When Tom Carvel’s truck broke down while he was trying to sell ice cream in the neighborhoods of New York, little did he know that he would become the inventor of soft serve ice cream – “soft ice cream” or “machine ice cream” as it’s called in Greece.
Of Greek descent, Tom Carvel, born Athanasios Karvelas in Athens in 1906 but moved to the USA at a young age, began making a living driving from neighborhood to neighborhood selling ice cream out of his truck in 1929. About 90 years ago, on the last weekend of a very hot May, America was getting ready to celebrate Memorial Day as it always did, an important national holiday that coincides with the beginning of summer. Carvel and his colleagues were also getting ready for one of the busiest three-day weekends of the year. Getting a flat tire at the most inopportune time, he pulled into the closest parking lot located next to a pottery shop and began to sell his ice cream, which had started to melt.
To his surprise, people showed a preference for this “soft” ice cream, and thus the idea of an ice cream machine that would make soft, cool cream was born.
This is just one of the many stories surrounding the invention of soft serve ice cream. There are others who claim to have invented this cool summer treat, from – the also American – Charles Taylor to J.F. McCullough and the famous Dairy Queen chain stores. Even Margaret Thatcher’s name has been linked with soft serve ice cream – the American magazine The Atlantic dubbed her “The Iron Lady of Soft Serve” in one of its articles – but, even though the renowned British prime minister worked briefly as a chemist at the food production company J. Lyons and Co. in the 1940s, her contribution to the creation of soft serve ice cream is probably a myth.
Despite the numerous stories, it is commonly accepted that soft serve ice cream began in the late 1930s in the USA and spread slowly to the rest of the world over the following decades.
In its more recent history, soft serve ice cream has drawn the attention of renowned pastry chefs, like Dominique Ansel – the creator of the cronut – who at some point launched a burrata ice cream served with confit strawberries, balsamic caramel and a tiny sprig of basil. Since 2007 when Momofuku Milk Bar opened its doors in New York City, the craze for “cereal milk” soft serve ice cream hasn’t dwindled. Christina Tosi, a pastry chef and co-owner of Momofuku Milk Bar, came up with the idea of a nostalgic ice cream that tasted “like milk at the bottom of a cereal bowl.”
Her salty-sweet soft serve ice cream is made with cereal-flavored milk and continues to be one of Milk Bar’s signature products. Together with roasted corn and the neon-colored mixtures of slush machines, few things are so closely associated with children’s summers as soft serve ice cream. Vacationing, summer holidays with grandparents, open air movie theaters and ice cream that comes out soft and swirly with a simple push of a button go hand in hand. The main difference between soft serve ice cream and traditional ice cream is that soft serve ice cream is less dense and softer due to the fact that it has a higher percentage of air that is introduced during the freezing process, which gives it its characteristic texture.
Five places to enjoy delicious soft serve ice cream in Athens
At the historic pastry shop on Aiolou Street that Asia Minor Greek pastry chef Minas Kasimatis first opened in 1923, they make their famous holed loukoumades (honey puff pastries) all year round. In the summer, however, the queues for (giant!) cones with soft serve ice cream in the classic flavors of vanilla, chocolate or mixed are endless.
87 Aiolou, Omonoia Square
Tel.: (+30) 210.321.6852
Although this dairy shop in Pangrati specializes in cheese and dairy products from Amfilochia, it has a secret trump card: soft serve ice cream, like finely whipped cream, made with milk from Amfilochia. In a waffle cone or paper cup, you can enjoy vanilla, chocolate, mastic kaimaki or strawberry with fresh fruits and no added water.
60 Ymittou, Pangrati
Tel.: (+30) 210.723.1625
The small shop on Voulis Street serves a velvety soft serve ice cream made with fresh milk in various flavors, including salted caramel, Valrhona chocolate and cream, mango and Sicilian pistachio.
23 Voulis, Syntagma Square
Tel.: (+30) 210.323.8277
The culinary journey at Sushimou, a sushi restaurant opened by chef Antonis Drakoularakos, ends with a sweet vanilla ice cream or matcha tea – a finely ground powder of green tea leaves.
45 Voulis, Syntagma Square
Tel.: (+30) 210.325.5356
This summer, young pastry chef Alexandros Koniaris will experiment with soft serve ice cream for the first time and, in a few days, he’ll introduce such flavors as tsoureki (a brioche-type, mastic-scented bread) made with fresh milk and caramelized bread, and intends to use a variety of herbs offering other flavors such as anise hyssop.
23 Pyrronos, Pangrati
Tel.: (+30) 210.756.4760