When you write a cooking column, some things, no matter how much you like them, just aren't going to be hits. Take clams, for instance. I looked at the traffic statistics: Apparently no one wants to eat, much less make, black pepper clams, even though they're so good they'll make your toes curl. But ice cream? Ice cream is an easy sell. In fact, I won't even have to sell it. Watch this:
THE ICE CREAM MAN IS COMING!
Ok. How many of you started to look out the window?
Even though really good ice cream is easy to come across in any supermarket, here's why it's worth making: Its ubiquity means that people are endlessly impressed when you serve them homemade ice cream. "Whoa. He cares enough to make his own ice cream," people think. "I bet he's a hot date." Don't laugh. That's how it goes (sometimes).
And here's the other reason: It's a limitless way for you to express your creativity. Once you learn one basic recipe for ice cream base -- just one five-ingredient, minutes-long recipe -- you can make nearly any flavor you can think of, from the fundamentals like vanilla to wherever your mind takes you. A couple of years ago, I rocked peanut-butter-and-jelly-on-toast and French-fries-with-pepper flavors to great acclaim (and romance. See?).
The key is to remember two techniques to flavor the base: The Steep and The Mix-In. The first takes advantage of the fact that milk, having both water and fat, can extract flavor from any spice, herb, fruit, nut, you name it. The second is pretty self-explanatory.
Technique 1: THE STEEP
The first step in making ice cream is to dissolve sugar in hot milk. Well, while that milk is hot, you can throw almost anything else in there to draw out flavor, too. A couple of cinnamon sticks and you have cinnamon ice cream. A bunch of mint leaves, and you have mint ice cream. How about a handful of toasted walnuts? Or tea? Or coffee? Different ingredients, of course, will have different ideal steeping times. A whole vanilla bean might take advantage of a full half-hour; coffee or tea only four or five minutes, just like if you were making a cup of it to drink; a fresh herb only a couple of minutes. Experiment! If you're unsure of how long to steep something, just give it a dunk and taste it every few minutes. If it tastes weak, let it keep going or add more; if it's getting strong, strain it out. Easy!
Fresh herbs -- basil, mint, tarragon, thyme, etc.
Spices (toasted; strained out if whole) -- cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, cloves, allspice, black pepper, etc .
Nuts (toasted, chopped and strained), especially if you follow up with a nut oil and maybe a mix-in or topping of chopped nuts
Fruits -- these can be tricky because of iciness or acid content (see notes below), but often pureed fruits work well simply stirred into the ice cream base when it's cooled. For steeping in hot milk, peels or zests (from citrus), or even certain pits, cores, trims, or seeds can make for lovely flavors if soaked briefly.
Teas -- any kind of tea you would drink with milk, or even lots or herbal varieties like chamomile, peppermint, verbena (I adore verbena)
Coffee -- Grind it up about French-press size, steep in near-boiling milk for about four minutes just like you were making a cup, and strain out
Booze -- Whisk(e)ys and of course nut, fruit, or herb-flavored liquors have fantastic, often concentrated flavor, but remember two things: 1) it softens the ice cream, so add it lightly (alcohol really doesn’t want to freeze) and 2) it might be easier to add while the base is liquid, but make sure it's cold; if the base is still hot, it can curdle the milk. Cheese ice cream! Gross.
Oils -- Olive oil ice cream was all the rage a decade ago, and why not? It's got great flavor, as do nut oils. (I am a diehard fan of sesame oil.) Again, no reason to add these when hot; they incorporate better when whisked into the cooled base.
Go crazy -- candies (why not let them dissolve?), candied fruit, cookies or certain harder baked goods, like breakfast cereals (soak them briefly, don't let them disintegrate, and strain them out good), or experiment with substituting some of the milk or cream with other forms of dairy, like sour cream, cream cheese, or even coconut milk. Note that with some of these sweeter suggestions, you may want to lighten up on the sugar in the recipe.
