Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Ice Cream

Summer is here – and what does that mean? Kiddie pools! Sunburns (at least for this pale author)! Corn on the cob! And ice cream, of course! Time to bust out the waffle cones, chocolate sauce and those tiny wooden spoons (which, incidentally, I have a life-long aversion to).

A Brief History

According to Paul Dickson's Great American Ice Cream Book, the "evolution" of ice cream into as the treat we know and love today all began with chilled drinks in ancient Greece, Rome and the Middle East. These beverages were cooled with snow and ice and were sometimes alcoholic, available only to the upper classes. Later, chilled drinks evolved into fruit flavored "water ices," the origin of modern sorbet. During Nero's reign, he is said to have sent runners to the mountains to bring back snow, which his chefs flavored with honey and fruit.

But ice cream as we know it – a frozen dessert made with milk and/or cream – wasn't invented until the 16th or 17th century, probably in Italy. Food historian John Mariani, in The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, notes that Italian Catherine de Medici is said to have brought some form of ice cream to court in France during her reign; from there the dessert took off like wildfire around the globe. Americans especially took to it – and it is here that all of the now-classic ice cream accoutrements and forms, like cones, floats, sundaes, syrups and bars were all born. By the mid-1850s, industrially produced ice cream was readily available in the US.

Factual Nibbles

  • Here's an interesting list of unusual (at least to us) ice cream flavors from around the world, including horse flesh (yum!), garlic, caviar and "salad" (with pieces of bell pepper and lettuce).
  • Pewter ice cream molds were once very popular. Shapes included trussed chickens, fruit, flowers and even George Washington's face.
  • Ice cream sundaes were invented in 1881 in Wisconsin. Or was it in New York in 1892 ? This important debate rages on.
  • According to the Mayo Clinic, no one really knows the cause of the dreaded "ice cream headache" or "brain freeze." One theory is that the cold affects blood flow to the brain, causing a headache.
  • Nancy Johnson invented the first small ice cream maker (suitable for home use) in New Jersey in 1846.
  • The famous phrase "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!" is from a song, recorded in 1925, by a group called Waring's Pennsylvanians. Here's the original recording, scratchy record sounds and all.

Characteristics

Classically, ice cream is made with milk, cream, eggs and sugar (plus whatever flavoring floats your boat). This is "custard" ice cream, so called because one must make a cooked custard on the stovetop before chilling and freezing the mixture. (This type is also called "French style.") "Philadelphia style" ice cream is usually made without eggs. According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), to be called "ice cream," the mixture must contain no less than 10 percent milk fat. If the mixture contains more than 1.4 percent egg yolks (by volume), it has to be called "frozen custard" or "French ice cream." There are also FDA laws about labeling for flavoring agents (e.g., "strawberry" vs. "artificial strawberry flavor").

Labeling and Additives

Lately, much has been written about some national ice cream brands' sudden labeling switch – from the familiar "ice cream" to the less-than-tasty-sounding "frozen dairy dessert " – what the New York Times calls "ice cream's identity crisis." As mentioned above, the FDA regulates ice cream's content, and a switch to "frozen dairy dessert" usually means that a boatload of additives has replaced some of the milk fat (or eggs) in your creamy dessert. Regular commercial ice cream, too, frequently contains additives like gums and high fructose corn syrup. Here's a brief compendium of the major additives common in "frozen dairy dessert" and ice cream:

High Fructose Corn Syrup

With possible links to weight gain and diabetes, plus reports of mercury in the industrially-produced substance, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has taken a beating in recent years. That doesn't stop ice cream (and "frozen dairy dessert") manufactures from liberally adding it to their sweet treats. HFCS not only serves as a cheap sweetener, but also keeps large ice crystals from forming. (Some homemade ice creams and sorbets call for a tiny amount of corn syrup – a totally different product from HFCS – to be added to the ice cream base in order to keep ice crystals from forming in the finished product.)

Gums

Gums are usually present in ice cream to thicken, stabilize and sometimes add a sense of "creaminess" to the mixture. If you've ever let a carton of "frozen dairy dessert" melt in your sink, you've witnessed the better-living-through-chemistry magic of the stabilizing effect of gums – the mixture frequently doesn't melt, but rather remains a gooey clump. Everyday, more and more gum types seem to be hitting the market. Here are some of the most frequently used:

Tara Gum – from the seeds of the Caesalpinia spinosa plant, in the legume family – a shrub/small tree native to Peru and Bolivia. Pods are harvested by hand, and are also used in leather tanning.

Guar Gum – from the seeds of the guar plant, Cyamopsis tetragonoloba, also a type of legume. We've covered the link between guar gum and hydraulic fracturing (aka "fracking") – guar gum is an essential component of the process. India produces the bulk of the world's guar.

Xanthan Gum – a substance secreted from the Xanthomonas campestris bacterium. (Incidentally, the same bacterium that causes that slimy, black rot you've seen on veggies forgotten deep in your crisper drawer.) Xanthan gum is produced through a highly industrial process of fermentation. Some of the gum is derived from whey – certain types of the X. campestris bacterium grow on lactose.

