As soon as I started putting on sunscreen to leave the house for errands on the weekend, I put my ice cream maker’s freezer bowl in the freezer. So far this spring/summer, I’ve made two delicious batches of ice cream. Both recipes are from David Lebovitz’s book The Perfect Scoop. When I first looked at this book a couple of years ago, I photocopied a couple of recipes but decided that overall, the book wasn’t for me. I think part of the reason was that most (all?) of the recipes in the book are custard-based ice creams, which require more time and attention than the basic ice creams I started out with. Custard-based ice creams are cooked before they’re frozen; for the basic ones you just mix everything together and whisk until all the sugar is dissolved. Now that I have time to play around with more elaborate recipes, I’ve made batches of two of the three recipes I copied from the book, and I think I need to get my hands on it again and re-assess.
The first batch I made was Guinness-Milk Chocolate Ice Cream. This was quite tasty, and I felt that the chocolate and Guinness flavors were very well-balanced. The second was Fresh Ginger Ice Cream, which was very refreshing, but still creamy. I think it would make a great pairing with a pistachio ice cream, but then I think pistachio ice cream (or gelato) goes with almost everything.
Both of these were easy enough to make – they just require some time and attention. For a custard-based ice cream, you start by heating up your dairy products. Most recipes call for whole milk and heavy cream, though you can make substitutions. Naturally, as you cut out more fat, you cut out more creaminess in the final product. I think I have arrived at a happy medium of whole milk and light cream for ice creams that I will take to parties or serve to guests; for ones that I plan to keep around as a snack I will probably continue to use skim milk and light cream.
Once you have heated up the dairy (my rule of thumb is that it’s ready to go when there are tiny bubbles forming around the side of the pan, and I can dip a fingertip in the milk and feel that it’s hot, but not so hot I feel burned), you have to whisk in some egg yolks. The first step in doing this is to temper the eggs by mixing in some of the heated milk. This raises the temperature of the eggs up to the same temperature as the milk, so they can be smoothly incorporated. Just dumping the eggs into the heated milk will cause them to cook, and then you will have hot milk with scrambled eggs, which does not make for a good ice cream.
After you’ve tempered the eggs and whisked them into the rest of the dairy, you put the mixture back over the heat to thicken into a custard. You have to keep a close eye on this, stirring constantly with a heatproof spatula so the bottom doesn’t scorch, and you must be ready to pull it off the heat as soon as it’s thickened. How do you know when you have a custard? When you pull the spatula out of the pot the custard will coat it, and when you drag your finger down the spatula the path you created remains – the custard doesn’t flow back together.
When you have a custard, you strain it into another bowl and then put that bowl in an ice bath and stir to help cool it down. From that point, it’s pretty hands-off. You put the custard in the fridge to cool completely (this also gives the flavors some time to come together). Once it’s cooled (for a few hours or overnight), you dump it into your ice cream maker, and in about 30 minutes you have some ice cream. The ice cream maker simultaneously aerates and freezes the mixture, and when it’s finished the texture of the ice cream is similar to soft serve. I usually put it in the freezer for a while to harden it a bit more. How hard the ice cream will ultimately get depends on the ingredients you’ve used.
Depending on the type of ice cream you’re making, at various steps in the process of making the custard you introduce your flavorings. For example, for the Guinness-Milk Chocolate Ice Cream, the chocolate and the Guinness are incorporated at the end. For the Fresh Ginger Ice Cream, you slice fresh ginger, blanch it, heat some of the dairy products and steep the ginger for an hour. At that point, you take the ginger out and proceed with making the custard.
I’ve found that the best way to make sure this process goes smoothly is to get everything set up before you start. Get out all of the ingredients, get the egg yolks lightly scrambled in a small bowl, set out a large bowl with a strainer, and get the ice bath ready. Measure out everything for the first step of heating the milk, and as soon as that goes on the stove measure out whatever you need for the next steps, then get back to the stove and keep an eye on your pot. This way you are ready to go with the eggs when the milk is heated, and you are ready for the final steps as soon as the custard has thickened. That will leave you free to stand over the stove as the custard is forming, and you’ll be ready to act as soon as it’s thickened enough.
As for the ice cream maker itself, it’s a pretty simple apparatus. It will have a freezer bowl—a bowl with thick walls full of liquid—that has to be frozen solid. Most people who make ice cream with any regularity keep their freezer bowl in their freezer, so it’s ready at any time. This takes care of freezing your custard into an ice cream. The ice cream maker will also have a paddle that introduces air to aerate the ice cream, which makes it fluffy (think about the difference between ice cream and plain frozen milk). My ice cream maker is a Cuisinart, with a freezer bowl that rotates around a stationary paddle. But you can also get a freezer bowl attachment for a KitchenAid stand mixer, and probably for other types of kitchen appliances as well. And you can also get an old-fashioned hand-cranked one if you have small children whom you need to keep out of your way for 45 minutes or so.
Regardless of what kind of ice cream maker you have, on a really hot day, you’ll want to make sure that you set it up in a cool spot (one way or another, the bowl is exposed to the outside air, and it will begin to melt; if it melts too fast, your ice cream will not turn out well). For those with central air, you can probably do this in the kitchen as usual. But for those of us with window units, this may be some other room (personally, once it starts to really get hot I will probably set up the ice cream maker in my bedroom in the evening – that side of the house is cooler at night, and that’s also the room where I’ll put in the air conditioner). I learned this the hard way last summer, and while the ice cream still tasted fine, since it hadn’t been properly frozen and aerated the texture was off. (I wound up using it to make milk shakes.)