I, for one, love a traditional custard (creme anglaise-style) base. It's what ice cream was from the beginning. You can mess with it all you want, and if you do things wrong, as so many do, you'll get off, cooked flavors. There is no way to mask imperfections in a sweet cream flavor. While balance is important, great and consistent texture is the object of relentless pursuit by artisans like McConnell's.
When people think of a baseline flavor, they usually think vanilla. Strip away any flavoring, vanilla or otherwise, and you have the one true base ice cream flavor, sweet cream. It might sound plain, but if you love ice cream and can find the good stuff, simplicity can be a very good thing.
Master ice cream maker, Mike Vierra, has been making ice cream at McConnell's since 1980. Mike is a fifth generation dairy farmer from the central coast of California, and a graduate of the dairy science program at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, one of the top the dairy schools in the country. He was hired by McConnell's' previous owner, Jim McCoy, almost 35 years ago and ultimately became one of the very few "master ice cream makers" in the industry. At the time he started his career, McConnell's was a 22-23% butterfat ice cream. That was ultimately too much butterfat, so Mike went to work and adjusted the base to 18.5%, which he believes is perfect.
McConnell's butterfat percentage is among the highest in the industry, but that's not a point of pride in itself. There are other ice creams that have high butterfat. High butterfat ice cream can be mediocre. The same can be said about dense, low overrun ice creams. At less than 10% overrun, McConnell's happens to be the densest ice cream, but you can make very dense ice cream that is unpalatable.
The key to the platonic ideal ice cream is balance. If an ice cream has great flavor, mouthfeel and structure, up to a point, at least, I don’t care what the butterfat or overrun percentage is. It’s not about any specific attributes in isolation. Does it all come together? Is the product balanced and consistent? That’s what makes McConnell's special. It’s not by accident that these objective measures stack up the way they do, but the magic is in the collective result of these measurable characteristics. Their product is the marriage of art and science. It equates to balance.
McConnell’s has been making ice cream on the Central Coast of California for almost 70 years, and it has remained a fairly well kept secret. Over the past few years, ice cream lovers have witnessed a renaissance taking place as the new owners breathed life into the heritage brand, investing in equipment upgrades and refining their craft with a focus on perfecting the product. Contrast this with other so called artisan companies who instead primarily dedicate resources to marketing. Strip away fancy containers, book tours and arcane flavor combinations and you'll find a lot of mediocre batch frozen, high overrun ice cream. The variegates that litter these pints are necessary to draw attention from the mediocre base that that'd never sell alone.
That is the beauty of discovering this elegant, unassuming pint that ably stands alone with no flavorings or mix-ins. Sweet Cream is the kind of flavor I could absolutely eat every day, a desert island flavor that goes well with any accompaniment. A base that can stand on it's own is something very special. When you do it right, it's so right.
Pints full of stabilizers and overcooked mixes don’t have any place in my freezer. Not when I can buy this. When it comes to tapioca starch, syrup, call-it-what-you-will, the only reason it's in there is because their ice cream, lacking an emulsifier (in McConnell's case, egg yolks) and density, needs something to hold it together and give it something resembling consistency and texture. There may be better ice cream than McConnell's out there, but I don't know about it.
Where Elliot Found It: Straub's Market
Elliot's Grade: A