STATE COLLEGE, Pa. Food science professor Robert Roberts tried to explain the finer points of soft serve over the din of a commercial ice cream maker churning out a frosty vanilla mix.
Cameras or notepads in hands, students huddled around listening to every word in between samples of creamy treats. They werent going to let this learning opportunity melt away.
Once filled with workers from the commercial ice cream industry, Penn States famed, nearly century-old Ice Cream Short Course is attracting a new batch of students aspiring small entrepreneurs or a growing number of self-described foodies eager to expand their interest in homemade or artisan goodies.
It was really just a winter hobby that spiraled out of control, said Jess Eddy, of Brooklyn, N.Y., co-owner of Phinizy & Phebe, an ice cream company she and her partner started last year. On Thursday, she was inside an ice cream lab at Penn State, one of about 130 students from 26 states and nine countries attending the weeklong course.
Theres a huge gap between making ice cream for fun ... and making even small-level production for local stores, said, Eddy, 33, after snapping a picture of a shiny soft-serve machine.
Roberts serves as moderator, instructor and dessert chef. He runs what the school boasts as the oldest, best-known and largest educational program dedicated to the science and technology of ice cream making.
Need a sample of Penn States work? Football fans, alumni, students and general dessert aficionados often pack the campus Berkey Creamery for a cone or dish. Its most famous flavor is Peachy Paterno, named after the Nittany Lions iconic football coach, Joe Paterno.
Interest in the class remains high, with a full load of 130 students and another 75 on a waiting list. Startup business owners or serious home enthusiasts have gradually made up more of the class and now comprise about 60 percent in attendance, Roberts said.
We have people who are ice cream professionals, who we are aimed at, but we are also seeing people who have great new ideas, he said. Like foodies who come to spend a week to learn about ice cream while theyre on vacation. Theres a lot of entrepreneurs, a lot of people with interest in ideas about all-natural and using local ingredients.
The then-Pennsylvania State College started offering a dairy manufacturing class in the winter of 1892. Though ice cream consumption is lower in the chill of winter, the season was ideal for agriculture workers who didnt have as much to do around the farm.
The ice cream section became so popular it was spun off into its own short course in 1925. The university says more than 4,500 students have buttered up on their ice cream knowledge at Penn State.
According to statistics on the website of the International Dairy Foods Association, ice cream production decreased slightly, by 1.2 percent from 2008 to 2009 to 1.52 billion gallons, including both hard and soft-serve. Production of regular ice cream was down slightly, but production of water ice and other frozen dairy products, such as sorbet, was up slightly.
The number of major ice cream companies is declining. The interest in artisan ice cream is increasing, Roberts said. People want to know how to make the best ice cream.
Much of that interest stems from the food trend-of-the-moment, he said. When Roberts first took over the class in 1999, low-fat desserts were a popular topic.
That was followed by a focus on carbohydrates. And while many students seemed to have an underlying interest in organic ingredients, Roberts said more recently more students want to incorporate locally grown fruits and other products into unusual flavors.
Brian Ostrovsky is a strategic planner for a technology company who, with his wife, started making ice cream at home through a more unconventional method using liquid nitrogen. Ostrovsky, 47, of Portland, Ore., came to Happy Valley to investigate whether he could turn his hobby into a small business.
The plus with liquid nitrogen? You can make a batch in a minute-and-a-half, he said.
The downside? Youre handling liquid nitrogen. ... And its not economically feasible on a large scale.
So the course is designed to give a soup-to-nuts view of the business, with a concentration on the science behind making ice cream, like differences in texture when using different amounts of air, and what constitutes a frozen dessert instead of traditional ice cream.
Its been evolutionary. The first day I said, This doesnt make any sense, this is stupid, Ostrovsky said. Now its starting to formulate. I might not be in the liquid nitrogen business. I might buy a freezer to differentiate in other things.
There are constant tastings, too, in Roberts lab. But what might seem as a dessert-lovers dream is consumed in the name of education.
Well mostly. The raspberry frozen treat being produced as a demonstration seemed to be a hit.
One raspberry Popsicle per person, Roberts exclaimed.