February 8, 2012

How Jeni Britton Bauer Makes it Work {Tales from the Trenches}

Jeni's Ice Cream

Today I invited my friend Jeni Britton Bauer, the genius behind Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, easily the most luscious and addictive artisanal ice cream I’ve ever tasted, to join me for a little kitchen Q & A. I am a huge fan of Jeni’s New York Times bestselling book, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home, and love her philosophy on using the power of business to create positive change in the world. Clearly Jeni’s business is booming, but I was also curious to take a peek under the tent. For someone who runs a rapidly expanded business, I wanted to know what she cooked for her husband and two young children after hours. Here she reveals how she feeds her family, her take on winter ice cream, and the adult meal she is planning for Valentine’s Day!

1. Your book, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home, dominated our kitchen last summer. I found myself whipping up lots of ice cream base during naptime and churning it with my daughter after she woke up. Do you ever make ice cream at home with your kids?

My kids, especially my oldest daughter Greta, have always loved getting into the kitchen with me. In fact, when I was testing about 100 batches of ice cream as I worked towards innovating the perfect ice cream base for the recipe in Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home, I did so with Greta, as a small baby, strapped on my back. She was with me the whole way through that process and I think the memory will always be something we share. I also to involve my kids in testing new flavors at home. Their palates continue to surprise me. They’re never afraid to try new flavors, and are even less timid to express their feelings about them.


A little older, still a fan of ice cream!

2. As a working Mom with two kids what kind of food do you make for your family—besides ice cream? How do you fit in your everyday cooking?

I cook often (most days), but it has to be simple because I don’t have time. And, it’s not just the cooking, it’s the cleanup. No kitchen project can be accomplished in under an hour, so I tend to stick with a few basics—so that I get it down to a system. I like to have lots of time leftover every night for playing, baths, and lots of books at bedtime. We eat breakfast and dinner together at the table every night.

One year, I spent a summer in Greece and I got to cook and eat with the grandmothers on a small island called Ikaria. I learned from them that all you need is olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon juice on most things to bring out flavors, and a handful of fresh herbs in the summer. So, fried potatoes, chicken, fish, pounded and breaded pork tenderloin, greens, even pasta (with the addition of Parmesan) are regularly dressed with salt, lemon olive oil, and pepper in my kitchen.

I find jarred tomato sauce to be too sweet (they often add sugar and I’m not sure why), so I will often make tomato sauce on Sunday and store it in the refrigerator until I need it. In the summer, Greta, my four-year-old, helps me peel tomatoes for the sauce, and in the winter we make it with tinned San Marzano. I use two cans, simmer it with a teaspoon of salt for about a ½ hour, and finish it with a big glob of butter. If I want to add anything else (garlic, onions, basil, etc.), I do so just before serving while I am heating the pasta. I learned that super simple technique from Cafe Lago in Seattle, which makes the best lasagna ever. The tomato sauce is very salty and tart. We make pizzas with the sauce and fresh mozzarella and dried olives. Or, I use frozen ricotta ravioli and bake it with sauce and mozzarella on top. It’s kind of like super fast, easy lasagna. Still, in my mind nothing beats a great bowl of spaghetti. I’ll simmer meatballs right in the sauce, or just throw some basil in and keep it very light and meatless.

I am a whiz with Béchamel. I once made 24 croque monsieurs from scratch in a ½ hour in my kitchen for a party after work.  Béchamel also becomes my mac ‘n cheese if I put some frozen pureed winter squash in it and a handful of Parmesan. (It turns the appropriate color of yellow and my kids can’t tell the difference.) Béchamel can become almost any sauce. I make mine with grass-pastured whole milk and it’s rich without being alfredo. You can put any cheese in it to melt onto pasta, or use it to dip steamed broccoli.

Another of my tricks is to make “bowls”. I buy packets of prepared microwaveable brown rice and serve it with peanut sauce (made on Sunday or store bought) and steamed cabbage, broccoli, carrots, and lots of veggies. A Mexican version has roasted sweet potatoes, grated smoked cheddar, black beans, roasted red peppers, kale, salsa and sour cream. They are colorful, healthful and easy to put together. Our kids love them, and they are one bowl, one pan. Sometimes I make the components on Sunday and all I have to do it warm them up.

