There’s a scene in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” when Willy Wonka walks into the Inventing Room in his factory. Walking into the backroom at Zingerman’s Creamery is kind of like that, with the coiled hoses, metal machines that gurgle and hiss and large freezers that exude steam and frost. But it’s a small, unassuming, box-shaped machine in a corner that is the source of confectionery delight at the creamery — gelato.
As an Italian dessert, gelato has a long history, dating back to the days of the Roman Empire when it was a luxury item for the wealthy. In those days, the well-to-do Italians would send their slaves up the mountains to get ice for the frozen treat. But now, the process moves quickly and is much easier thanks to modern technology.
According to Josh Miner, a gelato maker at Zingerman’s Creamery, there are two main steps in creating gelato. The first is to make the base by mixing milk, cream and sugar together, heating the batch up and then freezing it as fast as possible. The most important and most demanding step is making sure the mix has the correct percentages of fat, sugar and air — the proportion of fat in the base helps differentiate it from ice cream.
“The way the base mix is done will have a large effect on taste and texture,” Miner said.
Once the base is set, Miner said, the remaining bit is easy. The mix is poured into the batch freezer (that small machine in the corner), flavoring is added and the resulting gelato is churned and frozen slowly.
“There are only four buttons on the machine. (At this point) it’s really hard to screw up,” Miner said.
Still, a lot of work goes into the process, and it can’t be done carelessly. It’s the opposite — making gelato requires a certain skill set.
“You have to approach gelato with some curiosity … if it’s not creative, it’s not worth doing,” Miner said.
Additionally, painstaking measurements are necessary to create even the most basic flavors. The base mix changes in relation to each flavor’s fat and sugar content — strawberry has a lot of sugar and no fat, but hazelnut is all fat and no sugar.
“You need to make the right adjustments in order to keep the texture and the flavor right,” Miner said.
Balancing the taste to create the ideal flavor is another challenging part of the process. For example, Zingerman’s vanilla gelato is not simply a traditional vanilla — it’s Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla. According to Miner, that flavor was not selected randomly, but rather through a long process of trial and error. Some vanillas were too floral, others too dark, but Bourbon Vanilla had just the right amount of earthiness in it.
Miner credits the Zingerman’s work environment with the success of its flavors.
“We talk and bring (our experiences) together,” he said. “If something sounds interesting, we’ll try it. But a lot of what we do is perfecting a flavor. … There’s usually an end goal in mind.”
Miner is particularly proud of his Burnt Sugar, a caramel-colored gelato with bits of burnt sugar folded in. He was inspired by a trip to Spain where he tried some gelato. The taste stuck with him.
“I had no idea what that flavor was, but the closest I got to capturing that memory was by burning sugar,” Miner said.
Translating an experience to your tongue is a large part of enjoying gelato. Iorio’s Gelateria, located on East William Street, is dedicated to promoting that idea.
“When you walk into the store, you’re supposed to think Italy,” said Engineering junior Nick Lemmer, one of the owners of Iorio’s. “(Gelato) is a way for (Italians) to celebrate their culture, like the fresh fruits that they grow and really all the flavors of that region.”
Because gelato is so dense — much more so than ice cream — the flavor is incredibly powerful. It’s traditionally served in smaller cups and with tiny spoons, a concept that may seem a little out of place in the land of super-sized portions. However, a heaping serving of gelato is not necessarily the best way to go.
“You really want to pay attention to what you’re eating,” Lemmer said. “We definitely recommend that you try flavors first before you decide on one. … You have to be able to feel the flavor.” He added that when sampling coconut almond fudge, each element of the flavor — the coconuts, almonds and chocolate — should be obvious.
“You don’t have to be an expert, you’re not swilling wine around or cleansing the palate, but having the right mindset and concentrating is important,” Lemmer said.
Without really thinking about what you’re putting into your mouth, it would be easy to overlook the delicacies in gelato, like the fizz in Champagne Rose or the difference between a light milk chocolate and a sinfully rich Belgian chocolate. The subtle variations in flavor make tasting more interesting.
“Our flavors are changing constantly,” Lemmer said. “You can really make anything with gelato. Ice cream is much more limited in that way — you have your chocolates, your vanillas and you can really only do so much with it. … (With gelato) you have to be willing to try different things and understand that it’s special.”
Furthermore, the flavor of gelato varies with each batch since it is produced on a much smaller scale. Some flavors can never be replicated.
Yogobliss on South University Avenue also carries gelato, purchased from Palazzolo’s, a gelato company in Fennville, Mich. that makes over 600 flavors. Though the flavors Yogobliss carries are more traditional, the makers certainly understand versatility. Taste is relative and not everyone is daring enough to taste a salmon or garlic flavored dessert.
“Lots of people haven’t actually tried gelato unless they’re from a huge city,” said LSA sophomore Catherine Robinson, a manager of Yogobliss.
Since gelato is fairly new to the area, Yogobliss wants to introduce people to it slowly.
“I was a new student here last year and for me, Ann Arbor is all about new experiences and gelato is kind of one of them,” Robison said.
Of course, there are endless culinary possibilities with the dessert.
“It’s all about what you can dream up,” Lemmer said. “The freezer is your canvas.”