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The scoop on nondairy: Local ice cream shops expand their offerings

It wasn’t until after Marie Murphy was a few bites into her scoop of Little Baby’s Ice Cream that she realized it was missing a traditional ingredient: milk.

Murphy, 67, and her daughter, Anais Naharro-Murphy, 25, stopped by Little Baby’s stall at R. House food hall in Remington for an afternoon treat on a recent sunny Friday. Before Naharro-Murphy pointed it out, Murphy, who accidentally ordered a nondairy flavor, said she didn’t taste the difference between traditional ice cream and her scoop of chocolate salt malt, made with coconut cream.

“I didn’t even think about it,” Murphy said.

Little Baby’s is one of the newest vendors in Baltimore selling its take on ice cream made without dairy and catering to customers who are increasingly avoiding dairy products due to lactose intolerance or personal preferences.

It’s part of a national growth among nondairy frozen desserts. Ice cream heavyweight Ben & Jerry’s is expanding its line of almond milk-based flavors; Breyers released its first almond milk ice cream this year; and other brands of plant-based ice cream continue to emerge to feed the demand.

Ice cream and frozen dessert sales notched nearly $28 billion in 2016, and the market is expected to grow to $30 billion by 2020, according to a January report from the Rockville-based research firm Packaged Facts. Much of that growth will come from nondairy and other “free-from” options, Packaged Facts anticipates. Nondairy ice creams were in about 6 percent of households in 2016, up from 4 percent in 2012, the firm reported.

Offering dairy-free flavors has been a focus for Little Baby’s since the ice cream shop opened its first location in Philadelphia in 2011.

“We want our ice cream to be as accessible to as many people as possible,” Little Baby’s co-founder Pete Angevine said. “For all kinds of reasons people don’t eat dairy, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t eat ice cream.”

Pamela VillaSanta makes coconut milk and almond milk soft-serve ice cream at Sweetside Cafe in Hampden. At least one of the 10 self-serve ice cream taps in her eatery has been devoted to nondairy flavors since she opened the cafe last year.

VillaSanta owned an ice cream shop in Ocean City for several years before opening her Hampden location. She’s seen demand for nondairy ice cream grow, especially among children who are lactose intolerant.

“The parents get really excited because they can never take their kids out for ice cream,” VillaSanta said. “The nondairy option for them is really nice because it’s just so rare that they can do that.”

At Little Baby’s, about 40 percent of their eclectic flavors are dairy-free.

“We’ve been a little bit of a destination for some nondairy folks just because there really aren’t a lot of options for getting a fresh scoop of vegan ice cream,” Angevine said. “The nondairy stuff is as much a part of our brand and our purpose as the Philadelphia-style ice cream.”

About half the menu at Little Baby’s in R. House, a stall shared with Blk//Sugar bakery, is dairy-free. After experimenting with different nut milks and dairy alternatives, Little Baby’s settled on coconut cream sweetened with agave nectar for its base.

“Just in terms of texture and consistency and quote-unquote realistic ice cream, we found that coconut cream is really the best for that,” Angevine said.

Texture is the toughest part of making nondairy ice cream, Baltimore’s ice cream purveyors agree. The Charmery in Hampden has offered a nondairy flavor from its first day in 2013. Its first was toasted coconut. “And it was terrible,” owner David Alima said.

“For us, the challenge is nondairy flavors want to sit about 10 degrees warmer in order to be scoopable,” Alima said.

With a little “vegan magic” and the addition of vegan stabilizers, Alima found the right mix.

“Really the goal is like to get something that’s creamy — you want something that has that punch to it,” Alima said.

One of Alima’s favorite dairy-free flavors is Almond Brothers (almond milk, almond butter and toasted almond pieces). And toasted coconut is back on the menu (with a revised recipe).

Alima estimates that they’ve tried between 100 and 200 nondairy flavors, including sorbets and frozen fruit purees (his team once made a flavor using entirely bananas).

“Once we figured out the science of it, then you can have fun and experiment more,” Alima said.

Not all flavors work for nondairy, and the dairy alternative can influence the final product.

“Coconut has a much stronger flavor profile than milk for instance, and so it’s a lot harder to kind of mask that coconut flavor,” Angevine said. “And coconut mixes great with certain flavors.”

Naharro-Murphy, an avid fan of both Little Baby’s dairy and nondairy flavors, agreed. She lives in Philadelphia near Little Baby’s original shop and was visiting family in Baltimore when she and her mom came to the stall at R. House. She estimates that she goes to the Philadelphia shop near her house once a week.

“There are certain flavors I’ll say — because I’ve had a lot of flavors — that are too subtle for being nondairy because the coconut can be overpowering,” she said. “But other ones, like you really don’t notice. It’s creamy plus kind of healthier in a way.”

Other local ice cream makers are growing their nondairy options, too. Bmore Licks, a new ice cream shop opening in July near Patterson Park, plans to offer at least two vegan flavors made from coconut milk and almond milk. And Taharka Bros. co-founder Sean Smeeton said his company is developing a line of cashew milk-based ice cream, which he hopes to roll out this year. Taharka Bros. offers sorbets but has not yet sold nondairy ice creams.

But Smeeton has seen demand for it increase.

“You get more and more requests for it,” he said, especially from college students at campuses where Taharka Bros. ice cream is served.

Alima said he’s seen demand increase over the years from people who can’t digest dairy and those who choose to avoid it.

“You’re appealing really to two different types of people: vegans ... and people who have dairy sensitivity,” he said. “I don’t know which one is driving it more.”

Sisters Yi and Yan Chen, who were visiting Little Baby’s at R. House on a recent Friday, exemplify both types of customers. Yi, 22, said she prefers a vegan diet most of the time. And 19-year-old Yan, a student at the University of Maryland, College Park who swooped in to steal a lick of her sister’s chocolate salt malt ice cream cone, is lactose intolerant.

Yi, who lives in Charles Village and teaches dance, said she was glad to discover Little Baby’s, and she was encouraged that half of the 10 flavors on the menu that day were dairy-free.

“I call myself like a sad vegan half the time because … sometimes when I eat vegan stuff I get really sad about food,” she said. “And then there’s the little things that make everything all better. I think this is one of them.”

Naomi Pak, 25, was also trying Little Baby’s for the first time. The Fairfax, Va., resident, a clinical psychology doctoral student at George Mason University, was visiting Baltimore with her boyfriend when she tried the lychee lemonade ice cream at Little Baby’s. She avoids dairy and said she likes to see the availability of dairy-free desserts expanding.

“I don’t really believe in drinking milk — like that humans should be drinking cow milk or milk from other animals — and I also don’t like the taste of dairy,” Pak said. “I think it’s a good option.”

smeehan@baltsun.com

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