Restaurant Reviews

Custard Gets a Southern Exposure

In the Midwest, diners line up outside frozen custard joints. This may seem strange to East Coast gourmets, who are used to thinking of hot-ticket eats in terms of, say, Emeril's, not Dairy Queen. This is likely because those of us who grew up along the Atlantic seaboard think of frozen custard only in terms of DQ, Carvel, or some supposedly low-fat or low-sugar frozen dessert equivalent that is similar to traditional frozen custard only in softness and swirliness.

Though frozen custard was actually invented in the East, in flapper-era Coney Island, the craze spread after soft-serve was featured at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair, and only in places such as Milwaukee (considered the Frozen Custard Capital of the World) can you still find swarms of stands selling the serious stuff.

After an extended custard-scarfing sojourn in our nation's interior, retired real estate magnate Kay Byrne thought Miami should have its chance with the sweet treat, and, with daughter Kay Brown, recently opened Granny Kay's Frozen Custard parlor across from Sunset Place. Having put in far too much time in the Midwest myself, I was not surprised that Granny Kay's was good; custard joints, as far as I'm concerned, are the only reason to visit Milwaukee (we will not speak about the beer, okay?). But the friends I dragged along were blown away. Why is it so rich? So smooth?

Here's why: Unlike super-premium American ice creams, heavy on heavy cream, frozen custard gets its body from egg yolks (1.4 percent legally, by weight). The reasoning behind this could be that, maybe, back in 1919, Coney Island was a pretty trendy place and it was stylish to adapt the egg-custard French vanilla formula; or maybe because the beach was temperature-hot, so summer vendors added eggs as an emulsifier to stop their ice cream from melting so fast. Whatever. The main difference today is the process. Regular commercial ice cream is made at about 22 to 24 degrees, but flash-frozen and served at a lip-numbing five to eight degrees; additionally, and crucially, air is beaten in during the freezing process, generating greater volume but more coarse ice crystals. Quality frozen custard is typically made fresh hourly (in machines, yeah, but so is the best dance music) and served at 18 to 26 degrees, hence the fine ice crystals and velvety softness. There's no air beaten in during the process, so it's more dense than typical American ice cream -- like gelato.

What was different from typical gelato in all soft custard flavors we tried at Granny Kay's was intensity. Of six flavors (vanilla, chocolate, very holiday pie-ish pumpkin, a nicely sweet/tart-balanced berry, rum raisin, and coffee), all were good except rum raisin. And is rum raisin ever good? Otherwise, custards were all admirably rich, smooth, and creamy, and -- nice surprise -- not overwhelmingly sweet, though all were quite mild in taste. Coffee, for instance, was definitely American, not Cuban.

Custard is served in three sizes ($2.75, $3.50, $4.25), and with any of about a dozen and a half toppings -- such as the weird Reese's Pieces version we tried -- beaten in, as a Concrete Flip. Frankly I never understood the charm of concretes, and it escaped me at Granny's, too. Concretes are supposed to be the ultimate thick shake -- but they're way too thick to drink; they're served upside down, for chrissake. But a mom friend clued me in: Kids loooooove to flip. Plus it's twenty minutes of entertainment for $3.95.

Childless diners seeking sin instead of relief might prefer the turtle sundae ($4.95) -- any flavor (get vanilla) topped with hot caramel, hot fudge, pecans, whipped cream, and a cherry. And there's even sugar-free, low-fat frozen dessert for ... those who must. Please do write and tell me about it.

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Pamela Robin Brandt

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