Soft Serve is for Suckers

Since moving to the area nearly two decades ago, I’ve learned to love many of the foods Buffalo considers its own. Pierogi, Sahlen’s hot dogs, beef on weck, chicken wings, Bison chip dip–I’ve had them all, and have learned to enjoy each of them. There are plenty of others, too. Some I love (Charlie Chaplins) some I don’t understand (loganberry drink), but very few do I loathe. Here’s the one that presents a problem for me, the one I just can’t figure out.

What is WNY’s fascination with soft serve? Here I have learned it is often called “custard”, but in my mind, real custard requires the inclusion of fresh ingredients such as fresh eggs and cream. I can attest to the wonder and beauty of a cold blackberry or peach frozen custard from Hibbard’s in Lewiston, NY, a place where the recipe and the equipment are both nearly 100 years old. What I can’t accept is Buffalo’s fascination and passion for the same old soft serve sold all over the country, but known here as “custard”, and marketed as a specialty in businesses all over the region. I won’t name names because I haven’t made a study of their recipes so I can’t attest with an absolute certainty that their product comes from a package and has an ingredient list as long as my arm. But, I can be sure it tastes like that’s the case, and if it weren’t wouldn’t it cost a little more?

I often wonder if the reason some of our area’s long term restaurants manage to stay in business so long despite a serious quality issue is because nostalgia and familiarity have a remarkable impact on our taste buds. This must be the story with “custard”. Have so many of us gone so long without sampling a real, from-scratch frozen custard that we’ve forgotten what it is supposed to taste like? If that is honestly the situation, then I’d guess it is safe to say that there’s at least one generation of WNYers out there who have never even had the real thing. I’d hate to think that we are so accustomed to the flavor of chemical-laden processed foods that we simply don’t notice them any longer and have even accepted them as real.

For kicks, I decided to Google up the recipe for frozen custard and the ingredient list for soft serve. Here they are:

For the soft serve, here’s a short list of common ingredients: Corn syrup, why, monoglycerides, diglycerides, guar gum, calcium sulfates, cellulose gum, polysorbates 65 and 80, etc. (You can read more detailed info here, along with an explanation of the role these chemicals play in your soft serve. I looked on a number of sites, this one seemed the most clear.) I also learned that soft serve generally contains 3-6% butterfat.

Here is an ingredient list for a frozen custard recipe from Taste of Home magazine.

  • 4 cups milk
  • 1-1/4 cups sugar
  • 1/3 cup cornstarch
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla extract

Interestingly, the original frozen custards were prized for their high butterfat content, nearing 18%. One website even makes the comparison that frozen custard is to ice cream what cream is to milk (this site is ugly, but always loaded with great food info).

So, if Hibbard’s is doing it right, it is my guess that there have to be a few other independent business out there that are also using good old-fashioned recipes that call for ingredients anyone would recognize in their raw form. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather serve my kids gelato from Dolci or ice cream from Lake Effect over buying them a $2 cone of calories and chemicals. I am not such a food purist that I turn my nose up at all processed foods or have my munchkins on a macrobiotic diet, but I also dislike false advertising and am disappointed by our collective inability to recognize authenticity and demand better for ourselves in its absence.

We love to take the drive out to Hibbard’s, and we make sure to do it at least once a year. Is there anywhere else in WNY where you can buy real frozen custard, custard that’s so fresh the vanilla is a little yellow from the egg yolks and the chocolate tastes like heaven? I sure as heck hope so.


Editor’s Note: Thanks to reader “anyoltime” for rooting out what appears to be some custard facts. According to the cited source in the un-verified Wikipedia entry, it looks like the term “custard” is governed by the FDA and requires the inclusion of some type of egg product and a minimum fat content in order to be called “custard”. Whether this applies to restaurants serving and advertising “custard”, or simply to those companies who manufacture a custard-style mix, we can’t be sure. We also can’t attest to how strictly this regulation is enforced if it does, in fact, relate in anyway to advertising and the businesses that actually serve the product. Please note that throughout the story we have made no claims, and in fact, go out of our way to point out that we have no insider knowledge with which to dispute the legitimacy “custard”. This opinion piece is quite obviously based on just that, an opinion.

About the author  ⁄ WCPerspective

Buffalo and development junkie currently exiled in California.

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