Blame it on my grandmother. A countrywoman with limited formal education, she nevertheless knew how to take a five-year-old into her confidence and turn a simple treat into a clandestine culinary adventure.
She waited until my toddler brothers had fallen asleep in one of the farmhouse bedrooms. Then she put her finger to her lips in a shushing motion and took my hand. We tiptoed through the kitchen, where she handily grabbed a couple of spoons, and we made our way to the dim storage room at the back of the house.
There, she opened the big, humming chest freezer, reached in, and pulled out two plastic pints of homemade ice cream. With the open freezer providing the only light, we sat on low footstools and ate the amazing, rich ice cream directly from the containers.
Such was the first of many secret freezer forays, and I’ve been obsessed with homemade ice cream ever since.
An Ice Cream Oh-So-Social
Ice cream-making at Grandma’s was a family affair, mostly carried out on the back porch of her home. She had an eight-quart ice cream maker with a metal-banded wooden outer tub, a metal inner tub for the ice cream, and cast-iron gears. The gears turned a well-worn metal dasher with flexible edges that scraped the sides of the ice cream tub.
Someone in the family—usually a couple of the men—would head out to an icehouse the day we planned to make ice cream. They would buy giant blocks of ice, which were unloaded into galvanized aluminum tubs on the back porch. Armed with ice picks, the adults would begin chopping the blocks into chunks of ice.
Grandma would pour the chilled liquid custard, which she’d made the night before, into the inner tub, insert the dasher, and carefully close the lid. With the stem of the dasher peeking through a center hole, she’d place the cream tub into the wooden tub, secure the gear assembly, and watch as the children added ice chunks and rock salt to the space between the tubs.
Salt is the secret ingredient for homemade frozen treats. Salt water has a lower freezing point than freshwater, and thus salty, icy slush gets colder than melting ice alone, which makes the ice cream freeze more quickly.
Then the churning would begin. The first cranks of the gear handle would be easy-peasy, since the dasher was still moving through liquid custard. But over time, it got harder.
The kids would take turns at the crank first, followed by the women, and finally the men got to flex their muscles over the slushy tub. Once the crank was too hard for anyone to turn, Grandma would wipe any salt from the top of the cream can and cover the whole assembly with thick towels for a few minutes to “rest” and harden a bit more.
It took less than an hour to make a batch of ice cream. But then we had to remove it from the tub, sample it, and pack the rest into containers for future late-night freezer forays. After that, we’d repeat the whole process, because we didn’t gather all the family together and go through that much trouble just to make one batch of ice cream!
We usually had a batch of vanilla, a batch of strawberry or peach, and a batch of cherry or lemon ice cream. Chocolate syrups or chips were added to some containers of vanilla for the chocolate lovers in the family.
Tradition Meets Convenience
Of course, making homemade ice cream today is much less of an ordeal. Electric motors, coolant-lined bowls, and even self-contained machines with small generators have replaced the old hand-crank ice cream makers.
But the science of perfect ice cream is still the same. A blend of dairy fat and sugar, along with a stabilizer such as egg yolks or starch, turns into an ethereal frozen foam with the application of consistently cold temperatures and constant churning. Churning is the element that whips air into ice cream, making it smoother and fluffier as it freezes, while keeping large ice crystals from forming.
Hand-cranked ice cream machines allow for a consistent application of ice, water, and salt for freezing, plus continual churning. As long as strong adults are present, manual machines also allow ice cream to be churned long after the cream has reached a frozen state. Firm and smooth ice cream equals optimal deliciousness!
Electric motor machines operate like manual ones in that a salty ice and water slush acts as the refrigerant. Unlike manual machines, however, electric motors tend to strain or shut down while the ice cream is still soft. Firming up the ice cream at that point usually requires a spell in the kitchen freezer, giving small ice crystals a chance to form.
I’ll admit that my mother jumped at the first affordable electric motor machine that came on the market. She could use the same hand-me-down recipes from her mother and the same water-salt bath for freezing, and the machine did all the hard work of churning while she turned her attention to other things.
My birthday falls on a summer holiday weekend, and perhaps in homage to Grandma, Mom started a tradition of making ice cream in the early morning of my birthday and bringing me “breakfast” in bed: a tall glass of soft, creamy, just-made ice cream!
My siblings and I each got electric ice cream makers as gifts when we left home.
But the next generation, our kids, found something even more efficient: Double-walled metal bowls or canisters filled with coolant give home cooks the ability to make ice cream and frozen desserts without the mess of an ice-and-salt bath. The container is frozen for eight to 24 hours, depending on the size and brand, then used in an electric churn or with a mixer attachment to turn a sweet cream blend into ice cream.
