CIW Q&A: Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams

Jeni Britton Bauer’s “Splendid Ice Creams” live up to their name.  The unique flavor combinationsrange from the deceptively simple (Black Coffee, Bangkok Peanut) to practically avant garde for a dairy product (Saison with Sunflower Seeds and Golden Flax, Goat Cheese with Red Cherries) and can be found at her Chicago location on Southport.  We talked to the Midwestern ice cream artist in advance of our #IdeasChat Tuesday, July 15 at 11 a.m. central when we’ll be discussing “Midwest Flavor.”

Jeni Britton Bauer.

You were an Ohio State student studying art and art history when you first began to experiment with ice cream flavors. What first sparked your interested in ice cream—besides, of course, how delicious it is?
I was trying to figure out what I was going to do creatively…. And then I thought about perfuming, and I got really into that for a couple years.  One of the essential oils that I had collected was…cayenne, and it doesn’t have a scent; it just is hot.  So I mixed it into ice cream to make an edible perfume with it, and it was such a cool experience [that] from then on I started making perfumed ice cream. 
Butter fat melts at body temperature, unlike other fats.  So, ice cream is actually the perfect carrier for scent, and it’s edible obviously.  It was so much fun, and everyone knew me as the “ice cream girl.” 
Soon after, in 1996, you started Scream Ice Cream in Columbus.  What was the transition from Ohio State student to business owner like?
I wasn’t afraid; I had business all the time growing up, little ones.  I come from a very entrepreneurial family…people who believe if you don’t have a job, you can make one.  So, I was always trying to find ways to be useful in my community.  I was an industrious babysitter; I had other babysitters working for me I was so industrious.  I had a soap company at one point.  I constantly, all of my life was making these little businesses.
So, it felt very natural to me.  I was only 22, so it felt just like something I’d always done.  Only now I got do it and actually have real customers.
What does the R&D process for your ice creams look like?
I first always check classics; I always start with that.  If I find an ingredient I want to use—like beets, for instance—I would research them.  I think about how I’ve ever eaten them.  I know beets go really well with walnuts and cheese, so I might make a cheese ice cream and do shredded beets, almost like a carrot cake with walnuts. 
I also know that beets are hot pink and that they can turn an ice cream very pink or red.  So, you think color wise…red velvet cake.  You can make a beet and chocolate sorbet that’s like red velvet cake.  I always start with the classics, and then you can go from there.
You mentioned that your Absinthe + Meringues ice cream is one of your favorites.  Have you ever had an ice cream combination that just did not work out?
One of the simplest things that I was sure would work: Someone brought me a bunch of spearmint.  It was strawberry season…so I thought strawberries and spearmint must be good.  So I made it, and it truly tasted like Doublemint gum, but over-chewed.  It was remarkably bad, very weirdly not good.
The other one was smoked bananas.  I actually smoked them for a little too long, and they turned into turpentine.  They made ice cream that tasted like turpentine; it was very gross.
Tell us a little about your new book Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream Desserts.  What do you hope the home dessert and ice cream maker will take away from your recipes?
The book is unusual—it’s different than other books in that it’s meant to be mixed and matched, and a lot of the recipes live outside of the book.  It’s really flexible: Wherever you are, whatever you’ve got growing, whatever party it is or whatever your idea is, you can take a cake from this chapter, layer it with ice cream from another chapter…take a sauce from another chapter, and create your own ice cream cake.  There are infinite ideas.  This book is really foundational.
On our website we have this thing called “freestylin’” where I show you some of the ideas in these really quick videos.  [For instance], what if you put the white frosting with a whole bunch of coconut in between the lady cakes and layered that up?  You have this beautiful coconut cream cake.  What if you take the vanilla custard and put that in the lady cake and dump chocolate glaze on top?  And then you have a frozen Boston creme pie that’s really amazing.  That’s the whole idea, and we’re hoping people really latch on to it.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Erin Robertson is managing editor at Chicago Ideas.

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