Thirty years ago this month, then-President Ronald Reagan declared July National Ice Cream Month. He was the commander in chief who made it official, but executive office ice cream love was nothing new.
Thomas Jefferson is often incorrectly credited with bringing ice cream to the United States. The third president certainly served ice cream at the White House and was one of the first to record a recipe for the confection on American soil, but ice creams similar to what we now eat were recorded in earlier 17th-century cookbooks. President George Washington served molded ice creams at the President’s House in Philadelphia and his estate at Mount Vernon.
The process then, as now, required churning a cream or custard mixture in an envelope of ice. Because a crank-handle ice-cream churn was not invented until much later, the process was cumbersome and the end product not as light as we are accustomed to. A video from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation demonstrates the 18th-century method of churning and molding ice cream.
Labor was only part of the reason only the privileged few enjoyed early ice creams. Ice was a rare commodity that came from ice houses that stored frozen blocks cut from rivers and streams in the winter. While presidents could afford such a delicacy, the common man could not until savvy African-American caterer Augustus Jackson opened what is widely considered the first public ice-cream shop in Philadelphia around 1832 after serving as a White House chef in the 1820s.
Ice cream savvy
Today ice cream is far from the simple custard- or cream-based confection it once was. Now Americans enjoy ice cream, gelato, frozen yogurt, sorbet, sherbet, milkshakes and more.
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Traditional ice cream continues to be cream or egg custard based. Ice creams not thickened with egg custard are often thickened with gelatins or vegetable thickeners. Frozen yogurt is just what the name implies — churned yogurt and flavorings — and now vegan varieties made from coconut and almond milk are increasingly available.
For many consumers, sorbet, sorbetto and sherbet present some confusion. Are they or are they not the same thing? Sorbet and sorbetto are the same — a fruit puree or fruit juice that is sweetened, frozen and churned — while sherbet adds an element of dairy to the mix.
Gelato is another confusing cold confection, with its special freezer cases and serving paddles. Its distinctions are more complex, said Jim Demotses, owner of Pazzo Gelato Café in North Andover, Mass. He said gelato is made mostly from milk instead of cream, so it’s lower in fat. It also has less air whipped into it and is served at a lower temperature to maintain its creaminess.
Demotses also said authentic gelato is made in small batches, — usually daily and using natural flavors and ingredients — to maintain freshness.
Do it yourself
While cold treats like gelato are difficult to make at home because of the temperature requirements, they are not impossible if you have the right recipe and equipment, most notably a compressor-type home ice-cream maker that can freeze the base to the right consistency. However, it’s important to understand that once the churned gelato goes into a traditional freezer, the hallmark lower-temperature creaminess could be chilled out of it.
A compressor-type machine offered by Breville is the best of the bunch for frozen desserts from sorbet to ice cream to frozen yogurt. Because it has no bowl to freeze as with other tabletop models like those offered by Cuisinart (about $60) or the freezer bowl attachment for the Kitchen Aid stand mixer (about $100), you can make ice cream without long-term planning and have it ready within an hour, depending on consistency. At nearly $400, it’s probably best reserved for hard-core ice-cream aficionados.
The freezer bowl models mentioned work fairly well but tend to produce a soft product that must be frozen for a good four to six hours before consumption. This is particularly true if you add mix-ins to the base.
A recent entry to the market, the Zoku Ice Cream maker, seems like the perfect solution for single-serve homemade ice cream. Also using a freezer bowl, the “churn” function comes from good, old-fashioned elbow grease by virtue of stirring the freezing base with a small paddle. Unfortunately, while inexpensive (about $26) and certainly a fun activity for kids, the end product did not freeze well or with true ice-cream consistency.
Lora Wiley-Lennarz, a food blogger who counts ice cream recipes as among her favorites to create for her blog Diary of a Mad Hausfrau, said her first ice-cream maker was an inexpensive impulse buy. Once she wore that out with her experimentations, she graduated to the Kitchen Aid attachment, although a compressor-type model is in her sights.
“That might be a dangerous purchase,” she said, laughing. “With no wait time, my ice-cream-making adventures would probably get out of control.”