Technique 2: THE MIX-IN
Ever wonder how some ice creams get those "ribbons" of, say, chocolate? It's all timing and a light hand. When the ice cream comes out of the freezing machine, it's still quite soft and malleable. At that point, you can dump the ice cream out into a frozen bowl (or a bowl set in an ice-water bath, so it doesn't melt while you work it) and gently fold in chocolate sauce, jams, peanut butter, whatever. Do it lightly, digging a spatula to the bottom of the bowl and using a scooping, folding motion while rotating the bowl and soon the ribbons will form. Or, if you want it more thoroughly incorporated, just give it a few more folds. This also works, of course, with chunkier things -- toasted nuts, chocolate chunks, broken-up candy canes, etc.
Fruity things -- jams, which have most of the water cooked out of them, so they don't really get icy when frozen; chopped candied fruits; chopped fresh fruits if you're not concerned about them turning into icy chunks
Nut butters -- peanut butter, of course, but almond, walnut, and all the rest of them are gorgeous. If they're really stiff, you might thin them slightly with a little bit of warm cream to make them malleable, but don't liquefy them.
The traditional -- chocolate chunks, chopped candies, toasted coconut, marshmallow bits
Crunchy -- pretzels, canned potato stix (really!), breakfast cereals, though these ice creams should be eating within a day or two; the crunch doesn't last very long.
A couple notes and exceptions:
Acidic things -- lemon, other citrus, blueberry, etc. If you add these while the base is still warm, it may curdle the milk, so be careful about how much you use, and be extra-sure the base is cool if not cold.
Chocolate -- I have to admit that I'm afraid of making chocolate ice cream, because the chemical composition of the chocolate affects the way the ice cream freezes in weird, inscrutable ways I don't understand. But you shouldn't be afraid! Just check with a specific chocolate ice cream recipe for how much to use and how to incorporate it.
Most of all, have fun and experiment! Ice cream has a wide margin of error; even batches I thought were horribly screwed up were met with happy, drippy smiles. And let us know in the comments or email what flavors you come up with!
Basic ice cream
Adapted from David Liebovitz via gourmet.com
Makes about 2 pints
I love this recipe because it's so easy to remember -- two yolks and a quarter-cup of sugar for every cup of dairy. But as long as you stick to the general idea, feel free to switch things up to taste. Want it lighter? Switch some of the cream with milk, or drop an egg yolk or two. Add or take away a little sugar. You get the idea. And, of course, flavor it however you'd like.
Now keep in mind that the point of this is that it's all-purpose -- it's great, but it's not supposed to be technically perfect. Some flavors are better served with specific ratios of milk and cream, etc. But whatever, leave that to the professionals. We're here for fun.
- 1 cup whole milk
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 6 large egg yolks
- pinch salt
Special equipment: an ice cream maker, and a heat-proof spoon or, preferably, a heat-proof spatula
- Heat milk, about half the sugar, half the cream, and salt in a heavy saucepan. Bring just to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. If steeping for flavor, add your ingredients, take off heat, and cover.
- Meanwhile, in large-ish bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and the other half of the sugar.
- When the steeping is done, strain or fish out the flavorings and reheat the milk mixture, just until hot. Pour about half of it in a slow stream into the egg yolks, whisking constantly. (This is called tempering the yolks, and it heats them up evenly without turning them into scrambled eggs.) Pour the milk-yolk mixture back into the pot and cook it over medium-low heat, stirring constantly and making sure you're scraping the bottom. Cook it until it's thick enough to coat the back of your spoon: Swipe the spoon with your finger. If it leaves a trail about the width of your finger, it's ready. Don't let it boil.
- Strain the ice cream base through a fine-mesh sieve into a metal bowl. (The straining catches any bits of egg that may have scrambled; it's kind of optional if you were careful.) Stir in the rest of the cream, and let cool. Cover and chill in fridge until cold, at least 6 hours or overnight. (If you really don't want to wait, dunk the bowl in an ice water bath, stirring, until it's cold.) At this point, you have what they call crème anglaise, a lovely dessert sauce. (If using fruit purees or booze, this would be a good time to stir it in.)
- Freeze in ice cream maker, according to manufacturer's directions or your preference.
- If doing a mix-in, chill a large metal bowl in the freezer or set it up in ice water bath. Gently fold in the ingredients to the ice cream in this cold bowl when it's fresh out of the machine.
- Pack ice cream in an airtight container and let it set in freezer until firm, at least another 4 hours.