The Chicago-inspired X-factor (think lemons) in a new ice cream flavor

World looking bleak? There’s always ice cream, in general, and Graeter’s Lemon Meringue Pie ice cream in particular.

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Some varieties of Cincinnati-based Graeter's ice cream.

Graeter’s Ice Cream always carries the old standbys of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry but mixes in lots of new flavors to keep people coming back. One of their latest efforts, Lemon Meringue Pie, draws inspiration from an old Chicago favorite.

Provided/Graeter’s

One crisis after another — climate change and nationalism, crime and, oh yeah, don’t forget, Thursday’s presidential debate. “From wrong to wrong, the exasperated spirit proceeds,” as T.S. Eliot put it.

Unless restored by ... well, it’s summer; let’s talk about ice cream.

The world won’t deteriorate faster because we pause to consider cool creamy goodness.

Opinion bug

Opinion

In my defense, I seldom write about ice cream. There was a 2009 column ripping the lid off the spumoni question — it isn’t Italian — and then, way back in 1996, when I escaped parenting a newborn long enough to inhale a jumbo atomic hot fudge sundae at Margie’s Candies.

I wouldn’t write now, but Graeter’s Ice Cream, a venerable Ohio company founded in 1870, converted an old Caribou Coffee in downtown Northbrook into its first Illinois ice cream parlor in 2015. They offer a wide array of flavors, my previous favorite being black raspberry chocolate chip — think inch-long shards of Dove-quality dark chocolate.

Graeter’s offers tasting spoonfuls. As much as I hate to hold up the line with gustatory experiments, it seems a failure of imagination not to sample a new flavor before ordering black raspberry chocolate chip. In the spring, Lemon Meringue Pie was featured. I like lemons. And I like pie. One taste. Boom. Bits of crust. Bits of lemon candy. My mind rearranged itself. I ordered a bowl.

That was it. Black raspberry chocolate chip was forgotten. For the first time in my life, I actually went to an ice cream parlor seeking out a specific flavor. A few days later I returned for another bowl. And bought two pints so I’d have it around. Two.

Lemon Meringue Pie Ice Cream — how’d they do that?

“It was a team approach,” said Bob Graeter, chief of quality assurance and part of the fourth generation to run the company. “We’re always working from a portfolio of 15 or 20 concepts. Seeing what’s trending, what’s out there. Lemon is an on-trend flavor. We’re seeing a lot of citrus flavors in ice cream right now. We’ve been toying with lemon-flavored ice cream, along with the idea of reinterpreting bakery items. We have a baking business in Cincinnati.”

Bob Graeter, chief of quality assurance at the Ohio-based company, whose small batch ice cream is available around the Chicago area, and at parlors in Northbrook and Winnetka.

Bob Graeter, chief of quality assurance at the Ohio-based company, whose small batch ice cream is available around the Chicago area, and at parlors in Northbrook and Winnetka.

Provided/Courtesy of Graeter’s

So how do you go about concocting a new flavor?

“We create the flavor ourselves, using lemon oil and lemon juice,” he said. “Then we found a marshmallow flavor base in addition to lemon. There are some pie crust pieces in it, and then a candy piece.”

They were inspired by a Chicago classic produced by the Ferrara Candy Co.

“I’m a baby boomer,” said Graeter. “We remembered their Lemonheads. This piece isn’t made by them, it’s made for ice cream, like a little Lemonhead.”

Sprinkling stuff into ice cream is still the rage.

“We’ve been around a long time, over 150 years,” he said. “Historically, flavors were simply: strawberry, chocolate, vanilla, peach. We still do those flavors. But over the past 10 years, people want stuff in their ice cream. We’ve always had chocolate chips.”

And what chips. It isn’t as if they mix in bags of generic cookie morsels.

“We buy high-grade chocolate, melt that down, add a bit of oil to lower the melting point, get a batch in the freezer, pour in liquid chocolate,” explained Graeter, of their French pot process. “It hardens and sets. We break that up. It creates unique distributions of small and large chips of varied shapes. It’s like a treasure hunt when looking for chips in our ice cream.”

Business in Chicago good?

“We do pretty well,” he said. “We opened a couple stores.” Besides Northbrook, there’s another parlor in Winnetka, and pints in supermarket chains. “Chicago is a far piece away from Cincinnati. The distribution system can be difficult; the cost of operating a business in Chicago is higher. The general labor costs are higher.”

The Graeter's mothership in Cincinnati. Lou Graeter (front) checks an order as Barry Hanks (left) packs another, and Bill Lang (rear left) and John Prows box and label outgoing ice cream orders at Graeter's Ice Cream in Cincinnati, Monday, June 3, 2002.

The Graeter’s mothership in Cincinnati in 2002, the year the company saw a spike in sales after they were praised by Oprah Winfrey on her show. Here, Lou Graeter (front) checks an order as Barry Hanks (left) packs another, and Bill Lang (rear left) and John Prows box and label outgoing ice cream orders.

Cincinnati Enquirer/Distributed by the Associated Press

His daughter Annie works in the retail arm of the business, representing the fifth generation of the family. How’s life in the ice cream trade?

“It’s tough,” he said. “We’re a nights-and-weekends business. Friday, Saturday, Sunday in those places are 60% of sales. Retail is our biggest team.”

Not that Bob Graeter is complaining.

“I’m pleased,” he said. “Ice cream is one of those taste memories you get as a child...”

My childhood taste memories are of Sealtest vanilla cups, eaten with a flat wooden spoon, which might be why I fell so hard for Graeter’s.

“What you like, your core, is what you stick with,” Graeter said. “People tend to come back. New flavors are a way to engage the customer, to maintain the relationship and attract attention.”

I’d say it’s working.

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