Cold Fusion

How Toscanini's flavor concoctions take off

In this airy room behind the counter of Toscanini’s Ice Cream shop in Central Square, Amy Chilton sprinkles cocoa over a large clear bin filled with ladyfingers. Nick Branigan, a reedy redhead with a slight beard and geek-chic glasses, stands behind her, arms crossed against his chest.

“She’s prepping Tiramisu right now,” Branigan explains. “One of our more popular flavors.”

Branigan is one of Toscanini’s three chief ice cream makers. He’s used to watching ladyfingers disintegrate into ice cream-coated lumps and crushed berries smooth into sorbets on a twice- or thrice-daily basis. If you frequent Tosc’s (as it’s known to employees), chances are you’ve eaten his creations. His concoctions are sold over the counter, shipped out to large-scale vendors and rushed by refrigerated van to Tosc’s Harvard locale.

I’m here today to watch the birth of a flavor. Tosc’s encourages its employees to mix up new tastes, and originals often end up as popular as the basics. One staple, “Burnt Caramel,” was the result of a lucky cooking accident. Branigan gestures a freckled hand toward a jar labeled “Hot Pepper Paste.” Inspired by the suggestion of a Korean coworker, he’s mixed up today’s trial run of “Spicy Red Bean.”

He leads me to the machines, which aren’t exactly the quaint little ice cream cranks I’d envisioned. Tosc’s uses two “White Mountains” and one “Emery Thompson.” The White Mountains are large green metal barrels, each holding a smaller eight-quart tub in a mixture of ice and salt. The ice cream mix is poured into the tub and rotated for half an hour; the results are soft-serve. Mix-ins are added and the resulting mess is flash-frozen overnight to achieve standard texture.

Branigan reaches his black-gloved hands toward the filled tub of one White Mountain, trying to center it in the ice-salt mixture. Ice cream-making, he says, boils down to two things: measurement and heavy lifting. This part is more on the side of hard labor. He finally gets the tub centered, places the machine’s red lever over its top, and flips a switch. The motor rumbles to life and the tub begins to rotate.

Leaving the experiment to solidify, we head to the walk-in refrigerator. Plastic buckets labeled “egg whites,” “basil,” “crème anglais,” “chocolate“ and “fruit puree” line the walls. Branigan swings a full bucket of liquid chocolate off a shelf and swoops back out to the room.

“Pure semi-sweet chocolate whisked over the double burner with 14 percent vanilla extract,” he says with obvious pride. I’m handed a white plastic tasting spoon and instructed to take a scoop. It’s reminiscent of a chilled cup of Burdick’s cocoa, without the stomach-sinking consistency.

Branigan hauls the bucket to the Emery Thompson. A shiny, box-shaped machine, it holds 26 quarts and is mainly used to whip up sorbets and Tosc’s more popular flavors. He lifts a hatch and scrapes in ribbons of chocolate. Next, a bag labeled “Ice Cream Mix: 14% butterfat” disappears into the hole. Branigan flips the switch and turns to his blue-eyed coworker.

She’s covered the ladyfingers and has started to mix a batch of lime sorbet. For now Chilton’s just a “prepper,” an ice cream maker in training. She worked at scooping, then trained for a while with the cake maker. (“The counter kids used to make the cakes,” she says. “They were really messy, and never sold.”) From there she moved to ice cream but is not allowed to touch a machine until she’s promoted.

Branigan returns to his experiment. He scrapes the pale orange-red contents of the tub into a plastic bucket and takes a taste. Again, I’m handed a spoon.

The flavor slides down smooth. Then a wicked kick of spice sets in, and I’m left gasping for air. The overall result tastes oddly like spiced Cheese Whiz.

I ask them if, with all this behind-the-scenes knowledge, they can still stand to eat their results.

“I get asked that all the time,” Branigan says.

“Yeah. And I still love ice cream,” Chilton adds, her cropped brown hair swinging as she nods.

“There’s something so satisfying about eating the fruits of your labor,” Branigan says, paternally eyeing his creation.

I’ll stick with the Belgian Chocolate.

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