Avery's Branch Farms: The Ice Cream Age

It is now deep autumn. "Ice cream? Why's she writing about ice cream?" 
You're probably snuggled deeply in a sweater. Some of you are happy as a fat chipmunk in this state. Some of you are wishing for the tropical summer temperatures and a return of sunsets not happening till nine PM. This, then, is for you. In July, I was invited to make ice cream at Avery's Branch Farms: a family-run dairy and meat-supplier located in Amelia, VA. Because ice cream at any point in the year is a fantastic idea.



Avery's Branch Farms is the kind of place I imagine Norman Rockwell felt most at home: a left-hand turn into a drive half-hidden by sweeping cornfields, a white farmhouse sheltered in an expansive canopy of magnolia. I turn in. My tires growl up the gravel drive, announcing my arrival to the shaggy farm dogs who hardly budge when I crunch by. As soon as I pull into the drive, my favorite ice cream man is striding out the back screen door:
“Hey, Rach.”
“Where do I park?”
He indicates a grassy plot between two posts and assures me I won't get stuck. Somehow, I don't mind. I know if I get stuck on this farm, there are probably a dozen methods of American ingenuity to get me out. The dairyman who has agreed to teach me the ways of ice cream is an old friend of mine. Standing barefoot in his blue jeans, he looks much as he has since we met over ten years ago. In a world so apt to change, any consistency is comforting. This tall, blue-eyed boy squinting in the unreasonable sunlight is my guide into the depths of the ice cream world. His foot is on his native heath and his name is Oliver Alexander.

Oliver's preoccupation with ice cream began where most love affairs do: at the moment his passion for the thing collided with a chance to conduct further exploration. Summer evenings were never complete without a bowl of ice cream and Alexander, ever the scientist, played around with batches of a homemade version with milk and cream from his family's dairy. When he abandoned tentative plans for attending veterinary school, what had once been a casual fondness for dessert began to shift in Alexander's mind into something more official. After attending an intensive ice cream making course at Pennsylvania State University, he lavishly perfected his recipes and sourced the necessary equipment from locales as distant as Toledo and Kansas City. Alexander was at last poised to officially launch an ice cream line from their farm business. Then a lengthy and intense heat wave struck the state of Virginia and milk production at his family's dairy dropped drastically, leaving no margin for an ice cream business. A frustrating roadblock considering, but when asked about it, Oliver Alexander's mouth slides into the familiar smile of a farmer who is accustomed to working with his land, his animals, and the fickle weather patterns.
“I'm ready to go when they are,” he says.
For now, ice cream production is just for fun. If you're in luck, you might get a chance to sit in on the process.

egg-free cookie dough is the perfect addition to a mocha custard. oliver recommends hand-rolling, rather than chopping the cookie dough to preserve the integrity of each chunk.


Alexander, 23, dumps me off in an out-building with instructions to help his interns crack sixteen eggs into a sterilized bucket. We're making a positively industrial amount of ice cream from the sound of it. The interns, having been dragged out of their afternoon nap for the express purpose of an ice cream lesson, are mostly silent. Someone offers me a red ice-pop as a waiver for the terrible heat pressing on our lungs, making it hard to breathe. Funny how welcome an artificially-cherry popsicle makes one feel. Together we crack eggs and dumb jokes, feeling our way toward familiarity. After his hot morning's work, Alexander has disappeared to shower and change, leaving me to make shift as I can with the stoic interns.
In a clumsy panic I forget exactly how many eggs we've haplessly dropped into the bucket.
“That's...fourteen,” I decide aloud and fervently hope the egg-count being off won't affect the end product. It won't, right? Yeah, it won't.
When Oliver returns, I step back and let the professionals play. Oliver starts up an immersion blender and at a sideways angle whips the eggs “until they hold pretty well,” as he describes it to me. Next we add the contents of a bowl in which is mixed sugar and guar gum, instant coffee granules, cocoa, vanilla, and a pinch of salt.
“I use good-quality instant coffee powder. The enemy in ice cream is liquid. You don't want to add too much more liquid. Useless liquids are not good and coffee is mostly liquid so instant dry coffee is a good alternative. If you put pure coffee granules in it, it'll be grainy. It'll taste weird.” He looks over his shoulder, still blending, with a grin. “Try it. It's interesting. You can put some in as an accent but not to flavor it. Once this is homogeneously blended, you've got your finished custard.” Adding eggs and making a custard (also called a batter) helps to enrich the final ice cream product. With Alexander's ice cream, it's all about enrichment.
Above the sound of the blender, Oliver churns out the science behind the composition of ice cream. Less for my benefit, more for that of his interns, some of whom are headed toward college degrees in agriculture and dairying. I stand near the far wall madly taking notes while sweat pools in the small of my back. There is no breeze and definitely no air-conditioning in this little side-kitchen.
The interns laugh over a quiet joke. Someone debates whether eggs are accurately labeled as “dairy” and a lively skirmish occurs with opinions being cited on each side. In the background, Alexander's blonde little sister dances around, darting in and out of the group which encircles the immersion blender.
Quickly, Oliver pours cream off cold-clouded jars of fresh milk and drops back into science talk: “Pasteurized milk has its lactose removed. All of it. When you pasteurize milk, what happens to milk, Lydia. Miss dairy major? What happens to the milk?
The intern he singles out finds her answer: “The...the lactose is denatured.”
Ollie continues skimming off cream. “Right. You denature the lactose protein. It no longer exists. The people who get our milk because they're lactose intolerant are actually lactase intolerant; you split the lactose molecule and it turns into lactase. Most people are lactase intolerant. The enzyme changes when you pasteurize the milk.”
His wry grin returns at the collective disbelief of his audience. “For reals. Look it up.”
It's this ease in pouring out the science behind ice cream and raw milk and pasteurized milk that impresses me and takes me back to the first time I saw Oliver's ridiculously entertaining ice cream trick. Like some gourmand magician, he can taste a spoonful of ice cream and tell you exactly what ingredients went into it – the obscure ones like guar gum or lecithin and the precise butterfat content of the milk. It's impressive. I would spend all day proffering spoonfuls of different brands and making strangers listen to his ingredients-analysis if he wouldn't hate me for it later.

