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Saratoga Soft Serve Soiree

April 28, 2015

Saturday was a crisp and breezy spring day. It wasn’t exactly ideal conditions for visiting five of Saratoga County’s favorite seasonal soft serve stands, but at least it wasn’t raining.

Every few months I lead an intrepid group of eaters into the wilds of upstate New York to sample some kind of beloved foodstuff. The goal is twofold. One is to provide the participants with a much broader sense of the category and experience the range and nuances of a food that most consider to be a commodity. The other is to identify the best example of that food as a service to others.

In this case I’m confident we achieved both goals. However, this success is bittersweet.

When it comes to ice cream, I like it hard. But in this part of the world, spring is heralded in with the opening of seasonal ice cream stands, and people flock to their favorites in droves. Often one’s favorite is simply based on either geography or tradition, as there is a widespread belief that soft serve is soft serve. Anyone who has finished either this tour or the first Tour de Soft Serve knows that’s simply not true.

Eleven of us started out at DeVoe’s in Clifton Park. Scoresheets in hand, we were looking at the flavor profiles of vanilla and chocolate, the soft serve’s texture, the value, and the shop’s overall appeal. Some tasters also opted for a topping to see how it varied place to place.

Wisely, everyone went for a kiddie size.

DeVoe’s proved the wisdom of the kiddie size right off the bat with their monster cup weighing in at over six ounces. At $2.19 that was one of the top values of the day, and probably best split by two kids. The assertive vanilla flavor was divisive, with some liking it and others being put off by its artificial taste. Amanda described the chocolate as mild, tasting like a “powdered hot cocoa mix”. Toppings were generously applied and that scored this shop some points. But the soft serve’s marshmallow fluff texture had more detractors than fans.

DeVoe

JJ’s in Ballston Spa immediately proved that not all soft serve was alike. And not just because its kids cup weighed in at a much more moderate 3.5 ounces. The flavors and textures were remarkably different. The flavor front was so muted that blindfolded it might have been hard to differentiate between the vanilla and the chocolate. That said, a muted artificial vanilla flavor isn’t necessarily a bad thing and lets some of the milkiness shine through. Texturally, JJs had good density and decidedly less gumminess than DeVoe’s. Toppings got dinged for their stinginess and CS who was touring with chocolate-dipped cones noted an unwanted coconut flavor in JJs chocolate dip. At only $1.61 for the kids cup, it was the cheapest out of pocket, but with its reasonable size put it squarely in the middle of the pack on cost per ounce. On the whole, people prefered it to DeVoe’s but each had its fans.

jjs

Here, for the first time in Fussy Little Tour history, we took a little break. I had received a mid-tour email from long-time reader Chad. He suggested we check out the mini hot dog place just a couple blocks away from JJ’s. We were making great time, so we made the side trip to Kelly’s. It was a solid tip and gave us all the will to push on. It was also where we met up with Otis M. (aka Burnt My Fingers) as he joined us for the Saratoga Springs portion of the tour.

Humpty Dumpty was the first stop in Spa City, and despite the chilly weather there was a crowd when we arrived. Steve N. noted the “strong chocolate flavor” and that was a good thing echoed by other tasters as well. On the back of this strength, and on having the best chocolate dip of the day, CS rated Humpty Dumpty her favorite, citing its “fresher taste.” Fake Heath bar crumbles were spooned into the cup (for everyone? this is confusing), and ounce for ounce this was the most expensive spot on the tour, with a moderately sized three ounce kids cup costing $2 even. These considerations brought down the store’s topping and value scores.

Humpty

The Dairy Haus was our salvation. Up until this point the tasters had been pretty divided. But here everyone agreed the Dairy Haus had the best chocolate of the day. Caitlin wrote, “Finally! I had high hopes and this nice little stand with its Teutonic spelling of ‘Haus’ didn’t disappoint.” amanda_NY had a similar reaction for a different reason, “Finally, real Heath bar candy as a topping instead of ‘toffee bits.’” Jon in Albany noted the texture is so dense that you “have to pull the spoon out.” Ryan H. even gave it the best vanilla score for the day. One place the Dairy Haus fell down was in its chocolate dipped topping which CS described as “Horrible!” But even she acknowledged the chocolate soft serve’s “deeper cocoa flavor.”

IMG_0607

All of that, and Dairy Haus was the value winner of the day too. The kid’s cup busts out past the 7 ounce mark and will set you back a mere $2.14 all told.

The weather was cooling down, the wind was kicking up, and the sun was getting lower in the sky by the time we rolled up to Farmer’s Daughters’ Ice Cream. It was an incredible relief to discover this roadside stand has inside seating. Some people think that going last is a disadvantage since all the tasters are fatigued. But there was a lot of love for FD. In fact, Steve N. declared it to be his favorite of the bunch both on flavor and texture. To others it was similar to Dairy Haus, but just didn’t quite get up to the same levels. With disappointing toffee and a lower value score (second most expensive ounce per ounce of the tour), it came in a close second overall.

Farmers

When all the ice cream was done, most of us went to put something savory and wholesome in our bellies at 9 Miles East Farm for the post tour pizza party. But I’ll save the details of that for another time.

Perhaps one of the biggest findings from this tour is something Caitlin wrote down on the back of her scoresheet, “This I Believe: Soft serve is a vehicle for toppings. While not “bad” it doesn’t have the taste integrity for a stand alone [treat].”

I think she may be right.


 

Note: All pictures with toffee topping were taken by Matt M. and are used with permission. He was apparently so taken with the real Heath bar at Dairy Haus that he forgot to take that picture. So I subbed in the snapshot I took of my giant kiddie cup. 

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 28, 2015 12:24 pm

    If your soft serve is a vehicle for toppings, you need to find better soft serve. I pretty much never get toppings on mine, and I know that at least On the Farm and Martha’s are delicious without them.

  2. albanylandlord permalink
    April 28, 2015 10:37 pm

    Thanks to everyone who participated! I appreciate hearing your opinions and I hope to make the next one.

  3. Matt permalink
    May 2, 2015 7:08 pm

    9 Mile Pizza is pretty great. Between it, Harvest and Hearth, and the new place Gennaro’s (which you need to try!) there’s no excuse for eating bad pizza in Saratoga. Can All Over Albany include 9 Mile in the annual pizza tourney? With only 3 pies available at any given time do they qualify?

  4. mark permalink
    May 7, 2015 4:34 pm

    Really hate to bust anyones bubble….but most, if not all the soft serve ice cream u r eating is Crowleys or Dean foods(guptills), Byrne Dairy maybe Upstate custard choc… SO it really all depends how much air u mix with soft serve to make it firm and taste richer..So pretty much everyone buys the same soft serve it just depends how they run it in their machines..

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