It’s not every day that I can say I’ve tried twelve frozen custards and two non-dairy frozen desserts before noon. In fact, as a well-known ice cream-o-vore, I feel a tad disappointed in myself for not having attempted such a feat previously. But this was a special day, and we were in a special place. Some folks call that place Spotted Duck Creamery in Penn Yan. But if you asked me, I might call it “heaven,” because there you find blissful, organic frozen custards and desserts, made right on the premises with mostly-local ingredients and with the eggs of the happy ducks in residence there. Prepare yourselves: on this Edenic site, Spotted Duck’s frozen custards might precipitate an experience with the divine.
We learned of Spotted Duck through our friend Mary, who’d recommended that we all make a little visit to taste the goodnesses. I never need much of a nudge to be convinced to plow through a bowl of ice cream, but it was a hot day and the lure of icy treats was especially strong. So we loaded Skye into the car, cranked up the a/c, and made our way down Route 14 to the 54 in Penn Yan.
Even before contemplating the menu, we were smitten by the site. The ice cream shop stands against a glorious backdrop of beautiful rolling hills and farmlands, which convey serenity and relaxation and home and everything that’s great about the Finger Lakes.
Chicks peep joyfully from their coop, and full-grown chickens and ducks patrol for scrumptious bugs.
And Skye and her people were welcomed with a bowl of water at the Canine Comfort Station.
As it turns out, Spotted Duck Creamery is a working farm. Spotted Duck is the very essence of farm to table, or rather, farm to waffle cone. You can park yourself at a picnic table and watch the ducks play as you bliss out with your custard. It is lovely!
On my, ahem, first visit, I ordered a double scoop of Salted Caramel and Fleur Bleu, which is a divine blueberry custard delicately infused with fresh organic lavender, and I instantly fell in love.
I left my business card at the window and told the staff that I would be writing about Spotted Duck on my blog. Elizabeth Hoover, who owns the business with her husband, Daniel, came right out to greet me with a delicious home-made chocolate chip cookie to try, and once we spoke, I knew we’d have to come back another time to do a real interview.
A few days later, Tahlia and I returned to meet with Elizabeth. We learned that, like so many local businesses, Spotted Duck grew from one business that morphed into something new. A few years back, Elizabeth and Daniel had owned a small, local organic grocery store in Penn Yan. With ice cream making a Hoover family tradition, they began selling home-made ice cream in order to draw customers. Having both grown up on organic farms, it was important to Daniel and Elizabeth that they create a recipe that did not use corn syrup, artificial flavorings, or gums, and that, of course, tasted good. At first, this proved to be something of a challenge, as the initial result, Elizabeth says, was not very tasty.
“So we kept messing with it,” Elizabeth laughed. “We went back to great-great-grandmas’ cookbooks and to how things used to be made before all of this food technology, when food became an industry instead of a relationship.”
Elizabeth’s statement encapsulates the heart of the local foods movement: it recognizes that the production and consumption of food are a community effort, one that requires a respectful relationship between people, animals, and the land. To lose sight of any one of these risks the exploitation of them all.
The Hoovers kept tinkering with their ice cream recipe, and people kept coming to try it. Because the store kept selling fewer shelf items and more ice cream, they decided to follow their customers’ interests and to open an ice cream shop featuring all organic ingredients.
“We started looking for a farm,” the mother of four stated, “because we wanted to reconnect our customers with the sources of the ice cream, and we wanted to be together as a family. We wanted to create a relaxing place where people could come and chill, and where they could see the ducks and where the eggs come from.”
“We’re really big on transparency and genuineness,” Elizabeth continued. “Those are our key terms here, hence the underwear on the clothesline. We live here, this is our farm, and it’s for real. It’s not put on just for show—it’s our life.”
At the same time, Spotted Duck also strives for an elevated ice cream experience, “a little bit classier than the average ice cream shop, one that resembles a winery more than an ice cream place.” The desserts are served in real bowls with real silverware, and real glasses for floats—you won’t find any plastic at the Spotted Duck. There is a tidy porch where customers may sit, or they can relax at the picnic tables in the back under the string lights.
Spotted Duck frozen custards originally used chicken eggs, but then Elizabeth started reading about how duck eggs make richer desserts. Curious, they decided to try it, so they got some ducks and were amazed by the results. Now they make one hundred gallons per week using only duck eggs. But it has taken years to satisfy Elizabeth’s high standards for flavor.
“We’ve been doing this for about eight years,” she says, “and I can say we’ve just gotten the vanilla to where I’m satisfied. It’s taken that long.”
Elizabeth has devoted eight years to perfecting her recipe for chocolate chip cookies, too. And let me tell you. Her perfectionism has paid off. The cookie is the perfect level of sweetness, with hints of salt, butter and vanilla punctuating each bite. It is every bit as divine as the frozen custards.
We went into the kitchen to see the custard-making in action. Daniel was busy at the churn making a new batch of vanilla crème, which is flavored with local vodka infused with Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans. We all got spoons and ate the delicious melty remnants from the paddle.
One of the genius moves on the part of Spotted Duck is that you can order a flight of custards so that you can sample twelve (!!!) flavors. You may include the creamery’s two non-dairy desserts as well, which currently include a fabulous coconut featuring a coconut brittle from Better Brittle in Syracuse, and a deep chocolate sure to satisfy any chocolate lover.
“I think you guys should get the full house, so you can try everything,” Elizabeth said as she scooped the custard into perfect little balls. She didn’t have to work to convince me. At. All.
Everything in the shop is locally made. The Hoovers grind and brew coffee and use frozen cubes of coffee in the cold-brew coffee so that it doesn’t get diluted. Lemonade is made in-house from organic lemon juice, and it features lemonade ice cubes as well. Daniel makes his own caramel for the salted caramel custard (which used salt from the Seneca Salt Company), and the couple makes Chantilly Crème, Salted Caramel and Chocolate Mousses with which to top sundaes or coffee. Customers may also top their dessert with delicious, locally-made wine sauces from Arbor Hill Winery in Naples. And there’s even a treat for your pup, which comes with a scoop of Vanilla Crème and an organic dog biscuit from Bo’s Bones in Ithaca.
As Elizabeth filled the last bowl of the full-house flight she’d prepared for us, we gluttons looked on with great joy. Even Tahlia—who is inexplicably capable of saying “no” to ice cream—had her spoon poised and ready to go.
“Bring your spoon! Bring your spoon!” Tahlia chirped, as we sat down on the porch. Alas, we were forced to try all twelve flavors, plus the two non-dairy desserts, all served and labeled on a lovely hand-made wooden tray. They were all delicious—extraordinary, really. And I was surprised by my favorites. Typically, I opt for the chocolates or coffees with caramel or hazelnuts. But I found the Spotted Duck’s fruit flavors most compelling. As a blueberry aficionado, I have to say that the Fleur Bleu is my favorite, but the Raspberry Truffle, Strawberry Rhubarb, and Dark Forest really tickled my fancy as well.
It’s no wonder that Spotted Duck Creamery won the Judges’ Choice title, “Best Ice Cream Stand in Upstate NY!” Get yourselves there, on the double, and experience the wonders of locally-made, made-with-love, frozen custards.