Wiley-Lennarz’s ice-cream experiments have afforded her a good list of do’s and don’ts when it comes to making ice cream at home. The first must-have, she said, is good time management. Ice cream takes a long time to make, especially with chilling the base as well as a freezer bowl, if necessary.
Wiley-Lennarz said it’s imperative to eat the ice cream the day you make it — after a couple of hours of post-churn freezing — otherwise it won’t stay creamy as the temperature drops.
“The most important thing is to be flavor fearless. Some of the most tasty ice creams I’ve created started with crazy combination ideas that turned out fabulous,” she said. Her Red Currant Lemon Balm Ice Cream is one such flavor-forward concoction (see recipe below).
A great option for those who don’t have an ice-cream churn, or consider the prospect of many hours of trial and error potentially daunting, is milkshakes.
They combine ice cream and other flavorings whipped into a thick smoothie, another American classic that came about during the turn of the 20th century in the ubiquitous soda fountains of the day.
Sophisticated modern versions like the unusual Salted Watermelon Milkshake from The Milk Shake Factory in Pittsburgh (see recipe below) are worth trying at home.
Red Currant Lemon Balm Ice Cream Recipe
Recipe from Diary of A Mad Hausfrau.
Prep time: 1 hour (includes chilling base)
Cook time: 45 minutes to 1 hour
Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes to 2 hours
Yield: Makes about 2 quarts
4 egg yolks
3 cups heavy cream
1½ cups whole milk, divided
1 cup sugar
⅓ cup chopped fresh lemon balm
2 cups fresh red currants rinsed and plucked off the stem
1. Whisk the egg yolks together in a heat-proof bowl and set aside.
2. Heat the cream, milk and sugar together in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. When the mixture starts to become warm, stir in the lemon balm.
3. Remove the mixture just before boiling and slowly pour into the bowl with the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Cover and set side for at least 1 hour.
4. Pour the mixture back into a heavy bottomed sauce pan and reheat it over medium low heat until it thickens and then pour back into the bowl, cover with plastic wrap so the wrap is touching the surface of the mixture and refrigerate for three hours or overnight.
5. Remove the plastic wrap, pour the mixture into an ice-cream maker and process according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
6. When ice cream reaches soft serve consistency, gently stir in the red currants.
7. Place in a freezer-proof container, secure a cover on the container and place in the freezer for a few hours or until ready to serve.
This recipe is from “Sweet Hands Island Cooking from Trinidad and Tobago” by Ramin Ganeshram.
Soursop, or guanabana, is a tropical fruit that has naturally creamy, sweet-tart flavor. This recipe, while incredibly simple, has a complex and sophisticated flavor profile. It makes a good palate cleanser or a refreshing vegan ice-cream alternative.
Prep time: 45 minutes (includes chilling base)
Cook time: 45 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Yield: Makes 1 quart
½ cup sugar
½ cup water
Juice of ½ lime
2 cups frozen soursop puree (Goya is one brand)
1. Mix sugar and ½ cup of water together in a small saucepan and bring to a slow simmer. Simmer until reduced by half, then set aside to cool.
2. Mix the lime juice with the frozen soursop puree and cooled sugar syrup. Pour into an ice-cream maker and churn according to manufacturer’s directions, generally about 40 minutes.
3. Remove the sorbet from the ice-cream maker and pack into a quart container and freeze for at least four hours until hard. If making Popsicles, remove the mixture halfway through the churn process and pour into Popsicle trays. Freeze overnight.
Salted Watermelon Milkshake
This shake calls to mind Middle Eastern and Indian watermelon treats that often make use of salt or other culinary spices to bring out the sweetness of the fruit.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 5 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
½ pint watermelon sherbet
½ cup cold whole milk
½ cup soda water or seltzer
¼ cup pureed watermelon
Pinch of sea salt
Mini chocolate chips for garnish
1. Mix all the ingredients except the chocolate chips in a heavy-duty blender until thick and frothy.
2. Serve in a chilled glass garnished with chocolate chips.
Main photo: Gelato at Pazzo Gelato. Credit: Pazzo Gelato