What does Charleston taste like? According to ice cream virtuoso Jeni Britton Bauer, who's selected Charleston as the location of her fifth scoop shop outside of Ohio, the town smacks of sweet cream, salted peanuts and blackstrap molasses.
"I don't say this very often, but it's one of my favorite flavors we've ever made," Bauer says of the flavor designed specifically for her forthcoming Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams store, situated alongside Stars Restaurant on upper King Street.
"It sort of has that black licorice quality, cooled and mellowed by the sweet cream," she continues. "It's one of those flavors people are going to love and people are going to hate. I love that."
(In this writer's opinion, Bauer may well have nailed the city's peculiar identity with her themed concoction: The wholesome-tasting cream supplies a refined veneer, but a few spoon digs reveal brashly salted whole peanuts and thick veins of bawdy molasses, not too many steps removed from Navy-style rum.)
The Charleston ice cream will be one of seven to 10 signature flavors always on offer at the store, scheduled to open in early May. Another six to 10 flavors will rotate in and out of the cooler. Current Jeni's flavors include banana French toast, goat cheese with red cherries, whiskey pecan and wildberry lavender. Pints sell for $12; cones are typically priced around $5, although Bauer stresses that customers can sample their way through available flavors before laying out their money.
"When you come into our store, it's not just in and out with your ice cream cone," Bauer says. "It's hopefully a longer experience. I think of our stores almost like showrooms."
According to Bauer, "Each of our stores is a little different, and reflects its neighborhood." While she declined to give specific details of the Charleston store's interior, she alluded to a wooden mosaic, and promised, "It's going to be beautiful."
Bauer got her start in the ice cream trade in 1996, dropping out of Ohio State University to open Scream Ice Cream in Columbus, Ohio, a tiny operation that relied on a two-gallon machine to make the ice cream and Bauer to work the counter. Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams followed in 2002, setting off a press frenzy that intensified with the chain's entry into new markets, including Nashville, Chicago and Atlanta.
Historically, the South hasn't been a major ice cream hub, most likely because dairy cows don't abide hot weather and because it was hard to keep summertime treats frozen in the era before modern refrigeration. The region's cool relationship with ice cream was a revelation to Bauer, who says, "I guess I didn't realize not everyone came from places with hundreds of ice cream shops. That's what we do for fun (in the Midwest.)"
But she adds that she hasn't had any trouble gaining acceptance in the Southeast: "We've been so well-received," she says. "I love the South. It has a very unique personality."
In 2011, Bauer released "Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home," in which she divulged a few home production secrets lapped up by her fans (skip the egg yolks; add cream cheese instead.) The book went on to win a James Beard Foundation award.
"Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream Desserts," a follow-up cookbook blurbed by Charleston's Sean Brock - "this book takes the ice cream experience to the next level" - is scheduled for publication on May 20. The book focuses on the interplay of ice cream and pastry: Bauer describes it as a "mix-and-match" book, pointing out that the characteristics of an apple pie change when it's topped with cinnamon ice cream instead of vanilla.
The book also includes a recipe for vegan ice cream, which Bauer says has fooled every taster who's tried it.
"I can't figure out how to do it from scratch in our bigger kitchens yet," Bauer says. "We don't have scientists with powders. But we're going to figure it out someday."
Stay tuned to Bauer's progress at 499 King St.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.