This is a great time for ice cream lovers. As recently as 10 years ago, if you wanted something beyond the limited selection at your local store, you faced daunting minimum orders and stiff shipping fees, and even then had no guarantee that the stuff would arrive in prime shape. Today, distribution has improved to the point that your local specialty grocer is likely to have a number of selections from far and wide. Producers—both traditional local places and newer craft outfits—have mastered shipping. Choices these days are many. Below are a few favorite chocolate options I tasted recently. Start with them, and then check if your childhood favorite ships. I bet it does.
BLUE MARBLE ICE CREAM
$60 for six 14-ounce containers
Jennie Dundas, CEO of New York's Blue Marble Ice Cream, explains that she and Alexis Gallivan started the company to fill a void: "Families and moms and dads were looking for organic milk and eggs." But there were no local ice cream producers fitting the bill. "It's not easy," she says. "It's a testament to how hard it is that we're still the only ones in New York."
While source consciousness and fair trade practices are key to the company, Dundas recognizes that principles alone will not move product: "We put flavor and texture above all; we're geared towards families and foodies." Blue Marble's Organic Chocolate is medium dark—neither too austere nor too sweet—and pretty dense, with a medium melt. The texture is silky. Dundas claims this is the result of a slower, lower-temperature pasteurization, leading to a "custardy" texture despite there being no eggs in the ice cream. And while Blue Marble stands alone in some respects, in others, it is doing nothing new: "We use superfresh organic dairy; old-fashioned small-batch production brings the quality."
$80 for 6 pints
For people who grew up with it, and for the many recent converts, Graeter's (pictured at right, top center) is a powerfully evocative name. The 150-year-old Cincinnati producer has built a national presence but remains a source of hometown pride. Despite the growth, production remains traditional, using what the company calls a French pot process, whereby ingredients are placed in a metal tub and spun in an ice bath. As the contents freeze, they are scraped down with a paddle. This is important for two reasons, the first of which is evident when you pick up a pint of Double Chocolate Chip: It's hefty. This process minimizes the amount of air in the product, so you get dense ice cream with a classic milk flavor. It melts kind of quickly, but that's OK because the other thing about the pots—and the source of reverie among fans—is the irregularly sized dark-chocolate chunks created by pouring chocolate into spinning pots, then scraping it down into the ice cream.
HUMPHRY SLOCOMBE ICE CREAM
$47 for a 4-pint mixed selection
Humphry Slocombe (pictured above, bottom right) started small in San Francisco's Mission District 10 years ago. While it garnered attention for its surprising flavors (bacon, beets), its secret weapon was perfecting flavor and texture across the board. Jake Godby, co-founder of Humphry Slocombe with Sean Vahey, says, "We like to be inventive, but you have to have a good foundation." That means that the Malted Milk Chocolate is like an improved childhood memory—a little denser and more chocolaty, with a persistent malt powder flavor that's like umami for sweets. Godby confesses that he uses about half dark chocolate to "boost" the milk chocolate, but dark is not the target: "People fetishize dark chocolate, but milk makes people happy. Being from Ohio, I have a thing for classic Americana; you can't get more classic than a malted."
JENI'S SPLENDID ICE CREAMS
$48 for 4 pints
Jeni Britton Bauer's 16-year-old Jeni's is a star of next-gen ice cream, run out of Columbus, Ohio. Britton was well ahead of the curve when she started, using not only fresh, raw ingredients but also forward-thinking flavors. But she returns to basics too: "Now I like the pleasure of a cone with chocolate ice cream."
Though she makes a great milk version, Darkest Chocolate is a thing apart, a Joseph Conrad ice cream. It tastes as dark as it looks. She explains: "This one contains as much chocolate as you can fit and legally call it ice cream." The texture is seriously smooth and creamy, partly because she doesn't use gums or even eggs.
The key, though, is that, as she says, "A little dairy can open up nuances in chocolate, like water in whiskey. You can taste this one the way you taste chocolate. It has notes and flavors you can identify as it finishes on your palate."