Locust Bean Gum (aka carob gum) – made from the seeds of the carob tree, which grows primarily in the Mediterranean.

Carrageenan– a substance derived from red seaweed, and like the gums listed above, primarily used for thickening and binding, especially in protein-rich foods like ice creams. The Irish have used red seaweed as food and fertilizer for centuries, but modern carrageenan is made in an industrial process. Lately, it has been linked to possible gastrointestinal problems.

Mono- and diglycerides– industrially produced additives used as an emulsifier, a substance that helps blend ingredients that wouldn't normally blend – like oil and water – into homogenized mixtures. Mono- and diglycerides are fat-based, frequently made from soybeans, but also from pig and beef byproducts.

Cooking

The best way to avoid all of this weird stuff in your ice cream is to make it yourself, or buy from local, sustainable ice cream purveyors that are popping up all over the country. To make ice cream at home, you need an ice cream maker. Fortunately, there are a whole bunch of different types out there, at a range of price points. Hand-cranked ice cream makers – which, as the name might suggest, require you to sit there and crank the machine until the ice cream is finished, a rather labor-intensive process, range in price from about $60 to $180, and come in a number of sizes. There is even an ice cream maker in the form of a ball, which you kick (instead of crank) in order to make ice cream – it's substantially cheaper and is a good option if you don't want to spend a lot of money on your new ice cream-making habit. Hand-cranked makers (and the ball) require you pack an outer canister with rock salt and ice. (Here's a good explanation of the chemical process behind this.)

If you're feeling pretty serious about your ice cream making endeavor, think about investing in an automatic, electric ice cream maker. These, too, range in size and price – I've got the ice cream-making attachment for my KitchenAid mixer, which is about $80 (of course, the mixer will cost you quite a bit more, if you don't already own one). There are also a lot of stand-alone ice cream makers – they range in price from about $30 to $300 (and up). Most of them use a gel-like substance enclosed in a canister which you freeze (usually for about 24 hours), then pour your ice cream base into and insert an agitator or paddle. The machine rotates the canister automatically, saving your arm the trouble. With premium ice cream pushing $5 and up a pop per pint (and in New York City, the situation is even more ridiculous – I've seen super premium pints going for $12 and up in some places), the initial investment in the ice cream maker may save you money in the long run, if you're a big ice cream eater.

Philadelphia-style ice cream is the easiest to make, because it requires no stovetop cooking. Just mix together milk, cream, sugar and your favorite flavoring, pour into the ice cream maker and enjoy. A lot of chefs prefer Philadelphia-style for fruit-based ice creams, thinking that the extra richness of eggs in custard-style mixtures overpowers seasonal fruits like peaches. But you shouldn't be intimidated by custard-based ice creams, either – they just take a little more work. Generally, milk and sugar are warmed on the stove, then gradually added to beaten eggs. This mixture is poured back into a saucepan and warmed on the stove until thickened (with whatever flavoring you want to use usually added either at the milk-warming stage or after the custard is cooked). Once cooled, process the ice cream base in your ice cream maker. The result will be quite a bit richer than Philadelphia-style ice cream, but tends to stay creamier with less ice crystal formation. Because homemade ice cream only has a few ingredients, choose the highest quality milk, cream and eggs you can (like grass fed dairy and pastured eggs) – you'll be amazed at the difference in color, texture and flavor.

Recipes

Excellent ice cream recipes abound. I love anything by David Lebovitz, the pastry chef and author of the excellent ice cream book, The Perfect Scoop. Check out his recipe for vanilla and chocolate ice creams. I used his vanilla ice cream recipe this past weekend, and it was the best I've ever made (and I've made lots and lots). He's also got a million other delicious ice cream recipes over on his blog, DavidLebovitz.com. Here's a great ice cream recipe round up from Real Simple mag that includes fun flavors like lemon olive oil, chai tea and blueberry muffin (horse flesh it is not), and a list of 20 Southern-accented recipes (like peach-pecan and key lime) from Southern Living. And over on Smitten Kitchen, check out this recipe for classic ice cream sandwiches (yes! From scratch!). Finally, since strawberryseason is finally upon us (at least here on the East Coast), here is a recipe for fresh strawberry ice cream!

If you don't want to deal with any of that – here's an amazing step-by-step tutorial by David Lebovitz on how to make ice cream without a machine! Or check out this recipe from The Kitchn detailing how to make ice cream from just one ingredient. (Hint: the ingredient is bananas.)

Nutrition

You probably already know this, but ice cream is notoriously high in fat and calories. Just half a cup of basic vanilla ice cream is 145 calories. The same half-cup makes up a whopping 24 percent of your daily saturated fat allotment and 11 percent of your daily cholesterol. (The good news is that the sweet treat is a decent source of calcium and vitamin A.) The solution is to indulge in moderation, of course.

One of the great things about making your own ice cream, besides the awe you will inspire in your dinner guests, is that you can play around with the amount of egg yolks you use (if any), the amount of sugar and the ratios of cream to milk, giving you that much more control over what's in your dessert! (Plus none of those weird gums made from bacterial secretions. Frankly, I don't think "bacterial secretions" and ice cream should be uttered in the same sentence.) Happy churning!

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