Summer: It’s that time of year you recall the smooth creaminess of a scoop of rich chocolate ice cream before it drips down a cone on a hot day.
Locally made Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream is so delicious it may actually surpass those memories. Up until now, the only places you could get it was through a CSA and on occasional Saturdays at select farmers markets.
This will soon change.
By June, proprietors Chad Townsend and his wife, Lauren, hope to open the processing facility of Millie’s Ice Cream in North Point Breeze, where they’ll pasteurize dairy and eggs for ice cream production on a grander scale than what they’ve been making in their Wilkinsburg home — the day before they drop off CSA deliveries twice a month.
Since last summer, the Townsends have been making ice cream for home delivery for between 50 and 100 Allegheny County subscribers. The production facility will allow them to distribute to restaurants and markets as well as to move on to phase two, the opening of a scoop shop that’s a building-in-progress on Bryant Street in Highland Park. They’re hoping to open within the year.
In February 2014, Mr. Townsend had taken over as executive chef of Salt of the Earth restaurant in Garfield after its founder, Kevin Sousa, departed to focus on his new restaurant in Braddock. At the time Mr. Townsend had been making what he called “crazy good ice cream” for years, and last July he turned his attention to making homemade ice cream full time.
So what prompts one of the city’s most up-and-coming chefs to switch gears from a dream of opening his own restaurant to focus on ice cream?
The answer is threefold, Mr. Townsend said.
First, he saw the need for locally made ice cream that incorporates seasonal ingredients.
“Pittsburgh’s food scene is burgeoning,” reads the Millie’s Homemade website. “Why wasn’t anyone paying attention to ice cream?”
Second, it brings his wife into the work. Ms. Townsend, whom he met years ago when he was a young cook at Eleven in the Strip District, recently quit her corporate job to focus on Millie’s. And third, it parallels the restaurant work that he so enjoys.
“The exciting thing about working in a restaurant is discovering new, delicious ingredients,” he said. “Maybe you’ve found the lady who brings you fantastic eggs. Or maybe there’s the guy who grows wonderful peaches. That same excitement for ingredients that I’ve had in restaurants translates to ice cream.”
With a name inspired by Mr. Townsend’s grandmother, Millie’s is unusual in that there are no stabilizers such as xanthan gum, emulsifiers to keep ice cream smooth or artificial flavorings — just natural ingredients.
Also, there’s no “shock and awe,” element as Mr. Townsend calls it, a reference to flavor trends from companies such as San Francisco’s Humphry Slocombe that can range from unusual concoctions such as salted black licorice to prosciutto.
At Millie’s, the seasons dictate flavors — not always those we’d wish for, just as we’d wish strawberries were ready to pick in May. Instead, Mr. Townsend is using ingredients according to what’s available. In March, that means hazelnut, while in April it’s dried lavender and white chocolate ice cream. In May, he branches out into mint chocolate chip with local mint, or rhubarb sorbet.
“Everyone knows what peach ice cream tastes like,” he said. “The challenge is outside of the growing season or early in the growing season, when you’re selling a lesser-known or a lesser-used ingredient. It requires a certain level of finesse to make ice cream that tastes like the essence of what it is without using flavorings.”
A special technique
Mr. Townsend was inspired to start Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream after experimenting with seasonal ingredients, fresh cream, milk, sugar, salt and a Pacojet.
A Swiss machine introduced to restaurants in 1993, the Pacojet started as an accoutrement of modernist cooking. Turns out, it’s an ideal ice cream machine, albeit an expensive one that costs around $4,000.
The Pacojet method for making ice cream is different from standard methods in that an ice cream base is frozen solid first in a cylinder. Once the ingredients in the cylinder are frozen, it’s attached to the Pacojet. Then the machine churns the frozen contents at more than 2,000 rpm to create an ice cream with an incredibly silky texture and no ice crystals.
When he was still a chef at Salt, Mr. Townsend made a deep mulberry ice cream so purple it was almost black, with an intense flavor that gave me pause. And his rhubarb sorbet was unadulterated — a cold tart rendition paired with sweetness.
Although Mr. Townsend won’t use the Pacojet for large-scale production, he’s confident he’ll be able to make a silky ice cream. “I will definitely be able to retain that texture. I actually think the texture will get better as I get the appropriate refrigeration,” he said. “That texture is also because of the quality and freshness of the ingredients.”
While most homemade ice cream companies create ice cream with dairy mix, the Townsends create what they consider the freshest ice cream possible by controlling every aspect of production.
They’re hypervigilant as to where they’re sourcing the milk, cream, eggs, sugar and fruit, for example. By hypervigilant, it means they’re not buying any milk from big dairy companies and they’re sticking with local sourcing as much as they can with the exception of ingredients like coconut or vanilla beans.
After a successful Kickstarter campaign in April that raised more than $10,000 so they could buy a pasteurizer, they’ll be pasteurizing milk and eggs themselves. They say they’re well-trained in U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements for pasteurization, which results in dairy that’s heated twice to kill off bacteria.
They also have the required permits as well as the completed HACCP plan, which stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, required by the FDA and the USDA to protect consumers.
The Townsends are among the first to take on pasteurizing their product after Linda and Richard Mercurio opened Mulberry Street Creamery in Kittanning in the late 1990s.
“I was 10 or 11 when [my parents] decided to get a pasteurizer, and they were learning how to do all of this,” said Anna Mercurio Crucitt, who now co-owns Mercurio’s in Shadyside with her brother Michael. Because her parents couldn’t buy gelato mix from the dairy and adding imported ingredients wasn’t authentic, they had to learn to do it themselves.
Reinhold’s on the North Side also used to pasteurize ice cream in-house until it was bought in 2007.
A few surprises
Millie’s contains 14 percent butterfat — on the higher end of the range of 10 percent to 16 percent butterfat for premium ice cream.
Ice cream has about an equal ratio of milk to cream and requires quite a few eggs. For 2-gallon batches, for example, Mr. Townsend uses several dozen eggs.
Millie’s gets dairy from several local outfits, namely Snowville Creamery in Pomeroy, Ohio; Turner Dairy in Penn Hills; and Trickling Springs Creamery in Chambersburg.
Because fat is back in fashion when it comes to dairy, it has become harder to find cream, Mr. Townsend said, so he has had to go to several sources.
The Townsends are willing to source from several places as their business grows.
The taste and texture are worth it.
“Our ice cream is meant to be consumed quickly,” Mr. Townsend said. “It’s not something that will be sitting in the freezer.”
CSAs for the summer are available through millieshomemade.com.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.