This summer, soft serve is having a moment.
Most of us have been served it, often in the UK (or Australian) form of Mr Whippy, from a van.
However, the product originated in the US, when an automatic ice-cream machine, which is considered the first soft serve device, was patented by Charles Taylor of Buffalo, New York, in 1926. Since then, variations have been created by now-familiar companies including Dairy Queen and Mister Softee.
This foodstuff is different from its ice-cream sister not only because it’s produced by a specific machine, but because it’s lighter and a bit less cold, with a lower fat content and an aerated texture. It also looks different, with its neat helter-skelter swirl and flourish-like peak. There are no scoops involved.
We’re glad that it remains an apolitical delight, as claims that Margaret Thatcher, who was a food research scientist for Lyons in the Forties, helped create a soft serve recipe that would work with US machines, seem tenuous.
Although it’s often seen as an inferior foodstuff, in London, Michelin-starred restaurants including Hide, serve it as pudding. We imagine that it’s perfect for those who want something refreshing after, say, a seven course tasting menu.
This place’s speciality is pasta, so purists might prefer them to serve traditional Italian gelato, but a more irreverent soft serve seems to go down even easier after carbs.
"I chose it at Tipo mainly because of nostalgia, as who doesn’t love Mr Whippy? I wanted Tipo to have a sense of that and also have a little fun,” says head chef, Ralston. “Our machine gives two flavours at the same time. From a chef point of view it’s instant ice cream at exactly the right texture every time, no ice crystals. I remember as kids, my dad would buy us the biggest cones and soft serve ice creams from the ‘icey’ - the ice cream van that would drive about the housing estates - and often half way through it would end up in an ice cream fight, which is a nice memory for me“.
At South-East-Asian-inspired restaurant, Ka Pao, which has an original three-year-old branch in Glasgow and a newer venue at St James Quarter in Edinburgh, soft serve has been on their menu since the start.
They offer a coconut and pandan version, as well as mango and calamansi.
Their executive chef, Sandy Browning, also feels sentimental about the treat.
“I think a big part of the popularity comes from the nostalgia of getting soft serve when you were a child. Everyone turns into a big kid when they have one now,” he says. “For us, having a machine enables us to get desserts out nice and fast, but also put interesting flavours into the mix. We want people to finish their meal happy, and this is always a great way to do it”.
The last time there was a trend like this was probably back when fro-yo, or frozen yoghurt, came on the scene. That fashion seemed to melt away relatively quickly, but we imagine that soft serve will stick around longer, since it gives us such Proustian feelings.
It’s not only being offered on restaurant menus, as there has been a host of specialist shops springing up in the central belt over the last couple of years, including Glasgow’s Minted, which opened on Byres Road in 2020. They offer gelato as well, but, as owner Tom Glancey says, “Our soft serve customers are very loyal and its popularity has been growing in recent years, with a lot of places making their own mix and adding ingredients to make it more artisan”.
At Minted, they offer varieties including vegan watermelon, chocolate sea salt and white chocolate raspberry.
Another business, SoftCore, opened earlier this year at the new Edinburgh Street Food venue. They serve something rather more elevated than a traditional 99 thanks in part to creative sauces and toppings, including coulis, honeycomb, meringue and even candy floss. However, it’s not just about the trimmings, as working out how to make their base involved a steep learning curve.
“While people have grown to appreciate artisanal gelato or ice cream, soft serve still brings about McFlurry associations. Not on our watch,” says their marketing and PR manager, Daniela Wolniak. “The funny thing is - although the chef, Maciek, was really not laughing - we quickly realised how naive we were about how simple it is. While there are many suppliers who sell ready-made bases and flavourings, there was pretty much no information on how to tackle making those yourself. While sharing similar ingredients to traditional ice cream and gelato, soft serve requires a lower fat content, which greatly impacts its flavour. Even the slightest deviation from the precise butterfat ratio can result in texture issues or undesired buttery bits”.
After some tweaking, they perfected their offering.
So far and very predictably, the customers’ favourite flavour has been vanilla, though they have made some magical-sounding varieties for the more adventurous.
“Maciek has also created a delicious (and vegan) mango and passion fruit flavour as well as the team’s favourite miso and caramel - each made with real ingredients and no artificial flavourings,” says Wolniak. “The fourth flavour changes from time to time. It’s currently matcha and white chocolate”.