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IN THE NEWS

I scream, you scream, we all scream for CUSTARD
‘Experts' taste Akron area's favorites to find who's the best

By Jane Snow, Beacon Journal food writer

I scream, you scream, we all scream for CUSTARD!

One by one, the simple pleasures of summer are dying like moths in a bug zapper. Drive-in movies are fading to black. Fireflies are disappearing. Even the neighbors' fights are muffled now by soundproof walls and air conditioning.

Thank goodness for frozen custard. Through the years, it has resisted fad and the nutrition police to remain one of the Akron area's enduring symbols of excellence. It's awesome stuff.

Our custard is so good, in fact, that it has spawned miniature family dynasties across the region. On warm nights, the faithful gather as they have for decades at the neon-lighted custard shrines of Akron, Barberton, Franklin Township and Kent.

Rivalries are intense among custard partisans. Is Stoddard's better than Strickland's? Does Pav's Creamery outshine Durbin Magic Freeze? Does a newcomer such as Rosati's stand a chance?

To settle the issue, we convened a panel of coneheads for the first Beacon Journal Custard Challenge. Six self-proclaimed experts sampled 14 frozen custards in a blind taste test and chose a winner.

Their verdict: Strickland's is the richest, creamiest frozen custard around.

The 66-year-old Akron favorite licked the competition, but not by much. In fact, the score of second-place Rosati's was so close that statisticians would probably declare the contest a draw.
 
Strickland's Frozen Custard averaged 84.8 out of a possible 100 points, while Rosati's Frozen Custard earned 84.6 points.

Both frozen custards were rich, dense and incredibly creamy.

"I love this one. I could let a gallon melt in my mouth," taster Jenny Kuenzi of Kent commented after sampling Strickland's.

Strickland's has two locations -- the original stand on Triplett Boulevard near the Rubber Bowl and a new store in a strip mall on Medina Road in the Montrose area of Bath Township.

Rosati's has been in business just one year in the former Dorothy's custard stand on Aurora Road in Northfield Center.

"Perfect, perfect -- stunning" is how taster Tammy Jo Fuller of Akron described a sample of Rosati's dense, ivory-colored custard.

Fuller, Kuenzi and their fellow panelists tasted the frozen custards blind -- that is, the ice creams were not identified. Samples of the 14 custards were purchased the day before the test and transported on dry ice to the testing site, where they remained in a freezer until about 10 minutes before judging.

For judging, the ice creams were scooped onto plain white paper plates and labeled with random, three-digit numbers. The six judges awarded points in four categories -- appearance, flavor, texture and mouth feel, and general acceptability. The scores of all of the judges for each ice cream were added together and divided by six to determine the final score.

The judges were surprised by their choices. Kuenzi, a longtime fan of Stoddard's Frozen Custards in Kent, chose Rosati's as her favorite. Ed Schneider of Akron, a Strickland's partisan, gave his highest score to Kenmore Freeze.

The modest little Kenmore Freeze, in business since 1959, came in third in the contest, followed by Stoddard's at fourth and Bidinger's in Wadsworth at fifth. Rounding out the top 10, in order, were the Village Creamery in Hartville, Molly's in Norton, Pinky's Ice Cream & Yogurt in Akron, Pav's Creamery and Cherry Street Creamery in Canal Fulton.

The other custards in the taste-test were Durbin Magic Freeze of Barberton, 11th; Welch's Dairy Cream of Norton, 12th; and Country Corner of Clinton, 13th.

The lone supermarket frozen custard didn't fool the testers. Pierre's Authentic Frozen Custard came in 14th.

"It's good but it tastes like store-bought boxed ice cream," noted taster Scott Krebs of Tallmadge.

Every area custard stand that we could find was included in the contest, although we surely missed a few. The entrants were gleaned from the telephone books, Internet sites and nominations from readers.

Two custards stands originally in the running were dropped at the last minute. Cleo's in Canton was closed because of road construction, and the custard machine at Price's in Seville was out of order both times we visited.

None of the custards in the competition was a loser. All of them -- even Pierre's -- have special qualities that separate them from regular soft-serve ice cream at chain outlets.

