Not long ago, we got the harebrained idea at our house to complete a yard project in the first blast of Arkansas’ smelting-furnace summer heat. For two days, we toiled on landscaping in the backyard, while our wiser neighbors watched, smirking from temperature-controlled spaces on all sides.
By the end of it, the heat had swelled our brains against our temples, and we lost the ability to utter coherent sentences. My beloved searched for 15 minutes for a cellphone that was in her pocket, while I hallucinated a coyote chasing a roadrunner off the end of the deck. It was nothing compared to what roofers or construction workers go through, I grant you, but it was still enough.
When we finally staggered inside and lowered our core body temperatures to something approaching medium-well, the wiser of our household suggested a bowl of ice cream. I could only nod, weakly, unsure if it would be resuscitative therapy or simply a nice last dish. Twenty minutes later, we were laughing and remembering other ice creams eaten in other summers.
I don’t know what they put in this stuff, but the wizards of ice cream — those Chilly Willy Wonkas — had done it again.
There are some things so perfect — so fundamentally wholesome — that they never fail to live up to the most intense, gauzy nostalgia we carry of them in our minds. When it comes to summertime food, ice cream, cake and milkshakes are the almighty triumvirate of this fact, always as good as you remember.
“I’ve never handed a person a cup, cone or carton of ice cream that I didn’t get a smile in return,” says Mitch Evans, vice president of sales and marketing for Yarnell’s Ice Cream Company in Searcy. “It’s just something that makes people happy. It brings them back the nostalgia of making ice cream with their grandparents or birthday parties or lots of other events. That’s the great thing about ice cream and being in the ice cream business.”
Evans has forgotten more about ice cream than most people will ever know, having invested nearly four decades of his working life to the legendary Arkansas brand. And while you may envision working at an ice cream factory as a have-spoon-will-travel kind of gig, there’s real work involved in producing the centerpiece of our summers.
“Yeah, there are some difficulties in it,” he says. “The toughest situation with ice cream is that when there’s the biggest demand is when it’s hardest to deliver. You’ve got to keep ice cream at about 5-10 below, at least. And when it’s 95 degrees and you got 100 percent humidity out there, it’s pretty difficult to get around and keep it in the quality temps that we want.
“Plus, you’re dealing with milk, and you’re dealing with eggs and all the inclusions that we put in ice cream. Things like pecans can get very expensive sometimes. But for the most part, it is a fun business to be in. I just enjoy doing it.”
Next summer marks the 90th anniversary of founder Ray Yarnell pooling his funds — including borrowing against his life insurance policies — to buy the defunct Southwest Dairy Products plant and launching his company. It was 1932 and the height of the Great Depression, but Yarnell forged ahead anyway. Through the lean early years, he and his family laid the foundation for a brand that would eventually be a generational staple at soda fountains and backyard parties in six states, and become the last Arkansas ice cream maker standing.
Even when the company abruptly closed its doors in June 2011, it didn’t stay shuttered for long. By November that year, Chicago-based Schulze and Burch Biscuit Company bought both plant and recipes, and things were back up and running by the following spring. Today, a bowl of Yarnell’s is a tasty piece of Arkansas history preserved, as it were, in ice.
“Our oldest recipe would probably go back into the 1940s,” Evans says. “They came out with what we call today our Real Vanilla flavor, and then they came out with a French vanilla during that time frame.
“Now, there were some changes because of World War II; there was a sugar shortage and everything else, so some of the flavors changed during that time. But once things got a little more established, and commodities were pretty accessible, the recipes haven’t changed a whole lot from there.”
Restaurateur, Arkansas food authority and milkshake whisperer Scott McGehee helps carry that legacy, using only Yarnell’s ice cream in the decadent milkshakes served at his Big Orange gourmet burger joints. Talk to him about what makes the perfect milkshake, and he speaks to you on a level that’s part food science, part Zen master.
“Making a milkshake is a lot like making a cocktail,” he says. “You’re measuring out the ingredients, right? You want it perfectly chocolatey, but not too chocolatey, or not chocolatey enough. And that goes for any flavoring, or berry, or syrup, or anything you might be adding to it.
“Something that’s really important when we’re teaching our people to make a really great milkshake is, it’s really important to have the correct amount of ice cream in the blender. It’s real easy to put too much ice cream in there. For our milkshake artists, the thickness is also very important. You want to get it just barely blending, where it’s almost too thick to blend. That’s perfect.”
McGehee’s modus operandi for developing his creations — including a couple of boozy options that are the pinnacle of delicious madness — has its roots in the expansive and oft-overlooked annals of Arkansas restaurant history. Milkshakes are no exception.
“I remember going to Frostop on Markham and getting chocolate milkshakes,” he says. “I remember Swenson’s had a dark chocolate milkshake that made an impression. And then Sweet N Creme on Main Street; I was a regular at Sweet N Creme, particularly when I was at Central High School. Those three stand out in my mind. I was probably more of an ice cream person but, you know, I’ve never turned down a good milkshake.”
