A flavor is born

Comfy Cow's Erica Parker creates creamy confections for her cool customers

Erica Parker has a pretty distinctive, no-nonsense way of creating a new ice cream flavor.

“If somebody says they want bleu cheese ice cream,” says The Comfy Cow production manager, “I want to make sure there is no doubt it’s bleu cheese ice cream.”

Never mind that bleu cheese ice cream sounds disgusting; if that’s the directive, it’s bleu cheese you’re going to get, pungency and all. Possibly with sprinkles.

Indeed, to watch Parker work is to watch concentration and determination in action; with her brow furrowed and jaw set, she pours, she blends, she flavors, she tastes — and then she goes back and does it again until it’s right.

“She’s a genius,” says Tim Koons-McGee, co-owner of the local ice cream shop.

The Comfy Cow now has three locations in Louisville — the original at Westport Village, as well as 339 Cardinal Boulevard and on Frankfort Avenue in Clifton — with eyes toward expansion and even franchising. The concept started, more or less, because the partners both enjoyed ice cream so much.

“A friend of ours gave us the idea,” Roy Koons-McGee says of how the business started. “We love ice cream, so after we researched the business some and went to the National Ice Cream Retailers Association annual convention, we were sold on the idea.”

“We both have always been huge ice cream fans,” Tim says, “and grew up in ice cream families. We both felt like we had something unique and creative to bring to the Louisville ice cream scene.”

And so, in 2009, Comfy Cow was born — along with a lot of flavors Louisville ice cream lovers have come to crave. Roy lists Dulce de Leche de Salte, Cookies & Cream, Cookie “Monster” Dough, Cake “Batter Up!,” and Chocolate as the top-five customer tastes. But if you walk into any of the three Comfy Cow locations, you’re likely to find a wild ride of flavors with fun names like Coo Coo for Coconut, Chatty Cathy, Pretzel Logic and Erica’s PB&J.

And often, these flavors are created on the fly or by customer suggestions. For Parker, sometimes it’s serendipity, plain and simple.

“They just kind of pop into my head at times,” Parker says. “I find myself staring off into space, thinking about ice cream. Or I’ll eat something else and think, ‘This should be an ice cream flavor.’”

Jack & Coke was one such flavor. And she did her very best to make sure it tasted like Jack Daniel’s and Coke.

“I try to aim for the basic flavors of something and make sure these flavors come out in the ice cream,” Parker says.

There are times, however, when it just doesn’t quite get there. She had the idea to make a flavor that ultimately was dubbed Gin & Juice, starting with juniper berries and lemon juice, and then finally settling on orange juice as the main second flavor.

When asked if Gin & Juice was inspired by the Snoop Dogg song of the same name, she said it was not.

“The flavors come first,” she says. “Then Tim usually names all the ice cream.”

Parker works for one to two days perfecting the flavor, although sometimes it can take longer. Occasionally, a flavor hits after just a couple of alterations. Once a flavor is deemed ready for production, the Comfy Cow staff makes at least three batches to see how it works with customers.

Ultimately, Parker didn’t think Gin & Juice was a home run. She said it worked OK as a flavor, but she didn’t feel like it was something people would want to keep eating on a regular basis.

“It would have made a better soap than an ice cream,” Parker says.

Another that didn’t work too well for her was Chocolate Soy, which she claims was created at Tim’s suggestion.

“It tasted like salty chocolate,” Parker says. “I’m not going back to it.”

But a flavor that did turn out to be a hit was Brown Butter Peanut Brittle.

“It started as a foodie flavor,” she says. Only one batch was made initially, and it sold out in 24 hours, which was pretty much all she needed to see. “It’s in rotation now.”


The Making of a Flavor

Spending an afternoon following Parker and watching her create a new flavor on the spot confirms Tim’s declaration that she’s a genius — or at least that she’s really serious about her job. With the nation celebrating National Ice Cream Month in July, I asked her if she would make a new flavor, and she was more than happy to grant my request.

Parker creates new flavors simply by mixing ingredients in a large, pitcher-sized measuring cup, along with a tabletop Cuisinart ice cream maker that makes four servings at a time. Obviously, this gives her the ability to experiment without wasting too many ingredients. Once a flavor is a go, the ice cream is then made four gallons at a time using one of a pair of Emery Thompson floor ice cream freezers.

She says The Comfy Cow ice cream is in production 16 hours a day, which isn’t a surprise, given the number of flavors on the menu.

When she asks what flavor I’d like her to create, I am a bit stunned; I’ve never given thought to creating my own ice cream flavor. I tell her I like spicy food, and she notes that she has cayenne pepper on hand. From there we agree to create Mango Cayenne — a special flavor for LEO Weekly.

