There was a time when you were simply defined as a chocolate, vanilla or strawberry ice cream kind of person. That has since changed with the introduction of mix-ins — the addition of different ingredients to ice cream to create a whole new flavor experience.

Now, you can be anything from a mint chocolate chipper to a fudge-swirled, M&M-mixed, cookie-dough-with-caramel-chunks kind of person.

Or, like the ambitious among us, get creative and make a combination that fits your own cool craving.

“In the 1940s to ’70s, our grandparents’ and parents’ mix-in flavors were flavors like butter pecan, maple walnut, pistachio nut, orange pineapple, chocolate marshmallow almond and fudge swirl — nothing too dramatic,” says John Gifford, co-owner of Maine’s own Gifford’s Ice Cream.

When the ’80s came along, many ice cream brands around the nation began experimenting with the addition of everything from name-brand candy to bold new flavors of ice cream.

“The first two most successful ones (at Gifford’s) were M&Ms in vanilla ice cream and Almond Joy candy bars in a coconut-flavored ice cream. Shortly after that we made Reese’s Pieces in peanut butter ice cream during the E.T. movie craze,” says Gifford of their early experimentations.

What would once be considered weird and wacky flavors by earlier generations of ice cream lovers were now all the rage among consumers. People flocked to ice cream stands to get a hold of the creative cool treats, and ice cream makers like Vermont-based Ben & Jerry’s fueled demand with new flavors like Cherry Garcia (cherry ice cream with chocolate and cherry chunks) and Chunky Monkey (banana ice cream with fudge chunks and walnuts).

With this new era in ice cream taking shape, the creativity of manufacturers spilled over to some enterprising consumers. If they weren’t able to find a particular blend or combination they craved, or were inspired by a new flavor they had recently tried, they started coming up with their own versions at home.

“My sister and I always experimented with mixing things into our ice cream when we were growing up,” says Emily Trefethen of Litchfield. “I think I’ve always mixed things into plain or boring ice cream flavors just to liven them up. Plus, if you get really good quality mix-ins, you can turn your ice cream into something even better than what’s available in the store.”

Her first try at mixing ingredients into ice cream stemmed from a visit to a small ice cream parlor near a summer camp her sister attended when they were children.

“Their cookie dough ice cream had huge hunks of dough in it,” recalls Trefethen. “So, we decided to try it at home since no one else made ice cream like that at the time.” It remains one of her favorites to this day. She uses homemade cookie dough — with lots of chocolate chips — and adds it to store-bought vanilla ice cream.

“We found that you need to shape the dough into little bite-sized balls and freeze them hard first, so the dough won’t just fall apart in the ice cream. Also, you have to make sure to thaw the ice cream a little so you can easily mix in your fillings. Too much, and it turns into soup; not enough, and you’re never going to be able to get a spoon through it.”

Favorite mix-ins she frequently adds to store-bought ice cream include jam (which she melts just a little bit before adding to the ice cream), peanut butter chips, peanut butter cups and bits of crunchy toffee bars.

“I think you can put anything in ice cream,” she says, “as long as it’s something you already like.”

Over the years, Trefethen has mastered her mix-ins to create the optimal icy dessert, and warns that trial and error is a necessary part of the process. She recommends adding your mix-ins in small amounts and taking frequent taste tests until you reach the desired consistency and flavor you’re looking for. She also emphasizes that sometimes keeping it simple is the best way to go.

“The closest thing to a disaster I’ve had in making my own ice cream flavor was trying to put too many fillings in at once and ending up with a mixture that doesn’t taste good together.”

Carolyn Court of Lewiston used to mix in her own ingredients to ice cream 25 years ago. “It would be a social event. We would have an ice cream party and have mix-ins. We’d crush cookies or use pre-made cookie dough and add it to ice cream,” says Court.

As time has progressed, flavors that she once created are now showing up on shelves, and purchasing them instead of making them herself is just too convenient to pass up.

That doesn’t mean she still doesn’t have ideas as to what would make a great new flavor. Take Carolyn’s Caramel Brownie Sundae — vanilla ice cream with brownie chunks, caramel swirl and pecans — for example. This decadent mixture, which was Court’s idea, was the winner of Gifford’s Ice Cream’s first ever Flavor Contest held this summer. Since winning the contest, Court’s new flavor will become a reality, hitting the ice cream maker’s five Maine stands in late August.

Even if you’re still a chocolate, vanilla or strawberry ice cream type of person, there’s always room for experimentation. Next time you’re perusing the frozen foods aisle for ice cream, think a little outside the box and add your own favorite mix-in. You may just surprise yourself.

Recipe

Emily’s Spiced Pumpkin Ice Cream

1.5 quarts (or 3 pints) of your favorite vanilla ice cream

1 can (15 ounces) 100% pure pumpkin

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ginger

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

Gingersnaps

Let your ice cream thaw until you can easily stir it till smooth (but don’t let it melt!). If you’re impatient you can put it in the microwave for 30 seconds on 70 percent, but make sure you keep an eye on it, because microwave powers vary.

Stir in pumpkin, vanilla and spices until well blended. Refreeze immediately. It may take an hour or two to firm up completely.

Serve with Gingersnaps.

Trefethen uses cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves to make pumpkin and spice mix-ins.

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