Much as we liked the idea of sitting down alone to the nation's premium ice-cream brands with nothing more than blindfolds and spoons, we thought we'd up the ante for our inaugural summer ice-cream taste-off. So instead of just getting people who know how to eat ice-cream (that would be us) we enlisted a couple of judges who have also spent time making it for a living. Who better to judge the sweet stuff than Peter Gilmore, chef at Sydney three-star Quay, and Adriano Zumbo, pâtissier extraordinaire and modern-day Willy Wonka figure?
We collected nine of the top nationally available ice-creams in vanilla and then picked a flavoured ice-cream from the same producers. They were tasted blind by chefs Gilmore and Zumbo at Quay in random order, the vanillas followed by the flavoured ice-creams. We asked the judges for their thoughts on commercial ice-cream production as we went along.
"There's a big difference between buying ice-cream from a boutique ice-cream parlour and the supermarket," says Zumbo. One of his key concerns is the amount of air pumped into some products. "More volume makes more money - so I look for the one with the least air, and then I look at the ingredients. I don't want to see a lot of E-numbers. I want eggs, cream, sugar, milk."
Gilmore says it's all about texture. "Nothing that's too light and airy, something with good density to it that melts on the tongue. I want to taste a little bit of egg so I know it's been made with real ingredients." Generally speaking he prefers gelato to ice-cream because the milk base (rather than cream) lets the flavours shine through. "It's much lighter, cleaner and truer," he says. "We make our ice-cream at Quay with eggs, milk and sugar and that's pretty much it, but the only way that works is with a really fast churn. If you've got a slow churn at home you can't make a pure milk-based ice-cream because it'll become very icy. At home you'll normally need at least half cream to the milk, and if you make it more like three-quarters cream you'll end up with a creamier product in a slow churn. If you use even 50 or 60 per cent cream in these fast professional churns it goes to butter."
Following the tasting we asked for general recommendations. Zumbo says he'd like to see ice-cream producers invest in better quality vanilla, a notion that Gilmore echoes. "It's such a fine balance and it's hard to get right, because you want a clean palate, you want freshness and lightness, but richness, creaminess and density. You want enough density to know you're eating ice-cream, but you also don't want it to be really heavy at the same time," he says. "I'd like to see higher quality ingredients used across the board."
Sara Lee $8.50 for 1 litre from supermarkets nationally
Peter Gilmore: Quite light and airy, and the vanilla tastes a little artificial. It's not really exciting on the palate and falls away a little bit.
Adriano Zumbo: It's got no taste, really, or an artificial vanilla taste at best.
$8.99 for 1 litre from supermarkets nationally
PG: This one's eggier and denser, and I wonder if it's been stabilised.
AZ: Again, this has no real vanilla taste, and it leaves a weird aftertaste, but I'd definitely eat it over the first one.
Maggie Beer (vanilla bean and elderflower)
$8.99 for 500ml from select grocers
PG: I like the look of this already - the yellowness suggests it's made with eggs, and there are plenty of vanilla specks through it. It's got elderflower in it. But the texture is really good. If it was sold as straight vanilla I'd have a problem with it, but so far this is certainly the most real and natural one. It's a shame that they don't make a pure vanilla.
AZ: It's very floral. It tastes like Tutti-Frutti. But I think it works. It's not pumped with air. If it says on the packet that it's got elderflower in it and you're expecting it, then you'd be fine.
Pat & Stick's Homemade Ice-Cream Co.
$9.95 for 500ml from Thomas Dux and select grocers
PG: There's not much resistance to it, not much texture. There's not much egg and the flavour is wishy-washy.
AZ: Not much vanilla there. It's a bit icy, a bit grainy. It's got a fatty taste at the end I don't like.
$9.50 for 500ml from Thomas Dux, IGA and Foodworks
AZ: I think they're using a vanilla extract or paste here. I think I can taste the alcohol.
PG: It's a bit icy. That can also come down to how the ice-cream has been handled, and that can sometimes be out of the manufacturer's hands, but at the same time I agree with you, the flavour isn't perfect.
