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Floating away

(article, Adam Ried)

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I’m afraid I’m only half joking when I refer to my book, Thoroughly Modern Milkshakes, as “the world’s preeminent treatise on the critical topic of milkshakes.” As a renowned milkshake scholar, it wasn’t until recently that I considered the details of two other venerable soda-fountain classics: ice-cream sodas and floats. I shouldn’t have waited so long.
Having spent a couple of years now proselytizing for milkshakes as an easy summertime treat — no cooking, all you have to do is blend — I was reminded recently that ice-cream sodas and floats are also fabulous treats, and, dare I say, even easier. For them, you don’t even have to blend.

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Those too young to remember the grand old days of drugstore soda fountains may wonder just how ice-cream sodas and floats differ. While both involve ice cream and a fizzy liquid of some sort, my exhaustive research revealed that an ice-cream soda is a mixture of carbonated water, some type of flavoring syrup, possibly a shot of dairy (milk or cream), and ice cream. Ice-cream floats are similar, but usually made with a flavored soft drink such as root beer, cola, or grape soda in place of the plain carbonated water and syrup.  
The name of the game with sodas and floats is foamy head, a bit like root beer but with larger, more fragile bubbles. One explanation I read said that the air in the ice cream (or sorbet) provides nucleation sites where the carbon dioxide in the fizzy beverage can grow into larger bubbles (because the ice cream has reduced the surface tension in the carbonated liquid). Some ingredients in the ice cream trap the air bubbles, not unlike whipped egg whites, and the result is foam, albeit a lot less stable (but arguably much tastier) than egg-white foam. The ice cream is key here — when I tried it with either sherbet or sorbet alone, the foam wasn’t as thick.
In the soda fountains of yesteryear, there were myriad classic sodas and floats with fairly consistent (though rarely written in stone) names. For instance, a root-beer float with vanilla ice cream was often called either a “black cow” or a “brown cow.” Switch the ice cream to chocolate (always a well-advised move in my book) and you get a “chocolate cow.”  Switch the soda to a chocolate flavor (or use seltzer with chocolate syrup) and you have a “black-and-white.” Pair vanilla ice cream with grape soda and you’ll have a “purple cow,” or with a clear lemon-lime soda, like 7-Up, for a “snow white.” The list goes on and on and on.

So do the potential flavor combinations. In fact, they’re limited by only three factors: ice cream, sherbet, and sorbet flavors; soda flavors; and your imagination. 

On the topic of soda flavors, the constraints may be fewer than you think. We’re in the midst now of a craft soda movement, with such brands as Izze, Virgil’s, Hot Lips, Jones, Gus’s, Maine Root, Goya, and even Dr. Brown’s (of Cel-Ray fame — it’s celery-flavored soda, and don’t knock it ‘til you try it) marketing diverse and compelling flavors. Though I haven’t been there, I hear that Galco’s Soda Pop Stop in Los Angeles offers more than 500.

Below are a couple of recipes I adapted from milkshake flavors in my book. As I worked on them, I discovered a couple of minor tricks that I think help make sodas and floats the best they can be. First, chill all liquids, and the glasses, very well. (These recipes, by the way, were developed in 16-ounce glasses.) Second, much as I love sorbet, as I said above, you have to include some ice cream if you want a proper foam. And third, order matters. I contend that you’ll get better foam if you splash some of the fizzy beverage over the ice cream, which is why I have you add it in two stages.

A spritz of whipped cream is the traditional garnish, but I tend to skip it. Don’t skip the long straw, though. You’re going to need it.

h4. Raspberry-Rose Ice-Cream Soda

Yield: 1 ice-cream soda

In this recipe as well as in the Ginger-Mango-Lime Float, you can substitute honey for the agave nectar, but it’s thicker and therefore a little more difficult to incorporate.