But what makes a custard a champion among champions? Well, it's not necessarily the richness of the mix. In fact, very few of the "custards" in the taste-test are actually frozen custards. Most are ice creams.

According to federal regulations, to be called a "frozen custard," the product must contain eggs -- specifically, at least 1.4 percent egg yolk solids by weight. Ice cream must contain at least 10 percent milk-fat solids, but it need not contain eggs.

Strickland's "custard" contains no eggs. Neither does Pav's, Durbin's or Bidinger's, according to workers at those stands.

At most of the stands, the product is called "soft-serve'' or "kustard."  Strickland's product legally may be called "custard'' because the eggs were removed before the federal regulation took effect. The eggs were dropped from the mix during World War II, when eggs were rationed, said Scott Margroff, who owns the business with his wife, Alicia, and sister, Lori.

Eggs have little to do with the quality of frozen custard, though, Margroff said. What makes a custard great is the quality of the flavoring, how much air is whipped into the mix during freezing and serving, and the texture of the finished product, he said.

The best custard contains natural flavorings, has very little air (which is why it melts so quickly) and is made in a machine that gently churns the ice cream rather than whips it. It is dipped by hand, not swirled (and aerated) into a cone from a machine.

Strickland's still uses the original machines hand-tooled for the business in 1936. The machines produce ice cream with very small crystals.

"The smaller the crystals, the smoother the texture in your mouth,'' Margroff said.

Strickland's has been in Margroff's family since the beginning. The original owners, Bill and Florence Strickland, sold to Strickland's sister, Zella Harkins, in 1965. Margroff and his sister, Lori, are Harkins' grandchildren.

Like Strickland's, many of the custard stands are local landmarks. Michelle Miller's parents bought Pav's in 1978 and Miller, who runs the stand now, has traced its origins back to 1952.

Stoddard's has been owned by Lisa Kaye's family since 1967, but the custard stand has been around a lot longer, Kaye said. Bidinger's, the popular Wadsworth stand, has been owned by the same family for 25 years.

Although many of the custard-stand owners buy their mix from the same dairy, the frozen custards -- even plain vanilla -- are surprisingly varied. "You could tell the difference," marveled contest judge Krebs.

The vanilla custards differed in texture, flavor, sweetness and even color. Each variation, even the ones that didn't win, has its loyal fans.

"One of the nice things about ice cream stores is they're mom-and-pop operations, basically,'' said Susan Welch, owner with husband, Don, of Welch's Dairy Cream in Norton. "They give a person an opportunity to be unique.''

And they give the rest of us an old-fashioned dose of summer.

Six Challenge judges get their best licks in

The six judges of the Akron Beacon Journal Custard Challenge were chosen from a group of 54 custard lovers who applied in response to an item in the Beacon Journal. The panelists were:

  • Ed Schneider, 64, of Akron. He is a domestic relations magistrate for Summit County Common Pleas Court. In his application, Schneider wrote, "Each and every day, I get to judge who will get the kids, who will get the '95 Ford or who will pay the next month's mortgage.... What I would really like to judge is who has the best chocolate, the best vanilla or the best maple nut."
  • Jenny Kuenzi, 54, of Kent. She is a Stow middle school teacher who loves custard so much that her students give her gift certificates to custard stands.
  • Tammy Jo Fuller, 37, of Akron. Fuller, a civil engineer, submitted a full resume outlining her custard experience and "education" (She once listened to a program about frozen custard on National Public Radio).
  • Scott Krebs, 53, of Tallmadge. A maintenance worker for the U.S. Postal Service, Krebs can tell the butterfat content of a frozen custard "with one taste bud tied behind his back," according to
    his application.
  • Debbie Rhinehart, 47, of Franklin Township. She works as an office manager by day and haunts the nearby Pav's Creamery by night.
  • Val Orel, 37, of Akron, who has visited Strickland's 61 times so far this summer. She is office manager at Akron Bible Church.

Jane Snow is the Beacon Journal's food writer. She can be reached at jsnow@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3571.

(Posted on Wed, Aug. 21, 2002)

 



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