$9.95 for 500ml from select grocers
AZ: This one's been completely whipped on a machine. It looks like over-whipped cream, and it tastes like it too. There's a slight vanilla taste.
PG: Definitely over-whipped. It's not rocking my world.
$12.95 for 500ml from Thomas Dux and select grocers
PG: Sweet. Way too sweet. Not too artificial, though, and the vanilla's okay.
AZ: Yeah, it's really sweet. And a bit icy. But a nice feel otherwise.
Ben & Jerry's
$11.95 for 458ml from select grocers in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne
PG: Good texture. There's something else going on with the palate, though, and not much egg. It's very pale.
AZ: Very white. And it tastes kind of… nutty. But it's pleasant and the texture is great.
$18.99 for 1 litre from select Thomas Dux and IGA stores
PG: That's weird. It looks like it's going to be terrific, but it's strange.
AZ: What is this? It's icy and it falls apart in the mouth. And it's watery.
Maggie Beer Strawberries and Cream PG: Not bad at all. They've got a bit of real strawberry in there, real flavour. Pretty good, I'd say.
AZ: It's quite dense and creamy in the mouth. I like the bits of real strawberry. I could eat a whole scoop of this one.
Kohu Road Dark Chocolate
AZ: This tastes like chocolate topping. And not in the best way. The texture is powdery, like cocoa powder rather than chocolate.
PG: It's very powdery on the palate, and it doesn't actually taste like chocolate so much as cocoa. Chocolate is definitely one of the harder flavours to nail in ice-cream, to be honest. The fat in the chocolate is hard to emulsify properly.
Serendipity Pear Crumble
PG: Oh dear. That's awful. Why are you doing this to us? You owe us, big time.
AZ: This is like a Sara Lee cheesecake made into a crumble. I wouldn't recommend it.
Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Marshmallow
PG: Marshmallow? It's so sweet. Ugh. You're killing us. This is not good chocolate.
AZ: The choc chunks are too big and too hard to eat and the goopy white stuff is not nice. It's just very sweet.
Mövenpick Maple Walnut
PG: This is very light. Very airy. The flavour's not bad, some real walnut there, but it's a very light texture.
AZ: There's a definite maple flavour there, but it's very whipped. Actually, I think there might be a bit too much maple.
Pat & Stick's Homemade Icecream Co. Peppermint Choc Chip
PG: Oh my god. Chocolate mint chip. What are those, Arnott's biscuits? It's like they've chopped up Mint Slices and put them in there. That mint is overpowering.
AZ: That tastes like mint oil to me, not mint. I'm not a fan; I'd also rather see fresh mint used when it's readily available. It's very light and very soft.
Connoisseur Caramel and Honey
PG: That's more like it. The texture's good, and the whole thing tastes more real - real nuts. Good flavour, good balance.
AZ: Caramel, macadamia and honey. It's good, and there's real crunch from the nuts. Good nuts. I just got a nice chunk of macadamia. I could eat a bucket of this.
Sara Lee honeycomb butterscotch
PG: What is this, hokey pokey? It's very sweet, and I don'tget much egg taste. It's butterscotch, it's crunchy, but the ice-cream itself is very light and I can't, as I said, taste much egg.
AZ: It's very airy, that's for sure. The caramel chunks taste a bit crystallised, and I think it's a bit too sweet for my taste.
PG: You really have to like licorice for this one. I think the texture's very good - this is a really nice ice-cream, and you can tell they've used a really good licorice to make it, too. I'm not licorice's biggest fan, to be honest, but if you like licorice - and you really have to like it - you'll like this ice-cream.
AZ: Oh yeah, I can smell that one already - even without tasting it I know it's Gundowring. This is awesome. I love the little licorice bits through it. I love licorice, and I eat it by the bag. This would be great for the summer with fresh mango.
WORDS PAT NOURSE PHOTOGRAPHY DIEU TAN
This article is from the February 2011 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.