3. What have been your favorite family cold weather recipes this winter?

I did a smorgasbord for Christmas this year. I loved that. We did smoked salmon (from our local fish market) and let guests pile roasted cold potatoes with horseradish sour cream on top and lots of pickled things like beets and onions. We also had deviled eggs made with loads of Maille mustard and shallots, and I made a cold roast beef with a pea salad and another one with and shrimp and dill to put on rye toasts, and, one of my favorite things to make, an enormous crudite platter with lemon mayo. I also did Swedish meatballs with bison and we had lingonberry preserves. It was all so light, nontraditional Midwestern winter fare, and everything was served cold except for the meatballs, but somehow it was perfectly crisp and refreshing. It felt right in the winter and it was so colorful.

4. With Valentine’s Day coming up will you make any special dish or ice cream to share with your hubby after the kids are asleep?

I’ve been looking for the right occasion to make this: Buttered fettuccine with Seruga caviar and Champagne, from Glorious Foods by Christopher Idone, from 1982. That’s it just three ingredients! The simplest most indulgent, most sexy meal I can imagine. I love this book. It’s so classy, I just want to to jump into it.


Jeni's planned adult Valentine's Day meal

5.  Some people think I’m crazy but I make ice cream all year long. What flavors do you recommend for us winter ice-cream eaters?

I’ve always relished the challenge of making flavors that are crave-able in the winter and that will draw people from their homes and offices to share a few scoops together. We fire up our ovens in the bakery during winter and make cakes, pies, cookies, and other baked goods to stuff into ice creams. I like these comforting bakery inspired ice creams during winter.

I tend to eat ice creams and sundaes in the winter, and go for tart sorbets and yogurts in the warmer months. I love ice cream in the winter. Problem is, it’s 60 degrees here today (January 31) and we haven’t had any snow at all. I hope we get a proper winter next year! I miss it. I love walking down the street on a 20-degree day eating ice cream—especially if it’s snowing!

6. We all want to know, what is your dream sundae?

A giant platter—two feet long—with scoops of raspberry sorbet and Pistachio & Honey ice cream, covered with crumbled meringues, macerated strawberries, way too much freshly whipped cream, some more meringues, pistachios, and some frilly pineapple mint served with a glass of champagne.

But, now that I think of it, I might go with scoops of Salty Caramel ice cream, many slices of peeled pink grapefruit in sugar syrup, muscovado sugar sauce, crumbled meringues, too much whipped cream, and some broken bars of Shawn Askinosie’s white chocolate. I would drink this with it.

Serve these in the center of the table with glasses for your guests to help themselves—like a giant platter of pasta. I like to think of sundaes as platters made for serving lots of people. It’s messy, dramatic, sexy.

7. How will you balance managing your growing ice cream business, feeding your own family and raising your two young children going forward?

The word “balance” messes me up. What I thought was balance four years ago is nothing like what I embrace as balance now. We do the important stuff first. Messy closets be damned. Eating together is important to us. Probably the secret to a balanced life is to simplify as much as possible and learn to be ok with some amount of chaos. I’ll add that I am not ok with chaos – I like to control things, so it was not easy for me. The only thing that helps me is to laugh. Seriously, laugh at everything. It works. When my kids are melting down I tell them “I bet I can make you laugh”. It always works – even if I end up doing the chicken dance. Laughing helps me come back to what’s important. And it ain’t the organization of the silverware drawer.

Growth is very good for our business. We learned a few years ago that when we went from a single mom-and-pop shop to a larger company with a few shops and a central production kitchen, a whole new world opened up to us. We were able to partner up with small grass-pastured dairies who otherwise would not have invested in the equipment to work with us before. We were able to begin to buy fields of berries instead of flats from local farms. We even went straight to the source for our vanilla; we use an organic fair trade-certified Ndali Estate Ugandan vanilla, which comes from an estate owned by an inspiring woman, Lulu Sturdy. We want to keep growing. We very strongly believe in the power of business to change the world.

So, we work hard and we play hard. A real rock for my family is our kitchen table in the morning and evening. We have meals there, and then we do art projects there. In fact, we have two art studios on the wall just behind the table. It’s an important place for us. We live wacky lives with work and travel, but the table is our constant. It’s where we always come together to prepare for the day and to decompress when the day is done.

art 1

The kitchen art studio

8. Can you treat us to a peak under the tent of what is coming up next for Jeni’s? 🙂


As an American ice cream company we are very excited about this being an election year. We are doing our version of an old American flavor called White House. It’s lovely. We are sticking with the American theme for the next collection also, but you’ll have to wait and see!

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