Money is turning 50! To celebrate, we’ve combed through decades of our print magazines to uncover hidden gems, fascinating stories and vintage personal finance tips that have (surprisingly) withstood the test of time. Throughout 2022, we’ll be sharing our favorite finds in Money Classic, a special limited-edition newsletter that goes out twice a month.
This story, featured in the second issue of Money Classic, comes from our August 1982 edition.
Editor's note: This story includes language that isn't inclusive. Preferred language is always evolving, and Money is committed to writing stories that do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation), religion, age or disability.
Ice cream has long been America’s favorite frozen asset. Its origins may be European, but ever since Mrs. Alexander Hamilton served George Washington ice cream at a dinner party in 1789, his countrymen have claimed it as their just dessert. Over the years, they have cranked out batches of it at home, chased after the ringing bells of a truck for it, wooed each other over it at ice-cream parlors and, eventually, tossed it into their supermarket carts. But if just any ice cream would do as recently as a decade or so ago, it won’t anymore. Americans are still screaming for the ice cream, but now that their culinary consciousness has been raised, they’re fussy. They want the best.
The great glaces have several qualities in common. The dominant ingredient is cream, the source of the butterfat that gives ice cream its rich consistency. In fact, the government requires that ice cream contain at least 10% butterfat. But the best usually have a butterfat content of 15% or more. Air is another factor. By federal standards, ice-cream makers can double the volume of their product by pumping in air, but the ice cream would then resemble frozen foam. Without air, however, ice cream would be like frozen cold cream. The best are less than 35% air. Premier brands use only natural ingredients: vanilla beans, real chocolate, fresh fruits and liqueurs.
Ice cream should have a firm consistency. It should not be soggy, grainy or full of ice crystals. Sums up noted food writer M.F.K. Fisher: “An ice cream has to be ice cold, made with real cream, and it has to be very smooth, fresh and not oversweet.”
Taste is what truly determines the ice cream of the crop. Says Paul Dickson, author of The Great American Ice Cream Book ($4.95 in paperback, Atheneum): “It’s easy to make a rich ice cream — but not as easy to make a good-tasting one.” And to Dickson and many of his fellow addicts, Bassetts is a lick more delicious than other widely available brands. Devotees describe Bassetts bean-flecked vanilla (pictured on the previous page) as rich and elegant and liken its double dark chocolate to a thick mousse. Founded by Lewis Bassett in 1861, the Philadelphia-based company claims to be the oldest commercial ice-cream maker in the U.S. Today Ann Bassett, Lewis’ great-granddaughter, runs the company. Bassetts ice cream is 16.5% to 18% butterfat, depending on the flavor, and 32% air.
“Bassetts is the best you can buy in the U.S.,” asserts Stanley Marcus, former chairman of the Neiman-Marcus department-store chain and author of Quest for the Best. “It has the best flavoring of any ice cream. The taste is distinct yet subtle.” His personal favorite: Irish coffee, made with freshly brewed beans and Jameson’s Irish whiskey. Bassetts uses only natural ingredients in its 30 flavors, which include rum pumpkin (made with Ronrico rum and pumpkin puree), praline (made with chunks of pecan and praline candy) and double chocolate chip (with chips imported from Holland). Bassetts is available hand-packed at parlors and at supermarkets in 22 states throughout the country. Price: $1.85 to $2.50 a pint vs. $1.19 a pint for a typical high-quality nationally available brand such as Breyers.
The ice cream that rivals — and some would say surpasses — the quality of Bassetts is Haagen-Dazs. Its president, Reuben Mattus, achieved something of a coup de glace when he introduced his product in 1961. The high-quality, high-priced confection with the Scandinavian-sounding name (it's all made in New Jersey) helped popularize other superior brands, including Bassetts. With an air content of only 10%, Haagen-Dazs has a heavier consistency than Bassetts. But Rose Dosti, food writer for the Los Angeles Times, delights in the puddinglike quality of Haagen-Dazs. "When I diet," she admits, "I figure out how I can eat my Haagen-Dazs and still lose weight. I have my priorities." (She prefers to give up lunch.) And Tom Stokley, food columnist for the Seattle Times, rates Haagen-Dazs coffee above all others. With its rich creamy quality and true coffee flavor, he avers, ''it's just like cafe au lait."
Haagen-Dazs comes in 19 flavors. It took Mattus six years to find a strawberry that satisfied him, and he stopped making butter pecan because he says it was "too ordinary." The perfect peach still eludes him, but he's working on it. Rum raisin, macadamia nut and honey vanilla, among other flavors, are available for $1.75 or so a pint at supermarkets and Haagen-Dazs
franchise stores in all 50 states.
Naturally, the best ice creams are also the baddest in calories. A typical four-ounce scoop of either Bassetts or Haagen-Dazs vanilla, for example, has about 260 calories compared with about 180 for Sealtest. You'll have to top off the total for more exotic flavors — up to 30 more calories for, say, butter pecan. Sherbet has about 130 calories a scoop, as does frozen yogurt. Ice milk, which can contain no more than 7% butterfat according to federal standards, has fewer calories than ice cream (about 160 for four ounces) but alas, it doesn't taste anywhere near as delicious.
Still, one ice milk — Sealtest’s Light n’ Lively — leads the pack for flavor. Says Ralph Selitzer, the author of Dairy Industry in America ($35, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich): “Light n’ Lively is excellent for an ice milk. Others tend to be icy and have little flavor.” It has artificial flavorings but not sweeteners. Flavors include strawberry, caramel nut (made with real almonds), vanilla fudge and coffee. Light n' Lively is available only in supermarkets in half-gallon containers. Price: about $2.20.
Aficionados claim that ice cream hand-scooped from a drum at a parlor is better than the packaged variety you buy at the supermarket, even if it's the same brand. But Ann Bassett insists that Bassetts tubs and pints all come from the same vats. She does concede that parlor ice cream sometimes tastes fresher, however, and attributes the difference to the fact that workers at an ice-cream parlor tend to keep a closer eye on freezer temperatures than supermarket managers do.
Indeed, the closer an ice cream is made to where it's sold, the fresher it is likely to be. Local ice-cream shops, where batches are concocted on or near the premises, probably offer the freshest — and, some insist, tastiest — ice creams.
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