1/4 cup fresh or thawed frozen raspberries
1 Tbsp. agave nectar
1 cup cold seltzer
1/2 tsp. rosewater
1 large scoop (about 1/2 cup) vanilla ice cream
1 large scoop (about 1/2 cup) raspberry sorbet

Mash all but one or two of the raspberries with the agave and a few grains of salt in a large (about 16 ounces) well-chilled glass. Add about 3/4 cup seltzer and the rosewater and stir gently to distribute the mashed raspberries. Add the ice cream and remaining seltzer, and with a spoon push the ice cream down into the liquid once or twice. Top with the sorbet and remaining raspberries and serve immediately with a straw.

h4. Ginger-Mango-Lime Float

Yield: 1 float

I prefer ginger beer, which makes a stronger, spicier float than ginger ale.

1 Tbsp. agave nectar
2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
1 cup cold ginger ale or ginger beer
1 large scoop (about 1/2 cup) ginger ice cream
1 large scoop (about 1/2 cup) mango sorbet

Mix the agave, lime juice, and a few grains of salt well in a large (about 16 ounces) well-chilled glass. Add about 3/4 cup ginger ale or beer and stir gently. Add the ice cream and remaining ginger ale or beer, and with a spoon push the ice cream down into the liquid once or twice. Top with the sorbet and serve immediately with a straw.

h4. Double Strawberry and Cream Float

Yield: 1 float

You can double the cream, too, by adding a splash of heavy cream to the float along with the cream soda.

1 cup cold cream soda
1 large scoop (about 1/2 cup) strawberry ice cream
1 large scoop (about 1/2 cup) strawberry sorbet
1 or 2 slices fresh strawberry, for garnish, optional

Add about 3/4 cup cream soda to a large (about 16 ounces) well-chilled glass. Add the ice cream and remaining soda, and with a spoon push the ice cream down into the liquid once or twice. Top with the sorbet, garnish with the strawberry slices (if using), and serve immediately with a straw.

h4. Mulled Cider Ice-Cream Float

Yield: 1 ice-cream soda

You’ll end up with enough cider syrup for two ice-cream sodas.

2 cups apple cider
2 cinnamon sticks
6 whole cloves
1 tsp. black peppercorns
1 Tbsp. Calvados (optional)
1 cup cold cream or apple soda
2 large scoops (about 1/2 cup each) vanilla or caramel ice cream
1 or 2 slices of fresh apple, for garnish (optional)

Bring the cider, cinnamon sticks, cloves, peppercorns, and a pinch of salt to a strong simmer in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Simmer vigorously, swirling the pan occasionally, until the liquid is reduced to 1/2 cup, about 18 minutes. Off the heat, cool to room temperature and strain; discard the solids.

Add about 1/4 cup cider syrup, the calvados (if using), and 3/4 cup soda to a large (about 16 ounces) well-chilled glass, and stir gently to mix. Add one scoop of the ice cream and remaining soda, and with a spoon push the ice cream down into the liquid once or twice. Top with the remaining scoop of ice cream, garnish with the apple slices (if using), and serve immediately with a straw.

h4. Sgroppino al Limone

Yield: 2 drinks

I included a version of this suave Italian cocktail from the Veneto region of Italy (from which Prosecco also hails) in my milkshake book with the rationale that the lemon sorbet qualified it. I’m using that rationale again here, and in fact, with the combination of lemon sorbet and sparkling wine, I think it makes even more sense in the company of ice-cream sodas and floats. It’s a fun, celebratory summer drink for before or after dinner.

2 sugar cubes
2 ounces cold vodka
Chilled Prosecco or other sparkling white wine
2 medium scoops (about 1/3 cup each) lemon sorbet
2 lemon twists, for garnish

Place one sugar cube in each of two stemmed wine glasses and pour 1 ounce each of vodka and Prosecco over the cube in each glass. Stir gently to begin dissolving the sugar (it doesn’t have to dissolve completely). Add enough Prosecco to each glass to fill about halfway. Add one scoop of sorbet and a little more Prosecco to each and with a spoon push the sorbet down into the liquid once or twice. Run a lemon twist around the rim of each glass, twist it over the top, drop into the glasses, and serve immediately.

p(bio). Adam Ried writes about food and cooking from Boston.

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