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WHAT’S SUMMER without soft serve? For many, that creamy, cold confection unleashes a swirl of nostalgia for a favorite drive-in, dive or Dairy Freeze of yesteryear. Now fancier spots are getting in on the act.

Rachel Marshall grew up in Pullman. Every summer her family would make the eight-hour trek to Whidbey Island in a car with no air-conditioning. “We’d stop for soft serve at this awesomely crappy place in Vantage, called Trips. It was the highlight of the drive because we knew we were halfway.”

But it was Cougar Country Drive In where Marshall discovered the joy of dipping crinkle-cut fries into her soft serve. “There’s something about the salt and sweet, the hot meeting the cold,” says the woman who invented Rachel’s Ginger Beer.

This July, Marshall installed a soft-serve machine at her Pike Place Market shop to speed up the process of making blended ginger beer floats, a high-demand item in the summer. Hard ice cream only took about 90 seconds, but “we needed to be faster with 60 people in line.”

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Lower in butterfat than hard ice cream, soft serve is made in a machine that freezes the mix and whips in air. Federal regulations require that anything labeled ice cream contain at least 10 percent butterfat. The industry standard for soft serve is 3.5 to 5 percent.

The “terribly low quality” of most powdered mixes surprised Marshall as she researched making soft serve. She settled on Snoqualmie Ice Cream, whose mix is 10 percent butterfat, with no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.

Lunchbox Laboratory, in Seattle and Bellevue, and Redmond’s Tipsy Cow Burger Bar use Snoqualmie’s mix for their shakes, too. Snoqualmie’s owner, Barry Bettinger, says he has seen an uptick in interest in soft-serve mix this year. The company’s own soft serve accounts for 20 percent of ice cream sales while it’s available from March through September at their Maltby scoop shop, a popular destination for ice cream-loving locals.

Chef Mike Robertshaw grew up in Maine, where his go-to place for soft serve was Red’s Dairy Freeze and his childhood cone of choice was “half and half with jimmies” (West Coast translation: a swirl with sprinkles). Now he’s experimenting with flavors like sweet pea, salted caramel and tomato at Matt Lewis’ Restaurant Roux in Fremont, using a refurbished soft-serve machine he chanced upon at a Portland restaurant equipment store.

He starts each batch from scratch using a 12 to 15 percent butterfat custard made with eggs and three types of milk. Getting the hang of it has been tricky, says Robertshaw. “I’ve actually made butter in this thing — malted chocolate butter.”

For Brian O’Connor, memories of soft serve are inextricably bound with Little League games and outings with his parents. He’s giddier than an 8-year-old to have a 700-pound soft-serve machine taking up half his pantry at The Hollywood Tavern in Woodinville. “I can have some anytime I want.”

He uses a Darigold mix that is about 4 percent butterfat. The towering vanilla, chocolate and swirl sundaes are served with long spoons, useful for digging into the footed glass bowls and fishing for the last of bits of Marcona almond brittle, or house-made hazelnut chocolate chip cookie, or the “magic shell” that forms when warm, bittersweet chocolate sauce hardens around the curves of the cold peak.

Perhaps paying his own happy childhood memories forward, O’Connor offers soft serve to kids after dinner, gratis, with an OK from Mom and Dad. “As a parent, I know I’d appreciate it, and they’ll come back.”

Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.