“All right. Let's start up the machine.” He cuts off the immersion blender and leads the way out of that hot-box into a shock of sunlight.
The troop of interns weaves past the milking barn and the walk-in freezer to yet another outbuilding, dodging a yellow dog and arch-backed cats who would probably love to partake in the joys of ice cream with us. Here sleeps the behemoth pasteurizing equipment as well as Alexander's two Carpigiani ice cream churns. I revel in the frozen cookie dough chunks an intern brings up from the freezers while Oliver explains the three-phase power it takes to run one of the machines, how the dasher works, and the particularly-sized ice crystals he aims for when making ice cream. That's five microns, if you want to know. The way he describes it, you feel as if you've just peered at a hand-blended milkshake through a microscope, discovering a new world lying amid the chunks of Oreo. Some part in the back of my mind insists I'll be able to tell next time I taste a grainy ice cream with an inferior flavor profile; a discrepancy caused by too-large ice crystals.



In a remarkably short time our ice cream is finished churning. I watch as Oliver opens the dam and fills recycled ice cream bins - tub after tub - with the creamy, perfect, beautiful frozen custard. He adds cookie dough chunks, dashing them up and down, cradling a quart container in one immense, work-worn palm, clips a lid on, reaches for another container. It's the sort of thing you dream of as a kid while watching Charlie And The Chocolate Factory: a seemingly endless supply of ice cream swirling out the mouth of a giant, humming churn. These quarts will go to the enormous walk-in freezer to chill down and deep-freeze. I'll have to go home before the ice cream – ours is admittedly a form of gelato, lacking the ten percent non-milkfat solids which would qualify it as ice cream – is fully frozen and ready to scoop. I'll have to content myself with enjoying our project as high-class soft-serve.
“Hey, would you get the spoons?” Oliver calls over his shoulder.
An intern trots off to find plastic spoons then passes them around. There is so much ice cream pouring from the churn that Oliver's choreography falters – no more empty containers close by. He catches a cascade of mocha-flavored frozen custard in a clean bucket just in time to keep it from slipping onto the concrete barn floor.
“Oliver!” come laughing shouts from several of the onlookers.
“That's okay.” He's coordinated again, scraping ice cream into yet another quart container. “That's why I always have a sanitary bucket underneath.”
The sloughed-off ice cream in the bucket and what final scrapings we steal from the churn's interior, are the spoils of our victory. Together, we taste heaping spoonfuls of the soft ice cream in a gesture which is almost made ceremonious, it's such an oasis from the inferno of the summer afternoon. The interns compare notes with Alexander on flavor, texture, and composition while popping tiny squares of egg-free cookie dough. Dip another spoonful. Critique the balance of coffee to chocolate.
Standing there, grouped around the bucket of ice cream we brought into existence, we share a small sense of triumph. The ten quart-containers stacked in the freezer nearby are proof of our skill, or at least of the fact that my miscount of eggs in the custard had no ill effect on the final product. I hold another spoonful of ice cream up to my mouth and breathe in the ennobling scent of coffee and chocolate.
The sleepy-eyed interns chat and mix cleaning solution with warm water. Lazy, like the summer heat rubbing against the doorposts of the barn. Slow, like the way our voices carry through the suspended humidity. I can't tell if the steam wafting around us comes from the bucket of warm water or our collective body heat. Thank God for ice cream.
My host pours cleaning solution into the empty churn's hopper and patiently runs back through the ice cream process verbally, so I can take notes. He laughs at my eagerness and leans against the machine that has made this magic. And though I have nothing scientific to add to the scrawled lines filling my notebook, I know a good ice cream when I taste one. And the ice cream made at Avery's Branch Farm is nothing short of wonderful.


Vanilla Frozen Custard

6 eggs
1 ½ cup sugar
3 cups heavy cream
3 cups milk
1 teaspoon guar gum
1 teaspoon vanilla


  1. In a small bowl, thoroughly mix together sugar and guar gum.
  2. In a large bowl, whip eggs at an angle with an immersion blender until they are a consistent froth and “hold.” Gradually add in sugar and mix well, then add cream, milk, and vanilla.
  3. Churn according to your ice cream maker's instructions, then add in any additions you would like, such as cookie dough chunks, nuts, chocolate chips, or fruit.

4 comments

  1. It's almost snowing where I live, yet you somehow managed to transport me to a hot summer day, and now I have a huge craving for ice cream.

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    Replies
    1. <3 Trusting you wanted to be transported. Otherwise, I'm sorry!

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  2. I WANT YOUR LIFE AND ALSO THIS ICE CREAM!

    The Adored Life

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    Replies
    1. My life is a pretty good one but NOT AS GOOD AS THIS ICE CREAM - AGH.

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