story of a dish

Fat Cat Sundaes

By / Photography By Katherine Lenhart | September 27, 2017
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Sarah Johnston of Fat Cat Creamery places the finishing touch on the sundae

My grandmother orders her sundaes with a cup of hot fudge on the side, so she always has extra. When there is no more ice cream to top, she eats the fudge straight, which always transforms this nonagenarian into a child nine decades younger—rapturous and besotted.

There are few I have met with the same enthusiasm for ice cream, but Sarah Johnston of Fat Cat Creamery is one of them. Ice cream is her favorite food; even when she was working 14-hour days and eating only ice cream, she didn’t get sick of it.

It began when she and some friends were looking for and not finding good-quality ice cream in the Heights. They began experimenting with their own recipes, and soon Sarah was making small-batch ice cream from scratch and selling it to ice cream fanatics all over the Heights through catering gigs, Revival Market and Antidote Coffee. Then there was ice cream school (yes, there is an ice cream school) at Penn State, and on to the creamery now situated on North Shepard at 19th Street, which feels like it has always been there.

It may be the hum of freezers or the local vibe, but the cats plastered all over the shop definitely add to the homey atmosphere. Fat Cat (whose real name was Wallace) was Sarah’s beloved soft-furred polydactyl pet. Positioned among the feline relics is a sign on the wall proclaiming “finest local small batch creamy goodness”—a clue to the values that run this neighborhood shop. Not only is almost everything made in house (Fluff Bake Bar’s Unicorn Cookies are the only exception), but Sarah makes a concerted effort to buy mostly local ingredients.

She started sourcing from Revival Market and farmers markets, then expanded to larger producers when demand grew. These days, eggs come from Ole Dad Farm, whole milk and heavy cream from Mill-King Creamery and Sarah works with Mark Decker at Brothers Produce to source fruits and other produce.

The little room in the back of the shop is where eggs, sugar and milk are turned into old-fashioned custard and dark chocolate, cocoa powder, butter and cream become smooth and irresistible hot fudge. It smells of recently baked waffle cones and toasted pecans. Some of these become my sundae. This is where flavor-maker Dylan Rodriguez, resident ice cream champ and production manager, develops new ice cream flavors every month, like Butter Pretzel ice cream, Arnold Palmer and probably frosted carrot cake for September. Or try October’s Caramel Stroopwafel, Saint Arnold’s Pumpkinator and Apple Pie.

As we talked, Sarah let me see the magic behind the counter as she crafted a sundae. The classic smell of ice cream in freezers and recently baked waffle cones wafted around us as she layered the silkiest fudge I’ve ever seen on top of her Mexican vanilla ice cream. “Seeing somebody taste the ice cream that I made up in my kitchen, way back when, and say ‘Oh, wow, that is good’ is an amazing feeling,” Sarah said. And wow, was it ever.

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