A Chat With Ryan Kurr, Ice Cream Witch
Find out how this reality TV star infuses his ice cream flavors with witchcraft.
Hello, wonderful witches!
Coming to you today from Colorado, where I’m participating in a conference for travel writers (my day job!) and enjoying the stunning scenery. Today I walked past no less than three ice cream shops and one gelato shop, so I’m basically in heaven.
Speaking of ice cream, did you watch Clash of the Cones last year? It was a reality show hosted by Ben & Jerry’s, where six ice cream masters competed to create an original B&J flavor. One of the contestants, Ryan Kurr, was one of us! He calls himself the Ice Cream Witch and considers making ice cream a type of magic.
I’m so excited to tell you that for today’s newsletter, we have an interview with the Ice Cream Witch himself! Read on to geek out over spellcraft in its sweetest form.
Kitchen Witch Travel Tip
Are you into visiting spooky spots? Me too, of course. So I was extra pumped when I learned of a haunting in Victoria, British Columbia… in a chocolate shop. Rogers’ Chocolates, a National Historic Site, is the oldest chocolate ship in Victoria, and it’s apparently haunted by the founders, Charles and Leah Rogers. They opened the shop in 1885 and worked so hard that they often slept in the store’s kitchen. The couple loved the shop so much that they seem to have never left.
Chatting With Ryan Kurr, Ice Cream Witch
By Joanna O’Leary
Ryan Kurr is a multi-talented Midwesterner whose many titles include ice cream master, mystic practitioner, and published author. The self-proclaimed “Ice Cream Witch” recently competed on the Food Network’s Ben & Jerry’s: Clash of the Cones, where he wowed judges and viewers with his innovative flavor combinations. Kurr resides in New Orleans, where he runs the Arcana Creamery and has just released Black Hen, the third installment of his Esoteric Alchemy series.
KW: Tell me a bit about your background. Where is home?
RK: This is a tricky question as I have lived so many places. I was born in Iowa, moved to Minnesota when I was one year old, and grew up there. In my twenties, I moved to Scotland for a bit; then to San Francisco for five years; then took a job in Reykjavik, Iceland; then moved to Chicago for seven years.
I am now in New Orleans, but I don’t plan to be here for too long. The heat doesn’t agree with me. I miss seasons, I miss the coast, and the tall trees and mountains. Chicago is where I call “home.” It feels the most like “home” to me—it’s where I experienced the most personal growth, made the most friends, and learned the most lessons.
KW: When did you first start making ice cream, and what was the first flavor you made?
RK: I have always loved ice cream, but I didn’t begin to make it until I moved to Chicago. It all started one very hot and humid summer in a garden apartment in the Pilsen neighborhood. My boyfriend at the time and I decided to try making ice cream to cool off. We failed miserably.
The very first ice cream that I wanted to work on perfecting was vanilla. This may sound banal, cliché, and uninspired, but vanilla is actually a very complex flavor. It is so under-appreciated and often cheapened by using subpar ingredients. But when done right, vanilla is dreamy. My version uses Madagascar and Mexican vanilla beans as well as a house-made extract that I’ve had for almost a decade, which includes whatever vanilla beans I have used over the years. My vanilla has just the right body, texture, and saltiness that allows the incredibly complex nuances of the vanilla bean to shine through.
KW: Why ice cream, as opposed to baking or cooking?
RK: I’ve always been in the kitchen ever since I was very young. I enjoyed cooking savory meals, but my heart always loved sweets. I started out baking because it was accessible and when I was out of school in the summer, I would tackle the cookbook and learn how to read a recipe. Ice cream was a passion that developed later.
Baking and pastry is a very challenging area of cooking—it’s more scientific than the savory side. Ice cream has always been my favorite dessert and when I realized that an ice cream base is really just a blank canvas for a world of flavors, textures, and even temperatures, I threw myself into it. I wanted to make ice cream that spoke to people. I wanted it to be an emotional experience, with thought behind every choice.
I can’t truly explain why I loved making ice cream more than anything else; I always gravitated towards it for reasons I still don’t fully understand. I wasn’t automatically amazing at it. I had to work really hard, but I found out that I had a knack for it. Ice cream just… makes sense to me.
KW: And you identify as a witch?
RK: I do identify as a witch, though “witch” can be many different things to many different people. I sometimes use the term “mystic practitioner” because my practice is less rule-based and more intuitive. It’s also not something I do on a regular basis, like spellwork, for example. I do, however, believe that magic is art, and there is a chance to incorporate art into everything you do, from how you drink your water to how you take your shower.
KW: How has witchcraft and paganism influenced your pursuit of making ice cream?