When I question Tim on whether he thinks mango and cayenne will work as a flavor combo, he says, “anything and cayenne” would work for him. And so we do it.

Parker starts with the standard ice cream base of milk, sugar and whatever secret ingredients Comfy Cow uses, along with some egg, which helps provide the right creamy mouthfeel. She then adds a gelatinous mango topping into the mix, followed by plenty of big chunks of mango.

After that, a small scoop of ground cayenne pepper goes into the concoction, followed by some crushed red pepper — the kind many people add to their pizza. Into a blender it all goes. Parker notes that she doesn’t usually write down ingredients at this point, but that when she gets close to getting a recipe right, she will then finalize the measurements, usually by jotting them down on a piece of scrap paper.

“I tend to make ice cream like my grandmother cooked,” she says. “A little bit of this, a little bit of that. I hope I remember what I did.”

“She always says,” pipes up Comfy Cow employee Courtney Hinman, “‘If it looks like a recipe, don’t throw it away.’”

When the blossoming Mango Cayenne ice cream mixture finishes blending, Parker takes a bite. Her eyebrows furrow slightly, and her eyes, just for a second, gaze at nothing, as if pondering. Without a word, she walks to a nearby cooler and returns with condensed natural mango flavoring, adding a bit to the blend. She then adds more mango topping, along with another small scoop of cayenne powder.

She tastes it again, and the same serious expression engulfs her face.

“You like subtle, or in-your-face hot?” she abruptly asks me. The answer comes easily for me, so she adds more ground cayenne and crushed red pepper.

I ask her if the ground red pepper will remain in chunks in the ice cream, even after blending, and Parker confirms it will.

“If it’s even hinted in the name,” she says, “I want people to know it’s really there.”

When she finally believes she’s found the perfect blend, Parker adds an acidic flavor enhancer and then sets up the Cuisinart, placing the freezing chamber inside the ice cream maker and turning the machine on. The chamber begins to spin, and Parker pours the creamy, light yellow base into it.

She offers Tim a taste, to which he says, “That’s really good; I like spicy.”

I am asked to wait 10 minutes or so before tasting the new Mango Cayenne ice cream, and Tim explains why. “When it comes out and it’s hardened, you’ll get more mango and more cayenne. It intensifies.”


The Final Verdict

Tim Koons-McGee says his favorite Comfy Cow flavor of all time is Ginger 2 Snaps, which he describes as “a spicy ginger-based ice cream with big chunks of our homemade ginger snap cookies.”

Oh yes, Comfy Cow also does cookies; you can find them in several ice cream flavors, including their homemade vanilla wafers in the Banana Pudding flavor. And the chocolate chip cookies stand on their own. They might even work with cayenne.

For his part, Roy prefers the Freshly Roasted Coffee flavor, which, according to the Comfy Cow’s website, “Tastes just like the aroma of a freshly brewed pot of coffee on a crisp fall morning.”

Even though not all the flavors that come out of The Comfy Cow production lab work, the crew is going to keep on inventing new ways of presenting one of America’s favorite treats, and the chosen ones, so to speak, will keep rotating in. Take a look at The Comfy Cow website (thecomfycow.com) and you’ll see that there are currently 32 rotating flavors that come back about every six months, and that’s in addition to the 16 mainstays like Cow Tracks and Minty Chocolate Chippy.

With interest in Comfy Cow growing, and the production team cranking out new and exciting flavors all the time, both partners believe that local expansion and franchising are just the beginning for what they can accomplish.

“We really think we can be a national player in the super premium hand-dipped ice cream market,” Tim says.

Both also agree on why the venture has been so rewarding, not to mention so successful, to this point.

Roy says the best part of the business is “seeing how happy people are when they are eating great-tasting ice cream and enjoying hanging out with friends and family in a space you have helped to create.”

“I love the community aspect of what we’ve created,” Tim adds. “At any of our stores, it’s kind of neat to see people congregating and seeing old friends. There’s a real sense of community at all three locations.”

Finally, my 10 minutes of waiting have elapsed, and my cup of Mango Cayenne ice cream appears before me. The final verdict time is here. I take a healthy bite and get an initial burst of the tart mango to go with a creamy texture. As the ice cream starts to melt in my mouth, I come across a couple chunks of the fruit, which adds mini flavor bursts to the cooling experience.

Tim was right, it’s good stuff. After two more bites, the subtle heat begins to assert itself as I encounter a couple tiny bits of crushed red pepper. Overall, the mango stays atop the palate and dominates, with the heat lingering just at the back. It’s a not-too-sweet, not-too-hot experience that accentuates the natural fruitiness of the mango.

Well done, Erica Parker. Well done.

I wonder aloud if this LEO Mango Cayenne could be the next big flavor on the menu board.

“You never know,” says Tim.

You never know.