Scooped: How to Make Mr. Softee-Style Soft Serve
The Mr. Softee truck is how I learned the phrase "bat out of hell." As in, "Max, don't run out there like a bat out of hell. It's just ice cream and I want to see you live to your 11th birthday." Sorry, Dad, but this isn't ice cream. This is Mr. Softee. It's bigger than me—it's bigger than both of us.
Nothing else has that slick, ultra-whipped texture, almost slippery as it melts. It really isn't like other ice cream—it's not even like other soft serve. In the taxonomic tree of frozen desserts, the industrial swirls of Mr. Softee stand alone. Like the platypus, but tastier and with fewer venom glands. Sure, it tastes more than a little like fake vanilla with a hint of gasoline (and I'm convinced the chocolate is made with boiled carob beans and shoelaces). But as the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck's meteoric success in New York has proven, that's just fine by us. This is, after all, our collective American childhood in frozen form.
But all this remembrance of things past does me little good in February, when the Mr. Softee trucks are deep in winter hibernation (I imagine them curled together in the hollows of great oak trees). I want my soft serve now, and while I'm at it, I want to get rid of that trace of gasoline flavor.
After some fiddling, I got the texture alarmingly similar to the real thing, down to the Jello pudding-like, slightly waxy mouthfeel. Though real, light, super-smooth soft serve can be hard to reliably churn out at home, Mr. Softee couldn't be easier—easier than conventional ice cream, actually.
The base is made with half and half, cornstarch, and—the secret ingredient—gelatin. You don't need eggs for this recipe, and the clean, crisp vanilla flavor that results is a refreshing alternative to more traditional vanilla ice creams. Gelatin, in addition to binding the custard with cornstarch and replicating that slight waxy Mr. Softee texture, allows the ice cream to warm to the verge of melting while retaining its shape. It's that fast-melting, slick bite that defines the Mr. Softee experience, and as long as you give your ice cream some time to thaw, you'll get it every time. That's right, this is soft serve you can freeze, thaw, and refreeze as many times as you want with little to no discernible loss in dreamy soft serve lightness. Nobel Prize committee, you have my number.
Unlike Mr. Softee, your homemade soft serve won't taste like bad vanilla perfume. As Bravetart brilliantly discovered, Tahitian vanilla beans have a beautiful floral flavor that pays homage to the mass-produced crack of industrial foodways while also tasting really, really good. Steep a bean in your dairy for an hour and you'll be rewarded with a vanilla experience unlike anything else (don't worry, you'll still get awesome flavor and the same amazing texture with another vanilla variety, or vanilla extract). Okay, you may also want to add some Scotch like I did. Trust me, it's the Mr. Softee you never knew you wanted.
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About the author: Max Falkowitz writes Serious Eats' weekly Spice Hunting column. He's a proud native of Queens, New York, will do just about anything for a good cup of tea, and enjoys long walks down the aisles of Chinese groceries. You can follow him on Twitter at @maxfalkowitz.