The exact origins of ice cream and its inventor(s) remain some of life’s great mysteries. Historically, it is known to have existed as far back as the second century B.C. Historians conjecture that sherbet evolved into ice cream during the 16th century, and it is documented that Charles I regularly enjoyed “Cream Ice,” during the 17th century. The infamous Catherine de Medici introduced ice cream-like desserts to France when she became the wife of Henry II in 1553.
This particular decadency did not become publicly available until 1660 when the Sicilian Procopio introduced a recipe blending milk, cream, butter and eggs at Café Procope, the first café in Paris.
Enough history. For some of us, ice cream is practically religion, that most perfect comfort food. Ice cream is summertime, fireworks, the scoop of strawberry that your family dog stole off your cone, the state fair, holding hands with your first love, riding a ferris wheel under a summer sky and the élan of youth. I love ice cream.
For weeks now, I have been pursuing my passion and developing a base ice cream recipe. I am not quite ready to share it with you yet, but we’re getting close. What I will share with you are some tips and thoughts I have learned along the way.
It goes without saying that you must start with very high quality ingredients in order to produce the best quality ice cream. For me, this also means organic dairy products, and raw, organic sugar or honey. Don’t skimp on the ingredients. Ice cream has precious few of them and each one will count a lot in terms of taste and texture, and you take texture for granted until you start trying to make it.
Vanilla: the Bean or the Extract
Both! I find that vanilla beans on their own are not quite flavorful enough and if you put too many, the ice cream can get a bit gritty. On the other hand, if you use too much vanilla extract, it can get a bit of a boozy flavor, which is not necessarily bad, but not an effect that you want to produce accidentally. In general, I would say that a half gallon of ice cream should have a tablespoon of high quality vanilla extract in it plus some beans – perhaps 1/2 teaspoon.
To Cook or Not to Cook
Cook. Definitely cook. There are recipes available that do not require egg yolks and you can skip the cooking and cooling step if you use such a recipe. However, ice cream without egg yolks will be less creamy and the texture is an essential component of the ice cream experience.
It is also necessary to strain the custard and to cool it overnight. No matter how meticulous you are about separating your yolks, tiny bits of stringy egg matter will make it into the custard and they must be strained out before you chill your custard.
I have not yet arrived at the correct number of egg yolks to use. A dozen is too many (in a half gallon) and your ice cream will have an eggy flavor and may even have too chewy a texture. Four is too few, but it depends on the eggs that you use. Our hens produce very large eggs with enormous, orange yolks. They produce a creamier ice cream with a wonderfully dense texture. If you need to use store bought eggs, certainly get organic ones, but even the organic eggs are small and the yolks are pale and gaunt. If at all possible, get fresh eggs from local hens. I think the right number will be 5-7 but I will have to complete my experimentation first.
The best sweetener for ice cream is undoubtedly sugar. I think the right amount in a half gallon of ice cream is in the neighborhood of 2 cups, but I am still contemplating this. Whatever the flavoring is, the custard needs to be slightly over-flavored because when the ice cream is frozen, it mutes the flavoring.
Recently, I was trying to develop a sugar-free recipe. My initial attempts use Splenda, which is one of the chemical sweeteners to which I am philosophically opposed. I hope to try stevia soon, but stevia is a tricky beast which has a wickedly bitter aftertaste if you use too much. In any case, I did not want to use too much Splenda and the custard was still not sweet enough. So, I added some organic raw honey. Holy smokes! We are on to something here. Honey vanilla ice cream will bring tears of joy to your eyes.
A Song of Ice and Fire
Actually Ice and Salt. (Could not resist the Game of Thrones reference.) I find that the old fashioned method by churning with ice and salt works much more reliably that the more modern ice cream makers that have frozen tubs. I have used both.
Some Closing Thoughts
Well, that is about all I have to say for the moment. I am very close to having a finished recipe to share with you. I promise to do it soon. I will include some images here of my most recent batch. You can see the beautiful, golden color and creamy texture of the finished product. I wish you could taste it! (I may have to buy a new wardrobe one size up as my experimentation continues…)