The freezing vessels work almost as well as the electric motor machines, but from my view, there’s one problem: The bowls make a modest amount of ice cream—maybe enough for a dinner party dessert. Worse, you cannot make another batch until you refreeze the container for another extended period. They also take up a lot of room in the kitchen freezer.
So far, I’ve found that the best home alternative to the hand-cranked ice cream maker is also the priciest. Ice cream or gelato machines with self-contained compressors make extraordinary ice cream.
The batches may be of modest size (1 1/2 quarts is common) but you can make several in short order. Aside from price, the only other downside is the countertop footprint—these machines take up a goodly amount of space.
Nevertheless, I snatched one up as soon as I saw it on sale and have no regrets. How else could I offer guests my grandmother’s ice cream recipes, freshly made, without breaking a sweat?
On to the Recipes
Now, if my grandmother were still with us, she would be annoyed that I spent so much time talking about the mechanics of making ice cream and not enough time talking recipes.
When it comes to ice cream, there are essentially two schools of thought. One group swears that it isn’t homemade ice cream if it doesn’t start with a cooked custard made with eggs, sugar, milk, and cream. The other group eschews the eggs and insists that a simple mix of cream, milk, and sugar gives a lighter, fresher flavor.
I grew up with the cooked, egg-rich ice cream base, and in my mind, that will always be the essential flavor of homemade ice cream. That said, I did live in Philadelphia for several years and developed a fondness for the less-dense, fresh-cream taste of uncooked ice cream that that city’s denizens prefer.
Either way, the ice cream should be able to stand alone, or make an enticing canvas for classic or exotic flavorings. And if you decide to add liqueurs to your ice cream, just remember that alcohol doesn’t freeze. If you add too much, you’ll end up with a creamy cocktail instead of infused ice cream.
Following is my grandmother’s old-fashioned vanilla ice cream recipe, as well as other options, including a sorbet for your dairy-free friends.
A Brief History of Frozen Desserts
Our ancestors were no fools. As with almost every other delicious treat, food historians have found evidence of ancient peoples enjoying precursors to ice cream and flavored ices.
Three thousand years ago, the Chinese made a flavored milk-and-rice flour dessert rendered icy by packing it in snow. And no less a figure than Alexander the Great was said to have sent runners to bring snow from the mountains, which he flavored with fruit nectar and honey.
Marco Polo, that culinary provocateur, is credited with bringing ice cream-making techniques from Asia to Italy. That may or may not be true, but it’s certain the knowledge traveled from east to west along trade routes. Middle Eastern traders shared a process for freezing fruity drinks. By the 16th century, Italian royals and diplomats had gifted the knowledge of frozen desserts to notables in France and other European states.
The turning point for these treats—soon to be popularized by the demi-monde—came with the opening of Café Procope on the Left Bank in Paris in 1686.
Founded by Sicilian chef Procopio Cutò (who eventually changed his name to Francois Procope), the still-operating café is worthy of its own story, as it was frequented by literary, art, and political figures, including Voltaire, George Sand, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. But for now, suffice it to say that Café Procope served sorbet and ice cream to anyone who stepped inside for refreshment, possibly tickling the palate of Jefferson, who was known for making frozen desserts at Monticello.
America’s love affair with ice cream predates the American Revolution. There’s evidence of colonial governors serving the treat at official dinners, a feat which would have required ice cut from a frozen river or lake in winter, then stored in a straw-lined ice house until needed, along with goodly amounts of cream and milk, and pricey imported sugar and salt. That’s not to mention a servant to keep agitating the liquid ice cream mixture as it froze. All in all, it was an elaborate offering.
Commercially sold ice cream dates to at least 1777, when a New York sweets purveyor ran an ad in the New York Gazette for his frozen dessert. George Washington himself, in his first year as president, rang up a $200 tab for ice cream in the summer of 1790 and, according to his archives, had purchased ice cream making equipment both for Mount Vernon and for the Capital.
Technological advances in the mid-to-late 1800s, not the least of which were refrigeration and ice-making machines, made ice cream more ubiquitous. Ice cream parlors sprang up, along with ice cream sodas, sundaes, and the ice cream cone.
But the creation that changed ice cream and sorbet from a special occasion treat to a seasonal homemade dessert was the hand-cranked ice cream machine, first patented by Philadelphian Nancy Johnson in 1843. Combining freezing with churning and aeration, her small-batch ice cream maker is the scaffold on which future ice cream makers have been built.
Louisiana native Belinda Hulin Crissman writes cookbooks and food articles from her adopted hometown of Atlantic Beach, Fla. She’s the author of five cookbooks, including “Roux Memories: A Cajun-Creole Love Story with Recipes.” When she’s not writing, you’ll find her scoping out old and new culinary delights.