The Perfect Milkshake

Drive up to a window and order your shake. Drive around and the server in the window hands you your shake turned upside down, demonstrating that not a drop will drip. This is known as a ‘concrete’ in some southern regions. However, in the world of milkshakes, thicker is not always better.

It was during prohibition that the first milkshake was invented. Like many prohibition inventions, it was a tonic popularized by a rough and rugged group of ailing drinkers who were obviously in desperate need of a tonic. It was an extravagant milk, egg and whisky based drink whipped up by hand because no one had invented the blender yet. It took another 30 years before milkshakes diversified into flavours of chocolate, strawberry and vanilla with whisky or any other sort of booze optional. They were hand-shaken with crushed ice and milk, sugar, and flavourings. Another 30 years later, ice cream was added and milkshakes were often referred to as ‘frosted shakes’.

By the 1930s, milkshakes were less about the booze and more a popular drink at malt shops. The addition of malted milk powder (dried milk, malted barley and wheat flour) in milkshakes came about as a casualty of the brewing industry during prohibition. They added these beer ingredients and marketed as an easily digested restorative health drink for disabled people and children and as an infant’s food. Some breweries turned into soda shops or ‘malt shops’, and it was the typical soda fountain of the period used by high school students as a meeting place or hangout.

This reminds me of scenes from Happy Days. Fonzie was a fan of milkshakes and he and his friends hung out at a soda fountain where a soda jerk would throw a scoop of frozen ice cream into a steel-mixing cup. Then attach the cup to a milkshake mixer that would whip air into the shake. It wasn’t long after (1922) that Hamilton Beach invented the blender (another great local invention!) and milkshakes went from dense, luxuriously, velvety textures to their modern, whipped, aerated and frothy form.

They had funny names for them back then. “Twist It, Choke It, and Make It Cackle” was a malted chocolate milkshake with an egg in it, “Shake One in the Hay” was their name for a strawberry shake and a “White Cow” was a vanilla shake. Teenagers sipping one milkshake from a flutted soda glass through two straws was seen as a sign of affection and intimacy.

Somewhere along the line we seem to have forsaken the lusty milkshake for low calorie diet drinks but don’t look now, milkshakes, often called frappes now, are making a comeback, and why not? Layers of sumptuous cream and lavish vanilla gush across the palate with an aloof coolness and a texture that caresses your psyche. The perfectly whipped shake is a frenzy of luxurious lightness that enrobes your tongue while the minuscule icy shards dance about before succumbing to the heat of your mouth. Simply put, milkshakes are downright delicious and one of our best feel-good treats.

There was an iconic soda shop in downtown St. Catharines smack in the middle of St. Paul Street. Everyone went to Diana Sweets, or ‘The Di’ as we would call it back then. The rich art deco booths, leaded pane glass dividers and counters are now in the Harley Davidson building in Niagara-on-the-Lake. While you can go in there today and have a coffee and reminisce, sadly you cannot get a famous Di milkshake.

Milkshake centre is now at Avondale Dairy Bar on Stewart Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake and like everywhere else, the beautiful soda glass has now been replaced with paper cups changing the once decadent, fête into a modern day farm-to-glass experience. Manager Sara Petriello says they still make their milkshakes individually, by hand in the traditional metal cup. They start with good quality ice cream that’s made fresh daily on-site and use real fruit toppings, nothing artificial, no unnatural flavourings and no thickening agents.

“Our milkshakes are all made to order,” says Sara. The standard ice cream in every milkshake is vanilla but if you want something else, just ask and they’re happy to oblige making your choices limitless. She often recommends chocolate ice cream with real peanut butter whipped into the shake. Sara confides it’s a killer shake and everyone loves it. We’ve come a long way from the three standard choices of vanilla, chocolate or strawberry.

“I don’t know, but we’re selling more and more milkshakes every year,” says Sara responding to the possible comeback of the illustrious milkshake. She says people just like to be treated so she tries to make every shake special. “Our chocolate has a scoop of rich, double chocolate ice cream, a bit of fresh milk and a huge drizzle of chocolate syrup.” It’s dark, dreamy and plush and personally? I’d tip a bit of Bailey’s for over-the-top perfection!

Milkshakes began as an eggnog mixture and like the rest of the Niagara, somewhere along the line the egg was dropped from the milkshake recipe. Avondale Dairy Bar included. Pity, a whipped egg added more froth, lightness and a decadent mouthfeel. But today we’re just not willing to eat raw eggs any longer.

Avondale buys fresh fruit from Niagara farmers and freezes or preserves it for their shakes. And while I wanted to know their secret formula of milk to ice cream ration, Sara is keeping that one close to her chest.

Inside the Crown Plaza Hotel in Niagara Falls is an old-fashioned, retro soda shop called Always Refreshing Soda Shop. They also make each milkshake by hand and offer dozens of flavours from their ice-cream counter. Soda Jockey, Jackie says they don’t have a secret formula, instead, it’s more a matter of intuition. “I put more ice cream to milk because that’s what people like, but I can make it thinner if they want by simply using less ice cream.” When I asked her if she could make a shake so thick it wouldn’t spill when turned upside down she replies, “I don’t think it’s possible with real ingredients.”

In downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake, Cows Ice Cream Parlour whips up the most luscious milkshakes I have ever had. They use homogenized milk with 16% butterfat and 9-ounces of super rich ice cream. Before you roll your eyes over the fearless fat they pack, know that flavour travels best on fat – that’s why they’re so good. Pick from over 30 flavours in their ice cream counter which is also ultra rich and you’ve got a pure decadent experience at the end of your straw. Try the Nutella with pecan pie ice cream or the salted caramel ice cream with marshmallow cream. A word of caution, at Cow’s they don’t make milkshakes other than in the hot summer months because the very nature of milkshakes remind us of summer drinks and indulgence.

This year you will find milkshakes appearing on more restaurant menus, some will even be made with booze again. The best ones are made by hand from scoops of rich ice cream and milk in a soda blender using a stainless steel cup. Some fast food restaurants don’t make shakes by hand with ice cream. Instead, they make shakes in automatic milkshake machines, which freeze and serve a premade milkshake mixture consisting of milk, a sweetened flavouring agent and a thickening agent. They are only available in 2 or 3 flavours and are often times the thickest shakes, the kind you can turn over without spilling a drop – back to my point that when it comes to milkshakes, thicker is not always better.

By: Lynn Ogryzlo

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