That said, McGehee has also shown a knack for rocking the culinary boat wherever he’s opened a concept. Such was the case with Zaza Fine Salad & Wood Oven Pizza Co., his Heights neighborhood-born enclave many credit with introducing gelato to Central Arkansas.
“Gelato may even be the parent of ice cream. The stories go that they used to bring ice down from the Italian Alps to make it during the Renaissance,” he says. “I do know it pre-dates the rediscovery of America in 1492, by far.”
Tasted side-by-side, it’s fairly easy to tell the two desserts apart, but what actually separates gelato and ice cream may surprise you.
“Gelato typically has milk and a little bit of cream; it has less butterfat than ice cream,” McGehee says. “But what makes gelato so rich and creamy is the shape of the paddle inside the cylinder that is freezing the product. It’s angled in such a way where it’s not incorporating air. Ultimately that impacts cost, making gelato is a little more expensive, in terms of the volume.
“I just love the texture that’s so dense and rich and creamy, all because of the shape of that blade. And it’s slightly less — well, it’s not guilt-free, because it’s still full of sugar — but it’s a little less fattening, generally, than ice cream.”
In the 1991 movie City Slickers a group of urbanites embarks on a tenderfoot cattle drive. Sitting around the campfire, Mitch Robbins, played by Billy Crystal, gets into a discussion with ice cream entrepreneurs the Shalowitz brothers, as to their ability to pick the perfect flavor of ice cream to follow any meal.
Pressed to test this skill, Robbins throws them a softball, “Franks and beans.”
“Scoop of chocolate, scoop of vanilla,” says Barry Shalowitz, derisively. “Don’t waste my time.”
While most of us don’t have our ice cream pairing skills honed to such a fine edge — heck, most of us probably see ice cream as the new black, goes with anything — there can be no denying that some things riding along with ice cream make a good treat even better. Cake, for instance, especially the next-level creations produced by Blue Cake Company of Little Rock.
“Cakes are celebratory; they’re connecting people to a moment where they are celebrating something,” says Jan Lewandowski, who co-owns the popular bakery with her husband Steve. “In the South, particularly, people have more of a history of making cakes from scratch or cooking with the grandparents, and I think it just reminds them of that.
“I teach at [Pulaski Tech] culinary school, and that’s all of my students, ‘Oh, I just love baking with my mom or my grandma.’ They all have those memories and that makes them also want to work in the business.
Lewandowski didn’t get that life experience growing up but as the former pastry chef for the Capital Hotel, and through Blue Cake, opened in 2005, she’s been making up for lost time.
“I was a terrible baker,” she says. “My mom is Korean, and we just didn’t eat many sweets like that; we ate ice cream and fruit. But I have a huge sweet tooth. I went to culinary school, and I discovered if you work in a pastry kitchen, you pretty much get all the sweets you want.”
Cake fanatics and pie lovers observe an uneasy coexistence. Blue Cake got into the pie business a couple of years ago by purchasing the much-decorated Honey Pies of Little Rock, but there’s no ambiguity as to where Lewandowski’s heart lies.
“I am cake all the way, and I always have been,” she says. “I like soft and creamy. My favorite types of cakes are sponge cakes. Of ours, I love our tres leches; that’s one of my all-time favorite cakes. It’s between that and chocolate raspberry ganache because I love chocolate.
“It’s mostly, I love fillings; I love cakes with fillings inside. I’m not as much of a buttercream person, and I think that’s why I like our petit fours because it’s mostly cake as opposed to cupcakes, which have so much frosting.”
Lewandowski isn’t alone in her love for the shop’s petit fours, estimating patrons take home about 1,500 of the diminutive treats every week.
“We’re known at our shop for our petit fours,” she says. “They’re like two-bite sized, they’re already cut, and you can get a variety of flavors. We actually have a summer set that we’re selling right now with Key lime, strawberry lemonade — just some different, fun, summery flavors.”
Blue Cake’s creations are high art — pastry masterpieces that look as good on a summer buffet table as they taste with a companion scoop of ice cream. As an educator and former struggling baker, she relates to people trying to up their cake game, readily imparting advice to rookies as well as those going head-to-head with Aunt May at the next family reunion.
“First, I will say to follow directions. That’s really the No. 1 secret to success in baking,” Lewandowski says. “But also, one of the issues people run into on the baking side is following the baking temperature and time literally, when in reality, it’s always going to vary in your oven. If the recipe says bake for 30 minutes and you take it out and it’s dry, well, it probably baked too long. You have to know how to check for doneness.
“And, if people are baking from home and they want to use a mix, I say use a mix, but make your own filling. If you’re making your filling from scratch, then it won’t taste completely like a boxed, artificial cake. Especially since fillings and frostings are usually pretty easy to do.”
As for those boxed mixes, Lewandowski gives them an unexpected thumbs-up, displaying a refreshing lack of pastry snobbery. Whatever spreads the Cake Gospel, she’s on board.
“I love cake-mix cake. That’s what I grew up with,” she says. “In my family, we were not scratch bakers at all, so that’s just what I know, and that’s what a lot of our customers know. [Blue Cake’s] cake is different than that from a box, of course, but I think cake, however you get it, is great.”