Great ice cream starts here.

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Friday Food Post: Frozen Custard's Last Stand

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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I don't really care for soft-serve ice cream. I still have a sort of sneaking nostalgic fondness for the idea of getting soft serve -- breathes there an American with heart so dead that they can hear the sound of the Mister Softee jingle without longing to be a six-year-old headed to the truck? But the actual stuff always seems to be bland and vaguely unpleasant in texture. It is the Cream of Wheat of frozen desserts.

On the other hand, I adore frozen custard. Somehow, the egg makes all the difference. I like my own, and I like it from ice cream stands, cool and perfect and melting slightly onto a cake cone. About once a summer, I indulge myself, which is how, last Saturday, I found myself standing outside of Rita's, ordering a small vanilla cone with chocolate sprinkles. My eyes were alight with expectation. Then, after I had already handed over my money, and the woman behind the counter was about to hand over the cone, my eyes lit on the sign informing me that due to the national egg crisis, Rita's was no longer selling frozen custard. They were selling .... soft serve. An exploratory lick confirmed my worst fears: It was as bland and disappointing as every other soft-serve cone I've ever eaten since the days when I purchased them with the quarters some generous adult pressed into my sweaty little hands.

Rita's is not the only firm suffering from this problem. Thanks to an outbreak of bird flu, about 10 percent of the nation's egg-laying flock has been euthanized, causing egg prices to double in some regions. Bakers, custard-makers, and restaurants that serve breakfast all have their margins threatened by this development, and if the price hike sets in, you can expect some combination of rising prices for those goods, or restaurants turning to less egg-intensive alternatives. Such as the aforementioned frozen custard.

We've gotten very used to the idea that eggs are dead cheap, even though this is a comparatively new development -- cookbooks from as late as the early 1950s praise one-egg cakes on "economical" grounds.  Industrial farming methods have allowed us to enjoy eggs for the price of a few minutes worth of work. Now we're getting a little taste of the bad old days.

If you miss the egg dishes at your favorite restaurant, the obvious answer is to make them at home. Yes, eggs cost you more, too, but since you're not paying for the restaurateur's labor, you can still afford it. Most egg dishes -- even the dreaded souffle, which is nowhere near as tricky as it has been made out -- can be prepared by an average home cook with equipment you already have at home, or with a modest investment in additional equipment, such as a straight-sided bowl to hold your souffle, or poached egg cups for people who find themselves beset with a stringy mess instead of a beautifully poached ovum.  (Straining them first also works well.)

But most of us do not have a soft-serve machine lurking unused in a corner cabinet. So what's a girl to do, if she wants some frozen custard? Well, I'm going to let you in on a little secret: when you make homemade ice cream, what comes out of the freezer bowl is ... soft serve. No, it's not going to slide onto a cone as neatly as the stuff that comes out of an industrial machine. But it's got that delicious creamy texture, and that delicious custard taste. And home ice cream makers can be readily purchased for not all that much extra cash.

Once you've got the home ice-cream maker, just pop in your favorite custard-based ice cream recipe (here's mine), time your churning to coincide with the end of dinner, and voila, it's just the same as going to Rita's after dinner. Except that you will never accidentally end up with soft-serve ice cream when your mouth was set for custard.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net