By Libby Schnepf | Photos by Devin Kelly
A UW campus delicacy evokes humanistic responses such as nostalgia of one’s first lick of Union Utopia or reminiscent of summers spent on the terrace. But the process behind the sweet and creamy facade is far more technical than taste buds may indicate.
Founded in 1951, Babcock Ice Cream has been innovative since the start. Dr. Steven Babcock, the mastermind behind the entire production, conducted a ground-breaking butterfat test at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. This innovative test paved the way for higher standards in milk quality and reduced the dishonest practice of watering down milk.
Behind the front of the quaint Babcock Dairy Hall Store and it’s scientific past resides one of the most revered collegiate dairy production facilities. White clad food scientists scuttle through the metallic maze of machinery on the ground of the processing plant. The metal tubing weaves intricate design through which the cream and other raw ingredients flow to create 75,000 gallons of ice cream in over 90 flavors throughout the year.
Although food science students and faculty are always crafting new flavors like Grasshopper or Blueberry Swirl, the essential recipe is steadfast. In a way, this plays up the nostalgia factor as longtime alumni are able to experience the same Babcock ice cream they ate in years past. Historic as the recipe is the source of milk residing right down the street from the Dairy Plant in the campus dairy barn. The university cows are unable to keep up with the growing demands of hungry UW students, so additional milk is shipped in from other local farms to help supplement the fresh milk extracted from UW’s healthy herd.
Additional ingredients for the standard babcock base include real cane sugar and a gelatin stabilizer, both rarities in the creamery business due to higher prices and decreased shelf stability. The quality of ingredients creates a cleaner taste and enhances the flavor and texture of the final product.
Once the base is mixed together, it gets warmed in a vat to 110 degrees, pasteurized at 185 degrees and then aged overnight in a cooled vat. The thickening cream is constantly moving to stimulate small ice crystal growth. All ice cream makers agree the key to the perfect creamy texture is in the small size of ice crystals. During the aging process, samples are taken to a on site quality control lab, a dream work place for ice cream lovers.
Babcock does not rely exclusively on their expertly trained palates, but also employ random consumers to blind-test flavors under development. Babcock trained testers are asked questions relating to mouth feel, ingredient balance and intricate flavor notes. However, for the random consumer tasters, the test is essentially a thumbs up or down method because when the recipe is perfect, few words are needed.
After the base is aged over night like a fine cheese, food scientists incorporate Babcock’s stellar flavors that Badgers know and love. The plant workers mix in flavors like vanilla, chocolate or caramel into the large vats of cooled constantly moving cream. Once the liquid flavors have been added, it’s time to freeze. The mix is pumped into a barrel surrounded by Freon, cooling it to 21 degrees as it spins. As the mix spins, ice crystals, air cells, fat globules and proteins combine together into a rich, creamy balance.
Once the base is complete, solid ingredients like bit of cookie dough or swirls of creamy peanut butter, known as inclusions, are incorporated, and the final project is hosed into barrels, gallons, or pints for final consumption.
The next time you dig into your dish of blue moon at the terrace, or polish off a pint cramming for finals, now you will know the work that goes into each magical bite.