The Fourth of July is nearly upon us and you know what that means: Root beer floats! The two are as firmly attached in my mind as apple pie is to Chevrolet.
The nation's hot weather palate has shifted from traditional ice cream sodas and hot fudge sundaes to Peppermint Java Chip Frappuccinos and Iced Matcha Lattes, although recent news reports have suggested that "pain at the pump" has prompted many working stiffs to cut back on their $4/day frozen coffee drink habit. While I have nothing against iced coffee, the super-sweet sensation of a proper root beer float is one of the rituals of summer that should be indulged in at least once between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Of course, the root beer float can easily be made at home. You can even use diet or lo-cal root beer, but you really should have a real vanilla ice cream or custard as your dairy. The label should show the base elements of ice cream and not much else -- cream, milk, sugar, egg yolks and vanilla. (I'm not trying to insult vegans or the lactose-intolerant; I am trying to discourage among regular ice-cream eaters the consumption of bad, overly fluffy ice cream.) Pour the root beer first and then add the ice cream scoops to cut down on unmanageable foaming.
Sprechers Root Beer is a popular choice and was recently picked as #1 in a taste test by The New York Times. On the other hand, the Isthmus root beer test panel likes Whole Foods "365" All Natural Root Beer and Blue Sky Organic brand for their taste and lack of high fructose corn syrup.
Take-home quarts from the Chocolate Shoppe, Culver's, Michael's or Babcock Hall will do for your vanilla. From the store freezer, I'd go for Haagen-Daz.
The potent combo of ice cream and root beer should have you reeling from the sugar rush; my suggestion is not to make the float too large and do not attempt to move after consuming.
If you want to leave the work to the pros, investigate the quality floats at Monty's Blue Plate (with two scoops of ice cream, also available with soy ice cream), the Hubbard Avenue Diner, or Sun Prairie's Market Street Diner (available in 10 oz. with 1 scoop, or 22 oz. with 2 scoops).
Another spot that knows a thing or two about floats is the venerable Ella's Deli. The root beer float is standard, but there's also a float called the Black and White made with chocolate soda and vanilla ice cream, plus others made with vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, cherry, pineapple, coffee, chocolate or mint syrups with vanilla ice cream.
Order up pretty much any combo of ice cream and sodas you want at the Babcock Hall Dairy Store on the UW campus. While parking is tight, there are a handful of spots with temporary metered parking right in front of the building. Grab your goodies and then dash down to Picnic Point to enjoy them.
A word about the much-lauded frosty glass mug: some aficionados claim it's essential, having something to do with keeping the root beer cold and carbonated as the ice cream melts. I can't vouch for that, but there's something that just seems wrong about having a root beer float in disposable cup.
Any area Culver's location will be happy to serve you a root beer float, made with their own Culver's root beer and their own vanilla custard, but Culver's lacks glassware.
If you crave the time-honored A & W float, the closest franchise to Madison is in Windsor, at Hwy 19 and I-39/90/94.