After the Great Cupcake Flood of 2008 and the Cake Ball Frenzy of 2010, the baked goods wave seems to have slightly receded in Texas.There's only so many times you can hear "red velvet cake" before you want to stab someone with a spork. However, among the many niche food industries that have come back in vogue recently, ice cream still hasn't reached its full tidal potential. Where are the "new" Ben & Jerrys, hmm?
Local musician Aaron Barker sort of fits the description: Glasses, tattoos, had a corporate job and got laid off. Watched a three-hour documentary about the history of ice cream and had a revelation during a 100-degree Texas summer.
"There was this 20-minute bit in the documentary about ice cream college," Barker explains as we sit at Cafe Brazil in Deep Ellum. "And I thought, 'Let's do it. Let's go to ice cream college.'"
So he enrolled in an eight-day intensive short course at the 120-year-old Penn State Creamery at State College, which includes classes on the science, physics and formulas of ice cream. "They call them formulas, not recipes," he adds. He got a tattoo while there, a colorful cone on his shin that says "Eat Me," though he didn't actually get it at school. Sadly, there is no hazing in ice cream college.
"I learned cow to cone," he says. "We went on a tour of a dairy farm, learned how to mix different vanillas. We had a lab where we were given 15 different vanilla ice cream samples, and some were deliberately bad. And you had to tell them why it was bad. Fifteen bad vanillas in a row, that's rough."
So maybe that's a bit like hazing, but he also learned how certain companies stretch the definition of what should legally be in ice cream, and how to get around that.
"All my stuff is handmade. I go to the farmer's market here [in Deep Ellum] and buy my ingredients. And you can taste the difference."
What exactly makes a good ice cream?
"First of all, you need a good imagination," Barker explains. "One of my most popular flavors is the Fat Elvis -- and I'm not the first do do it, I'll admit -- but it's a peanut butter and banana base with a honey swirl and candied bacon. I make mine in a small 6-quart bucket, pint it up, and put it in the freezer."
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Not everything works, and Barker is still in a testing phase. His Red Hot ice cream is one he tried and failed at the first time, due to a high sugar content, but he's since fixed it. As his ice cream is called Carnival Barker, don't expect any artisan wankery. "I'm not going to do beet and goat cheese ice cream," Barker says. "One of my big hits was Nutella and vodka. Sailor Jerry rum raisin. Big Red soda. I'm not an artisan maker. I'm just a guy with a lot of tattoos who likes seeing people smile. Kids and old people, especially, they love it more than anything."
Barker and his girlfriend are always on "R&D," research and development, and he's in talks about getting pints of Carnival Barker into restaurants and coffee shops, possibly even Whole Foods. He has a certified kitchen in Deep Ellum where he can create, and sold out 14 pints at Flea Harvey's a few weekends ago. Barker worked his way through UNT in kitchens, so his appreciation of the culinary arts is apparent, as is his hometown pride.
"All my stuff says 'Handmade in Deep Ellum, Texas,'" he says. "I want to keep it as local as possible. I go to Herman's stall at the farmers market. I like to know the people I'm buying from, after being kind of burned by the corporate world. I want to keep the pretension out."
UPDATE: This event was canceled. You should still find some of his ice cream, though. Sample Barker's ice cream at Lightbulb Oven's last supper, Saturday, February 25, at Queen City Hall. Rev. KM Williams and Immigrant Punk perform.