Pity the pregnant woman. For nine months, so much is off the menu. Alcohol, of course, but also cured meats, soft cheeses, sashimi, carpaccio (and any other kind of meat that’s cooked as it should be, that is, medium rare and below) and poached eggs. All that, coupled with cankles, doesn’t do great PR for pregnancy. It just doesn’t sound like much fun, does it?
I’m pregnant with my second child, and though I’ve always taken a fairly relaxed attitude towards food safety when pregnant - I’ve eaten the odd bit of sashimi when I know it’s fresh, I’ve had a glass of bubbles or two, and dammit if I’m going to eat hard-boiled eggs for nine months - I’ve always wondered about one restriction in particular: soft serve. Yep, soft serve. Those creamy peaks of deliciousness, curled on top of each other and, in an ideal world, dipped in chocolate and speared with a Flake.
Over the past few years, Australia has seen something of a soft serve renaissance. Once confined to Mr Whippy vans and McDonald’s 60 cent cones, diners and critics took note when Sydney pastry chef Andrew Bowden (AKA @andybowdy) put a soft serve cone on the menu at Hartsyard. Then Aqua S joined the fray, with its ever-changing, imaginative flavours (sea salt, tofu, Milo, papaya milkshake and so on). In Melbourne, Milkcow serves up organic soft serve with toppings like caramel popcorn and fresh wedges of honeycomb, and earlier in the year, pop-up Pierre’s Spot dished out soft serve from Pierre Roelofs, who’s been behind desserts at Cafe Rosamund and Fancy Nance.
Back in Sydney, soft serve took a turn for the serious when Nathan Sasi, who’s done time at Nomad and with the likes of Peter Doyle, Neil Perry and Heston Blumenthal, opened Good Times Artisan Ice Cream. Unlike most soft serves, which are made with powdered mixes, Sasi made the creams from scratch, topped with quality garnishes like Valrhona chocolate and handmade meringues.
To recap: soft serve. Delicious. Big business. Huge trend.
Not recommended for pregnant women.
But why? Now that soft serve is virtually everywhere - and so much better than we’ve ever had it before - I made it my mission to find out.
I spoke with Raphael May, a public affairs officer at Food Authority New South Wales, who said that soft serve is a tricky one for pregnant women. “Because soft serve is typically stored at refrigeration temperature - around 0 to 5 degrees Celcius - and because ice cream is high in moisture, listeria can grow quite quickly in it,” he says. Listeria is the main type of food poisoning that pregnant women are at risk of, and it’s the reason they - we - can’t have things like undercooked meat and eggs, soft cheeses and even pre-washed salads. In each of these foods, it thrives. However, said May, the most common cause of listeria outbreaks in soft serve isn’t to do with refrigeration, or even the product itself (more on this later) - it’s the cleanliness of the machine dispensing the white gold. “Thorough cleaning - with an effective sanitiser - and regular maintenance usually prevent listeria from developing,” says May. But for the typical customer, who has no access to the machine (and therefore can’t check), it’s difficult to know what’s really going on.
As for Sasi himself, who’s now co-owner and executive chef at Mercado, he says his wife, who is currently pregnant, has indulged in soft serve her entire pregnancy. “At Good Times, our soft serve was made with fresh, pasteurised ingredients, which helps prevent listeria developing,” he says. “Most other places use a pre-mixed dry powder, which is not pasteurised.” The Food Authority notes that many fast food chains now have “self-pasteurising machines”, where the dry mix is heated to such a temperature where all bacteria is killed. But again, says Sasi, cleanliness may still be an issue. “Our policy was to clean the unit every second day - it was completely drained, with any subsequent mixture was disposed off, and then vigorously cleaned and all parts of the machine were sterilised with a food grade solution and rinsed clean.”
Like most chances of food poisoning, it’s difficult to know whether the risk is worth taking. Do I indulge my love of soft serve, at the risk of developing food poisoning and potentially harming my unborn baby? May says that if I do feel like treating myself, I should ask about the cleanliness of the machine - or go for gelato.
Which sounds pretty good right now.
Fig leaves can be a little hard to come by but they are worth the hunt as, added to the gelato they give a beautiful subtle almost green-ish flavour of figs. We did discover that they can curdle the milk so do be careful, do not add any extra or leave them in the milk for too long. This recipe will make lots of gelato so you can eat it for days. You will need an ice cream churner for this recipe and a blowtorch.
Gelato, meaning ‘frozen’ in Italian, encompasses all types of ice-cream made in Italy. What sets this southern Sicilian version apart though, is its crema rinforzata base of milk, sugar and cornflour, rather than cream, sugar and egg yolk. The result is a gelato with less fat and more flavour.