When summer sizzles, nothing spells relief like a frozen dessert. Well, OK, maybe sipping a frozen margarita while floating lazily across the surface of a glacial lake might rank a touch higher on the refreshment scale, but ice cream has the whole nostalgic-memories-of-childhood thing going for it - and it's easier to find.
According to ice cream folklore, the Roman emperor Nero created Europe's first frozen dessert by transporting ice and snow from the Alps and serving it to guests with honey and crushed fruit. (Ice cream folklore makes no mention of Nero's unfortunate musical career.) Later, Marco Polo returned from the Far East with recipes for flavored ices made with water and milk, reinforcing the Italian devotion to all things sweet and frozen.
Early American history includes ice cream references as well. George Washington's household contained a "cream machine for ice" and Thomas Jefferson favored the delicacy so much that it was the featured dessert at his second inaugural. The American taste for ice cream got a boost around 1850 with the invention of the rotary paddle wooden bucket freezer; a few decades later, commercial refrigeration made the mass manufacture of ice cream possible. Americans have never looked back.
Surprisingly, Americans are no longer the world's largest consumers of ice cream -- we've been surpassed by New Zealand. The Kiwis gobble down nearly 28 quarts per capita every year, while we lag behind at a mere 24 quarts per person. Canada and Australia are hard on our heels, but the folks who invented the whole idea - the Italians and the Chinese - rank way down on the list.
Most of our ice cream now comes from commercial producers, but home ice cream makers have made something of a resurgence over the last couple of years. For those with a yearning for yesteryear - and a desire for a workout - White Mountain makes beautiful hand-cranked wooden ice cream freezers, just like Great-Grandma used to have. The company also produces an electric model for the faint of heart or arm; both use ice and salt to do the freezing and will make up to four quarts at a time.
Given the Italians' historic link to ice cream, it's no surprise that several premium ice cream machines come from Italy and other parts of western Europe. Some are hand-cranked and some are electric; some use the traditional ice and salt, while others come with bowls that must be pre-frozen before each batch. The top-of-the-line electric models come with their own freezer units, thus saving both time and labor while draining the wallet. Gaggia, DeLonghi, Donvier, Musso, and Simac all sell their premium wares in the States, either in stores or online.
Among mainstream brands, Krups and Cuisinart get top marks. The Krups La Glaciere is a straightforward 1.5-quart electric machine with a bowl that goes in the freezer; it retails for about $50. Cuisinart's niche is a two-bowl model that allows the connoisseur to produce two different kinds of ice cream at once - not a small consideration, given that the bowl must be frozen for up to 24 hours before use.
Purely in the interest of accurate reporting, I went out and bought myself an ice cream maker a couple of weekends ago. I'd like to say that I picked a hand-cranked model that relies on ice and salt, so that I could feel the historic connection to generations past and truly earn my delicious fat-laden desserts. But, alas, the hand-cranked models commanded too high a price ($149 for the White Mountain model), and I didn't want to risk the extra variable of ice and salt. (Besides, my ice maker doesn't work.) Luckily, I stumbled on last year's Krups model sitting on the clearance shelf at Fred Meyer, and I was in business.
Ice cream contains few ingredients - milk, cream, sugar, and sometimes eggs - but the endless variations of ratios, cooking times, freezing times and add-ins led quickly to confusion. Eggs or no eggs? Yolks only? Heavy cream or light? A small recipe book came with the machine, but like a good reporter, I sought out multiple sources for my research, finding recipes on my bookshelf, in the library, and online. Since the most basic ice cream flavor - and also the most popular - is vanilla, I decided to start there.
Carefully following instructions, I stirred my milk-sugar-eggs mixture and heated it for an indeterminate amount of time. It's been many years since I made custard from scratch, so I couldn't quite recall how to tell when it was done. After about 20 minutes of constant stirring, I decided it had to be finished. I added the cream and vanilla and let it cool for a few hours while the bowl was chilling in the freezer. Then I assembled the machine with a resounding clack, turned it on, and excitedly poured the cool mixture into the container. My enthusiasm for watching the process waned as I realized it was rather like watching a cement mixer. Instead, I ran off and told the neighbors to be prepared for the first batch of exquisite homemade vanilla in about 30 minutes.
Sadly, after the allotted time, my "ice cream" still resembled thin pudding. When the neighbors came knocking, I had to admit bitter defeat. I poured the mixture back into a container to chill overnight and stuck the mixing bowl back in the freezer, pondering the possible causes for failure. Had I not cooked the custard long enough? Was the mixture or the bowl not cold enough? Was it too hot in the kitchen?
After a good night's sleep, I tackled the vanilla again. This time the thoroughly chilled mixture froze to the consistency of semi-melted soft-serve ice cream. Undaunted - and encouraged by the lovely flavor when I licked the paddle - I spooned the mixture into a quart container and placed it in the freezer, stirring gently every hour or so. At last, after about six more hours, my vanilla could be scooped.
I convened my panel of illustrious taste-testers and all agreed that I was clearly on the right track. The flavor matched anything Ben & amp; Jerry's had to offer, although the homemade version wasn't nearly as smooth and creamy. Still, the slightly granular texture and pure flavors combined to delight, and I vowed to experiment further.
Over the next few days, I tried a coffee ice cream with grated chocolate and almonds, a rich and creamy vanilla huckleberry, and a blackberry-raspberry sorbet. I finally got the hang of custard-making and I discovered that if I made the custard one day and froze it the next, after chilling both custard and bowl overnight, the results were more consistent. My indefatigable taste-testers critiqued every batch, reaching consensus that the huckleberry topped them all. (Indeed, it was the richest and creamiest of the lot.) The coffee topped my list for flavor, although I'll have to work on the texture. And everyone expressed surprise at the creamy texture and fat-free nature of the sorbet, thanks to the addition of whipped egg whites.
Is there more ice cream making in my future? Oh, definitely. (The neighbors won't let me stop now.) I still want to try an egg-less ice cream, as well as more sorbets. And I want to perfect my vanilla. All in all, even though a more deluxe machine might freeze faster, I'm happy with my little Krups. We've been through a lot together this week. And I've even got a recipe for frozen margaritas.