jenks said, customers are receptive to the odd mixture of pork, cream, sugar and maple syrup.

A bite of it should remind customers of the flavor they get when the syrup drips down from their pancakes, soaking their bacon, said Jenks, 53.

Bacon is just one of the unusual flavors the Maple Valley Creamery carries. Lemon Ricotta is one of the most popular. It has a smooth vanilla lemony taste with bits of cheese mixed in. Then there is the ghost chili ice cream, which uses one of the spiciest peppers on the market mixed with some of the darkest chocolate. If you eat this treat, prepare for your mouth to burn. This is the perfect ice cream if you are on a diet and only want to eat a bite.

Stick with the bacon variety if you want to devour a whole pint.

This flavor doesn’t come easy. It starts with about 150 pounds of bacon, a mountain of raw pork, baking in a commercial oven. Cuevas bakes six trays at a time.

Baking bacon is like going to war. Cuevas comes back from the kitchen with burns on her arms and grease splattered on her clothes. The bacon juice gets everywhere. “I take bacon seriously, I get third degree burns,” she said with a laugh.

The ice cream is so popular, she must engage in this ritual every two months, to keep up with demand. “We tried to take it off the menu and people got mad. They just kept ordering it,” she said.

After Cuevas is done cooking, her hair, skin, every inch of her, smells of bacon. “Nobody wants to be my friend when I am making bacon. It is disgusting,” she said. The only exception is her dog, who tends to follow her around the house.

After it is fully cooked, Cuevas coats the bacon in sugar and loads it into a freezer before Jenks packs it up in his ice cream truck and drives to the Shaw Farm in Dracut, where he rents a room with an ice cream machine.

The bacon is kept at negative 20 degrees, so when he dumps the frozen strips into the ice cream machine, they shatter like glass into tiny, candied pieces.

When the ice cream is pumped out of the machine it becomes the consistency of soft serve.

While it’s a straightforward process, it came from trial and error. On the first try, the long strips of bacon clogged up their ice cream machine, said Jenks. Freezing the strips became their secret to whipping up a smooth batch.

Veggies for dessert

If you are not wild about mixing fish or meat into your ice cream, how about vegetables?

You can get a serving of greens for dessert at Flayvors, an ice cream shop surrounded by rolling hills on Maple Street in Hadley, run by the Cook family of Cook Farm.

Asparagus ice cream is an annual tradition at this fifth-generation family business where churning ice cream helps support their dairy farm.

While asparagus ice cream is only offered during the early months of summer — asparagus season — a trip to get a scoop at this spot is not only a great investment in the future of family farming, but also a culinary experience.

The average scoop has chucks of almond, which bring out the asparagus flavor. Other than that, all the other ingredients are top secret, said shop owner Debby Cook.

The first bite is nutty. Some customers say they can’t taste the asparagus. Sometimes it takes a minute for the taste to hit them.

The ice cream makers don’t puree the vegetable, so it’s typical for customers to find long strings of the asparagus in the center of their scoop. And that green color, that is the plant showing off, there are no artificial colors added.

Asparagus is a veggie typically associated with dinner, so some customers don’t expect it in their ice cream, said Cook. Regardless, they sell plenty, typically up to 28 gallons per season.

“It’s exciting when people get a big chuck of asparagus — They say, ‘Look it’s really there!” said Cook.

Generally, customers like the flavor. “The biggest comment that we get is, ‘Wow, that’s better than I thought it would be,” said Cook.

All the asparagus used is raised right there in Hadley at Boisvert Farm.

While she doesn’t grow asparagus herself, Cook has a great appreciation for the back-breaking work that goes into the process. During the season, they also sell asparagus in the store.

“Asparagus is just a part of who we are,” said Cook. “The idea of Hadley grass is so engrained in our culture.”

The only downside to this dessert is the cleanup after asparagus strings get tangled in the ice cream machine.

Tomato evolves

Tomato ice cream is arguably less messy to work with.

The first batch of tomato ice cream that came from Herrell's Ice Cream in downtown Northampton, looked and tasted like Campbell’s tomato soup, said store owner Judy Herrell, but thankfully the recipe has evolved.

A scoop of tomato ice cream is light red. It’s subtle, sweet and pungent. Cloves bring out the tomato flavor.

Herrell’s love of tomato preserves led her to create this recipe.

“I think tomato preserves is an overlooked food group,” she said. “Sometimes you like to play with your food — I definitely like to play with my food.”

The development of new flavors at Herrell’s, a fixture in Northampton since the 1980s, is like an ongoing science experiment. Right now she is dabbling in eggplant ice cream.

Other already established flavors include maple waffle, made with fresh waffles baked on the premises, and jalapeño ice cream, which burns your tongue.

The drawing board is always cramped with ideas, Herrell said. The shop already carries more than 360 flavors, which are constantly rotating throughout the year.

There is a flavor for every holiday, like the charset ice cream for Passover made with the extra sweet red wine, Manischewitz, with walnuts, apple, honey and cinnamon, blended with an ice cream base. During the last days of Ramadan Herrell’s serves Moroccan mint tea ice cream and baklava ice cream. Christmas time brings a sugar plum flavor.

“It doesn’t matter what religion or ethnic group you are from, we have something for you to enjoy,” said Herrell.

Lisa Spear can be reached at lspear@gazettenet.com.




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