By Lori Weisberg
When the slight chill of spring gradually gives way to the warmth of summer, thoughts and cravings turn to sun-soaked afternoons on the water, outdoor barbecues and, of course, the cooling comfort of ice cream.
Sure, we can turn to our always reliable friends at Ben & Jerry’s, Haagen-Dazs and Baskin-Robbins to satisfy our primal urge for this most elemental of desserts, but instead of heading to the nearest ice cream parlor or supermarket freezer case, why not make it ourselves as a way to celebrate the Memorial Day weekend?
With little more than a moderately priced electric machine, a saucepan, cream, eggs and sugar, you can churn your way to bliss with homemade versions as basic as vanilla and chocolate and as elegant as caramel pecan laced with a crunchy brittle.
Whatever your passion, there is nothing quite so satisfying and instantly gratifying as ice cream prepared at home using a touch of inspiration and quality ingredients, free of all the additives and stabilizers commonly found in the store-bought varieties.
While there are a couple of key steps that require a watchful eye when making the custard base used in many ice creams, the process itself is relatively simple and can be honed after just a couple of test runs. And if you want to try more healthful options, fruit-laden sorbets are an ideal way to satiate one’s desire for a still silken frosty dessert.
“With some of the trends in food right now and the economy, people are getting back to our roots, which is more family time and doing things together, and making your own ice cream at home is a great way to get the kids involved,” said pastry chef Melissa Logan of the Grand Del Mar resort in San Diego. “And using a machine, you get to reap your reward almost right afterward, plus it makes you feel good. You feel like, ‘Wow, I can actually do this myself just like Grandma churned her ice cream at home.'”
The rich creaminess and velvety texture we associate with top-flight ice creams derive largely from the heavy cream and milk that, when melded with egg yolks, form the foundation of the custard base, not unlike the process used to make a pot de creme or vanilla dessert sauce.
While ice cream can be prepared at home without the use of eggs, the end product won’t be quite as rich. Gelatos typically do not use eggs, but purists say a special machine is needed to make them because their denser, stickier texture is defined by having less air whipped into them.
The key thing to remember when making custard-based ice creams is to take care to temper the eggs when incorporating them into the hot cream and milk so as not to scramble them. This may take a little practice, but with patience and keen attention, it will make a big difference in the texture and consistency of your base.
Once the milk, cream and sugar are heated, the egg yolks are slowly eased into the mixture through a tempering process in which a portion of the hot liquid is slowly blended into the eggs to avoid shocking them. Then comes the stage where a little more finesse is required.
“It’s just a slow and low process, meaning you want a low heat and take it slow,” advises Logan. “Use a heat-resistant rubber spatula instead of a whisk, which can’t get into all the crevices, and constantly scrape the bottom of pan as it slowly thickens. We’ll take our spatula and pull it out, and when you can draw a line through the sauce with your finger, it’s done.”
James Foran, the pastry chef at Market Restaurant and Bar in Del Mar, Calif., suggests using a double boiler as opposed to cooking the custard over direct heat to further ensure that the yolks will not curdle. He offers a technique that he uses in the restaurant to avoid overcooking the custard base.
“I put the sugar in the milk and cream and bring it to a scald, which prevents the milk and cream from scorching,” said Foran, who’s so fond of ice cream he incorporates it into the Market dessert menu year-round. “When you add sugar, it takes a hotter temperature to bring it to a boil. When I temper that hot mixture with the eggs, I don’t have to further cook it. It’s usually done.”
Before even getting to the heating process, it’s a good idea to have an ice bath ready to help hasten the cooling of the base, especially when eggs are involved. Once the custard has cooled, it’s best to refrigerate the mixture overnight, not only to further cool it down but to give added flavorings like lemon zest or vanilla time to permeate the mixture.
Ice cream provides an ideal opportunity for taking advantage of in-season fruits, like berries and various stone fruits, which can be pureed or chopped and mixed into the custard base. For an even more intense fruit flavor, sorbets are the way to go and require not much more than sugar, water and an infusion of fruit juice or puree.
Where home cooks can get especially creative is with the add-ins that can give your ice cream a little crunch and whimsy. David Lebovitz, the Paris-based author of “The Perfect Scoop” cookbook, likes to enhance his ginger ice cream with candied peanuts, or he’ll raid the icebox for some leftover brownies or homemade peppermint patties to enliven a vanilla or mint ice cream.
Logan, too, is a fan of sweet and crunchy additions. Just remember, she says, to fold those in after churning the ice cream while it’s still relatively soft.
“You get to, in essence, be Ben and Jerry and play with different things,” she said. “When I eat ice cream, I like something crunchy. For example, I’ll do an espresso macadamia nut crunch in the restaurant. It’s great fun, especially with little kids, because they can make up their own flavors, like chopping up a candy bar, or you can make a caramel sauce and drizzle that in the ice cream after it’s churned.”
When it comes to choosing the machine you’ll use to freeze the ice cream, most home cooks will likely opt for the canister style in which you pre-freeze the metal container that is filled with a liquid coolant. The only downside is that the canisters do require freezer space and they must be refrozen for each batch of ice cream.
Alternatively, there are self-refrigerating models that have a built-in compressor but are far more costly.
In its upcoming fall issue of Cook’s Illustrated, America’s Test Kitchen will rate the six models it tested, including both the self-refrigerating and canister types. Of those that require pre-freezing, the favorite was Cuisinart’s ICE-20, which sells for $50. Among the self-refrigerating, the top pick was the Whynter ice cream maker, which retails for $220, according to Jack Bishop, editorial director for America’s Test Kitchen. The ice cream made in each was equally good, he said.
Bishop pointed out that ice cream churned at home with a machine is preferable to the store-bought variety simply because it hasn’t been refrozen repeatedly as it makes its way from the manufacturer to the supermarket and then to your freezer. He noted that after ice cream is churned in the canister-style home machines, it needs to stay in the freezer for a couple of hours to harden.
But then, who can really wait that long?
Lori Weisbert writes about food for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
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