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Instagram-worthy soft serve is the country's cool new treat

Chicago Tribune

Last summer, I was staying in downtown Napa, Calif., for a work project when a client told me about a Japanese restaurant called Miminashi that makes out-of-this-world soft serve.

Soft serve? I murmured, visualizing a nostalgic-but-not-necessarily-out-of-this-world curl-capped cone.

She raved about the unexpected flavors, like lemon verbena, Thai tea and matcha, adding that it’s all served from a dedicated walk-up window.

I went there the very next night. On my visit, there were just two flavor choices, and they were entirely traditional: chocolate and strawberry. I selected the former, and after hemming and hawing over toppings (or, really, deciding whether to go with the glitter sprinkles for their sheer Instagram appeal), I opted for whiskey butterscotch sauce, sesame honeycomb candy and a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt to top it off.

At nearly $7, it cost about as much as my super-cheap dinner earlier that night. But as I walked around the block eating it (after, of course, sharing an Instagram photo), my taste buds stood at attention with each rich, sweet, salty, smooth and crunchy bite. The flavor, depth and price were a far cry from the $1 to $2 fast-food cone; think Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams compared with a generic store brand. I had to talk myself out of walking right back up to the window and ordering another one.

When I got home to Chicago, I told friends about the fancy soft serve, and they said they’d just had a similarly unforgettable cone at a place called Kem CoBa in Montreal. It was a highlight of their trip — or, in their words, “nom-nom drool.”

That inspired me to do a quick search for “fancy soft serve,” and I found there’s something of an artisanal awakening happening in places like Los Angeles (Magpies Softserve offers a vegan version and even soft serve pies, making all soft serve and toppings in house), New York (Soft Swerve has flavors such as ube purple yam and black sesame, among others) and Austin (the soft serve toppings, alone, at Cow Tipping Creamery, which also has locations in Carrollton and Frisco, Texas are dreamy: brown butter Ritz crumbs and fresh lemon curd, for starters).

As with all cold-related sugary trends of late (over-the-top milkshakes, black charcoal ice cream, fish-shaped ice cream cones, rolled ice cream, Unicorn Frappuccino), it doesn’t hurt that soft serve is incredibly photogenic and shareable on social media.

I reached out to Miminashi’s chef and owner Curtis Di Fede to learn more about this frozen confection. Over the phone, he told me he was inspired to add it to his menu and open the walk-up window after seeing — and sampling — soft serve, aka “soft cream,” on his travels to Japan, where it’s frequently made with top-notch ingredients.

His Napa soft cream is inspired by what he sampled abroad. Miminashi serves up to four different flavors daily using organic whole milk from a local dairy, organic cane sugar and house-made jams and juices for flavoring. One of the most popular flavors is graham cracker, which is made by mixing toasted milk powder into the ice cream base. Other crowd pleasers: black sesame, ginger cranberry sorbet, burnt lemon and peanut butter Thai chili.

Di Fede said soft serve acts as an important tool: “It’s more of a receptacle for toppings than (scooped) ice cream,” he said. Which is why it’s important that those toppings are also Instagram-worthy.

It turns out the idea of creating ice cream with high-end ingredients is a tale as old as, well, ice cream itself, said Laura Weiss, author of “Ice Cream: A Global History.”

Weiss said the new upscale soft serve trend harks back to the early days of ice cream. It’s thought that chefs to the nobility in Italy started making ice cream around the turn of the 17th century, she said, at a time when dairy products and sugar were incredibly expensive. Many of the flavor additions were imported.

“They were the ones who really came up with the modern ice cream, and they came up with this incredible range of flavors — avocado and pine nut and chocolate,” she said.

Christina Tosi, chef, founder and CEO of Milk Bar, a bakery that has locations in New York, Washington, Las Vegas and Toronto, has been experimenting with soft serve since before opening her first bakery in 2008. She uses high-quality ingredients and dreams up far-out flavors; her most renowned soft serve creation is “cereal milk,” made with milk, cornflakes, brown sugar and salt. But that’s just the beginning.

“Your standard vanilla soft serve might get spun with buttery pie dough crumbs and blueberry compote to make blueberry pie soft serve, or infused with toasty cinnamon cereal to make cinna-swirl,” she said.

Other flavors she’s made over the years include chocolate-covered pretzel, red velvet, cranberry limeade, salted-pistachio caramel, blueberry-miso, rosemary-mascarpone, guava-horchata — along with eyebrow-raising choices, like barbecue and stuffing.

Tosi said her creations celebrate traditional soft serve — “One spoonful of that classic, melt-in-your-mouth ice cream takes me back to being a kid at Dairy Queen,” she said — while placing it in a more modern, craftlike context.

DQ was also on the mind of Chicago chef Stephanie Izard last summer, when she began selling soft serve from a takeout window at her Chinese restaurant, Duck Duck Goat. (The takeout window is called Duck Duck Ta Go; the soft serve is on hiatus for the winter but will be served again when the takeout window reopens in early spring.)

At the restaurant, Izard makes her own ice cream base, adding just a touch of soy sauce, which she said gives it a hint of butterscotch flavor. The soft serve then becomes the vehicle for bright, eye-catching concoctions, whether it’s paired with rainbow-colored shaved ice or used as a building block for a sundae topped with miso caramel, fortune cookies and, well, whatever makes a nom-nom-drool-worthy photo.

“We have an almond cookie one where we put almond brittle on top, and we have a soy and black vinegar that goes on it with miso caramel and a giant almond cookie,” Izard said.

“The thought is, ‘Are you really going to eat that entire giant almond cookie and sundae by yourself?’” Izard added. “Probably not. But you’ll share it, and it just looks pretty awesome and badass for pictures.”

Kate Silver is a freelance writer.

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