Growing up, my family made ice cream in the summer.
I don't remember it being a big deal, no more so than the trips to the beach and playing in the kiddie pool on the lawn and eating watermelon until my whole face and neck and forearms were slick with that sticky water.
It was simply one of the many perks of the season.
For most of my childhood, we had an old-fashioned hank-crank ice cream maker. With wooden slats stained black around the edges from years of moisture seeping out, and an inner chamber that probably turned out at least a gallon of ice cream per batch. I remember clearly the sound of that churn when it was packed with ice and rock salt, my dad sitting on the floor with it, cranking the handle around and around. Once I had the arm strength to turn the thing with any real force, I got added to the rotation of churners; the ice cream took forever to make and was hard work, made even harder when a big chunk of ice would get lodged between the wooden tub and the metal ice cream canister, and you'd need to give the crank a power-charged shove to get the thing turning again. Homemade ice cream was something you worked for.
The ice cream we always made was simple. Just milk, cream and sugar (or was it honey?), with some vanilla or mint extract for flavor. Sometimes there were chocolate chips, that would freeze up hard and be a jaw workout when you got a mouthful.
But the flavor was amazing. Bright and pure and freshly dairy, if that makes sense. Nothing to weigh it down, no thickness to coat your tongue and dull the experience. Just the perfect flavor of sweet cream rushing forward, exploding in your mouth even as the texture was dissolving into nothing on contact. (This last part was especially true when you ate the ice cream soft, straight from the churn.)
I always loved that ice cream.
I did not, however, always love it the next day, after it had been packed into Tupperware® containers and frozen solid overnight. And by solid, I mean solid. That stuff was so hard to scoop out! The scoops really weren't "scoops" at all, but shavings, jagged little pieces that you managed to scrape off the surface before the pressure was too much and your spoon bent backwards.
And once you finally extracted a bowlful, the experience of eating was nothing like it had been the day before. The ice cream had crystallized. It felt gritty in your mouth, and then it melted away. There was no richness, no creaminess, nothing left of the decadence of eating it fresh from the churn. The flavor was still strong, but it wasn't the most prominent feature anymore, having now been superseded by the sensation of eating ice crystals.
Still, it was homemade ice cream and it tasted good and we ate it anyway, grateful to have it.
But then I grew up, and found out about custard-based ice creams, and there was no turning back for me. Homemade ice cream became a much more grown-up affair, what with the egg yolks and tempering and creating elaborate, mature flavors. An added bonus was the diminished risk of my rich and creamy ice cream becoming more ice and less cream while I slept (although it did still happen with distressing regularity).
I have been haunted, however, by the memory of the flavor of that long-ago homemade ice cream. To my palate, custard-based ice creams taste more of eggs than fresh, pure cream, in the same way that homemade chocolate pudding is delicious, but very different from, say, chocolate milk. And sometimes, I just want some vanilla ice cream that tastes pure. I want it to scream at me that all it's made of is cream and vanilla, without distracting me with a fullness, a fattiness, that needs to be worked around in my mouth before it dissolves. I just want to taste my childhood summers, in one singular, startlingly intense flavor.
And I would like to be able to easily scoop it out of its container the next day, please.
Enter Jeni Britton Bauer. Do you recognize that name? I didn't, until very recently. I started hearing some chatter around the Internet about a new ice cream book that was out, by the owner of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, which is based in Ohio, and which I had never heard of. So I read some of the (rave, I might add) reviews, and felt like I had finally found the ice cream guru I needed. Here was a woman advocating leaving out the eggs from ice cream! And yet, her recipes produce rich, creamy, intensely-flavored confections, that don't ice up when frozen and remain scoopable the next day.
She's apparently got several secrets that ensure the success of her recipes. I say 'apparently,' because I haven't actually gotten my hands on a copy of the book yet. But from what I can gather from the reviews I've read, Jeni reduces her milk and cream mixture to eliminate some of the water, uses corn syrup to prevent ice crystals, adds a bit of cream cheese to the mix for body, and thickens it further with cornstarch.
To someone wishing to replicate and yet improve upon their childhood ice cream ideal, this all sounds like genius — if unorthodox — advice. I decided to plunge right in, book or no book to guide me. Because it's been hot, and we really needed ice cream now, and besides, there weren't any eggs in the house to add to my recipe even if I'd wanted to, not after my overzealous fresh pasta-making episode of a few days prior.
And then, as if it was the most normal thing in the world — just another hot weather perk — I made perfect ice cream. It tasted exactly how I wanted it to, needed it to: fresh and clean and lively, nothing heavy, nothing dull. It was still creamy and smooth and actually scooped the next day which, to be quite honest, flabbergasted me, despite the fact that I was hoping for just that.
I gave some to Josh. "What do you think?"
He took a thoughtful bite. His eyes lit up.
"What's in it?" he asked. "No," I said, "I want you to react to the ice cream, not the ingredients. Tell me what you think of it."
A moment, and then he started talking. He talked about making ice cream with his dad as a kid, the clean flavor of real cream it always had, the fact that he'd never had ice cream like that anywhere else, how much he loved it. He couldn't stop smiling.
I had made the ice cream that he had eaten with his dad.
It's no small feat, giving that back to someone.
Vanilla-Brown Sugar Ice Cream
Yields approximately 1½ pints
240 gr/8 fluid oz whole milk
240 gr/8 fluid oz heavy cream
80 gr light brown sugar
5 gr light corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract
large pinch kosher salt
30 gr cream cheese, room temperature, in a small bowl
Have ready a metal bowl set over an ice bath.
Combine everything but the cream cheese in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir with a wooden spoon to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a fast simmer and simmer for 5 minutes. Transfer to the metal bowl in the ice bath. Whisk a small amount of the mixture into the cream cheese until the cream cheese has dissolved, then whisk the cream cheese mixture into the ice cream base. Once the ice cream base has cooled, transfer it to the refrigerator and chill until very cold, up to overnight.
Strain the ice cream base into your ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions. Pack the churned ice cream into glass storage containers (or use a metal loaf pan), press plastic wrap directly on the surface, cover tightly, and freeze. Ice cream keeps for up to 3 months, although how anyone could resist eating it in the first few days is beyond me.
Posted by Tara Barker at 2:15 AM