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March 4, 2010

Blog written by Jean of the Jean and Michael team:

My first memory of frozen custard was when I was 4 years old.  I was in our 1955 green Chevrolet driving through the streets of Milwaukee with my family on a hot summer evening.  These were the days long before seat belts and car seats were mandatory and I was standing (yes, standing) in the back, straddling the hump that was a prominent car feature in 1955, my arms draped over the front seat. My mother was cuddling my baby brother in the front seat. My older sister and brother sat on either side of me, enjoying the open windows. My dad was taking us for a drive to escape the stifling heat. After about 20 minutes, my dad looked at my mom and said, “How about a stop at F-I-E-S-T-A?” spelling the word so we kids wouldn’t be able to understand. My mom replied, “Sure. That sounds like a great idea.” I immediately yelled out “Hurray! We’re going to Fiesta!” My parents looked at each other. “I didn’t know she could spell,” my dad exclaimed.  “Neither did I,” my mom mused. But I could spell and I knew that we were on our way to a frozen custard stand located somewhere on Highway 100 in Milwaukee.

And so it was when I was growing up. Frozen custard was a standard treat for good behavior or good grades. We lived close to Paul Gilles Frozen Custard on Bluemound Road in Milwaukee and we routinely stopped there on our way home from school to have a dish of ‘half and half’ frozen custard—one scoop of chocolate, one scoop of vanilla. On special occasions we would indulge in Gilles’ famous Lala Palooza complete with bananas, pineapples, marshmallows, strawberries, pecans, and three cherries. High school brought more frequent visits to the custard stand where we would celebrate football and basketball victories or soothe our sorrows in our teams’ defeats.

It was with that same 4-year-old’s enthusiasm that I went to the new Culver’s headquarters in Prairie du Sac to learn how the delicious frozen concoction was made. Michael and I drove north on Highway 12 one frosty morning to meet with Craig Culver, co-founder of Culver’s, and Jim Doak and Doug Nelson from the culinary team, the creative minds behind the famous “flavor of the day” frozen custard at Culver’s. As we approached Prairie du Sac, we noticed water vapors rising off the Wisconsin River. The water was warmer than the surrounding air and was evaporating which subsequently caused the trees lining the riverbank to be coated in ice. They looked as if they had been frosted with the very custard we were about to enjoy.

Culver met us in the lobby of the new 50,000-square-foot headquarters and took us to the test kitchen. Waiting for us were Doak, executive chef and director of research and menu development, and Nelson of the Culver Culinary Team, as well as several other employees. Doak told us that they were going to make two flavors not currently available—Cabernet Custard and Brandy Butter Pecan with Honey-Roasted Pecans.

While they prepared the custard mix, Culver showed us the custard machine and explained how it worked—with slow blade rotation that limits the amount of air infused into the custard. As a matter of fact, Culver explained, the ”overrun” of Culver’s frozen custard is about 20% compared to ice cream which is between 100% to 120% overrun. Overrun, he continued, is the amount of product that results from the mixture. For example, for every gallon of ICE CREAM mixture, two gallons (or so) of ice cream will be produced. For every gallon of CULVER’S FROZEN CUSTARD mixture, a gallon plus about a cup and a half of frozen custard will be produced. In essence, ice cream is about 50% to 60% air where Culver’s frozen custard is about 10% air. It is this lack of air, that makes custard so dense or, as Culver says, “thick enough you have to bite through it.”

 Jim Doak and Doug Nelson mixing the custard

Jim Doak and Doug Nelson mixing the custard

We watched Doak and Nelson prepare the mix, adding the cabernet flavoring to one and brandy butter pecan to the other. The cabernet flavor was a beautiful bright pink, the brandy butter pecan a light taupe. They poured the mixture into the custard machines and we waited for a few minutes as the machines churned the liquid. Soon bright pink custard came sliding out from one machine. Doak inserted a spoon, rotated it a few times, and pulled out a perfect pink spoon and handed it to me. I placed it in my mouth and the creamy rich custard began to melt. There was a hint of cabernet flavor, but not enough to please the palette. Everyone agreed that it needed a little more work.

Then the brandy butter pecan emerged. Doak and Nelson repeated the spoon rotation and began passing around the spoons. This time the flavor was vibrant. The brandy and butter pecan perfectly blended. The honey-roasted pecans offered a delicious crunch to the creamy, dense custard. Everyone sampled, and agreed it was delicious. Nelson then added some caramel to the frozen custard and gave a dish to Michael and I. Mmmmmmm…heavenly.

Doak and Nelson continued to work their magic. Their next creation was a brandy butter pecan with honey roasted pecans and caramel concrete mixer. We sampled it. Thought we’d died and gone to heaven. And although I do enjoy a spoonful of custard in the morning, I decided that it was too early to be this decadent.  Doak explained however, that frozen custard can be a part of a healthy lifestyle—a three-ounce serving has about 200 calories. At that point I remembered the quote “a frozen custard stand is where God gets His ice cream” and realized that surely, when God wants frozen custard, He goes to Culver’s.

Craig Culver and Doug Nelson

As Doak and Nelson continued their custard creations, Culver explained how ice crystals form in frozen custard or ice cream when stored in a freezer. Ice crystals are the result of temperature variations in a freezer because of thermostat control and the opening of the freezer door. Ice cream and custard are made up mostly of water and as the temperature in a freezer rises, the product softens and separates. It then refreezes causing the ice crystals. Each occurrence of temperature change will grow the crystals and the process continues to add more and more ice crystals. He also told us how all the milk/cream that is used in all the 400-plus Culver’s nationwide comes from Wisconsin dairies.

At some point during the demonstration, the conversation drifted from frozen custard to Culver’s other signature menu item—ButterBurgers. I mentioned that I had never eaten a ButterBurger (I don’t eat much meat, and even less beef). The room suddenly became silent and all eyes were watching me in disbelief. I explained the lack of meat in my diet, and how I had never been known to order a hamburger—anywhere. Culver smiled “Go to Culver’s and order a double ButterBurger. Plain,” he said. “All of our beef is fresh, never frozen. You have to try it plain to taste how good it is.” I told him I’d certainly give it a try.

Our custard making experience ended much too soon. But then Culver treated us to a tour of his new corporate headquarters. The building is beautiful, located on the Wisconsin River about a mile or so from their previous location. At one point we walked by the elevator. “I never thought I’d own a building with an elevator in it,” he said. We didn’t take the elevator, though. We took the stairs. Down to the lower level where there is a gym for employees to use, upstairs to employee cubicles, executive offices and boardroom. He explained that Culver’s Franchising System Incorporated employed about 90 people —70 of which worked in this building. We left with 2 quarts of brandy butter pecan with honey-roasted pecans and delicious memories.

A dish of the most delicious brandy butter pecan with honey roasted pecans...yum!

On my birthday Michael asked me what I wanted to do for my ‘special day.’ I told him that I’d like to give the ButterBurger a try and perhaps we could celebrate by going to “our Culver’s”. He agreed. I told him that we could share a ‘double ButterBurger plain’ because I wasn’t sure if I would like eating something that had formerly walked on four legs and had a face. We decided to order the basket, so we would have french fries to round out the meal. Michael offered me the first bite. “Here goes” I said, closed my eyes, opened my mouth and bit into the tender, juicy, hot burger. The bun was lightly toasted and melted in my mouth. “Unbelievably delicious!” I said thoughtfully. “I told you so,” he chuckled. We ate the burger in record time and noticed we still had some french fries left. “Should we order another one?” I asked him. “It’s your birthday” Michael said—“we can do anything you want.” I’m happy to report that the second one was as delicious as the first.

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