RK: I love this question, because cooking really is alchemy, and that includes ice-cream-making. Many years ago, before I started making ice cream professionally, I sat down and delved into the zodiac. I learned about the foods, ingredients, and colors that are associated with each sign. From there, I used my culinary intuition to develop a flavor that would most represent each sign (in the most general sense, as we are obviously more than just our sun sign, and it would be impossible to satisfy everyone’s personal variations).
However, the influence extends beyond the zodiac theme. The art of ice cream, and cooking or baking in general, is a craft, something to practice and perfect. My ice cream is spellwork. A lot of thought goes into a flavor, and the purpose is to evoke an emotion or share an experience. Think about when people say their food is made with love. Usually you can taste that—you can feel that. The intention is what matters. If you craft your food with intention and focus that energy on every step, you can feel it in the result.
KW: What was the most challenging thing about participating in Clash of the Cones? What was the most rewarding?
RK: Time was the most challenging. Absolutely. The most difficult thing was working against the clock, especially with something as temperature-sensitive as ice cream. A custard base has to be cooked and then cooled very quickly, and it must be as cold as possible before churning to encourage the best texture and prevent the formation of large ice crystals, which can create an icier or grainy product. That goes also for the inclusions (anything you add to the ice cream like swirls or chunks). Many inclusions at their finished state are hot, and when you only have a few hours to cook all this stuff, in a kitchen you’re unfamiliar with, with a ton of cameras in your face, it’s difficult. It seemed like a lot of time at the start, but three hours to make your base or bases and all your inclusions, then have the mixture be cold enough to be put into the machine and freeze solid—it isn’t a whole lot of time. We didn’t have to do dishes though, so that was helpful.
The most rewarding part was being able to share the ice cream with random people during the tastings. It was very valuable to have people tell you on the spot that they loved your ice cream or that it was their favorite of all the ones they tried, especially when you struggled to make it in time or something didn’t go right. There is nothing better than making someone smile from the food you made for them.
KW: Do you still keep in touch with the other competitors or the judges?
RK: I keep in contact with a few of the competitors and if we’re traveling and nearby, we try to make it a point to see each other. Even some of the producers on the show, who are kind of like the shadowy, mystic creatures that make the show happen that the audience never gets to see, turned out to be really cool people and we message each other from time to time.
KW: What is your favorite flavor of ice cream to eat and make?
RK: My favorite flavor to eat is vanilla. Second to that is probably mint chip or salted caramel. Some of my favorite ones to make are the ones that are inspired by music. I have a lot of flavors that are inspired by musicians or songs. It’s always a really fun challenge for me. I will usually take a song, look at the lyrics, the mood or theme, and the visuals if there is a video, and I will interpret that into a flavor. I actually did this for the finale on Clash of the Cones with Tori Amos as the inspiration. Two of my most favorite musically inspired ice creams are “Cocoon” (birch ice cream with raspberry fig swirls and sugar pearls), and “Five Years” (passionfruit ice cream with pomegranate swirls, pink peppercorn, and candied ginger). But I’m probably best known for “Black Lake,” based off of Björk’s song of the same name. It was black licorice and black cocoa ice cream, with cream cheese lava, Icelandic lava salt, and gold leaf.
KW: I understand you are also an accomplished published author.
RK: I am! I just finished up the final book in the Esoteric Alchemy trilogy, The Black Hen, which will be released this fall. It’s a story about a group of people that learn about their ability to perform magic in order to restore emotional, spiritual, and mental balance to the world. It is really a story about witches for witches.
KW: What’s next for you with regards to ice cream, witchcraft, or both?
RK: My ice cream goal is to expand to another state. I would really like to live in the Pacific Northwest, so I’d like to open a shop there. I’ve just started shipping cookies nationwide through Arcana Creamery, so that might help push me in that direction.
As far as witchcraft, my practice and frequency has changed over the years, but I think I would like to combine the two in some way in the future—whether that is a YouTube channel or with more books. In my Esoteric Alchemy series, for example, I have spells and recipes in the back of the book that are featured or mentioned throughout the story.
Joanna Shawn Brigid "Bridey" O'Leary was born in Alexandria, Virginia; grew up in central Pennsylvania and Massachusetts; and now calls Houston, Texas, home. She graduated from Harvard University with a degree in English and earned a PhD in Victorian literature from Rice University. Bridey serves as a culinary consultant, food historian, and travel/food critic for media outlets such as Let's Go travel guides, Wine Enthusiast, BlackBook, the Onion, Houston Press, Houstonia, ColinCowie Weddings, and Fit, Strong & Sexy. She is also the founder and CBO (Chief Baking Officer) of Cooky By Bridey.
In the next issue…
Paid subscribers, watch your inbox in a couple hours for a special Mabon issue. The next newsletter will have… well, I’m not sure yet. We’ll find out together!
See you then!