Ice cream to fete the Fourth
With either a hand-cranked tub or a sleek new machine, patience is key when making America's favorite dessert.
Ice cream making, for me, has always been associated with memories of sore arm muscles.Skip to next paragraph
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When I was growing up, my family used to make ice cream two or three times a summer, including on the Fourth of July, using a wooden hand-cranked tub that had been a wedding gift to my parents. We'd use black raspberries, blueberries, peaches, or some other fruit from my grandparents' garden - I begged unsuccessfully for chocolate - and the decision to make the ice cream was often based on how much manpower was around.
As we fed ice and rock salt into the outside perimeter of the machine, my cousins and I took turns working the crank, with my mom stepping in for the more grueling end stages. It was a communal affair - something that even in the 1980s had become all too rare - and the end result was supremely delicious. Much richer and creamier than anything bought at a store.
Until recently, that was the only homemade ice cream I'd had. So when I decided to make ice cream for an informal dinner party recently, it was with some skepticism that I viewed the short, squat appliance I'd borrowed for the occasion. It seemed too small, too sleek. And all you had to do was plug it in?
I discovered that reading the instructions helps, too. My first attempt never even got off the ground. As I glanced over the manual a couple of hours before guests arrived, I noticed a small, crucial detail: "The most important step in making frozen desserts is to make sure that the cylinder bowl is properly frozen." It suggested 20 hours in the freezer. My machine, alas, was sitting in the kitchen at room temperature. I immediately put it in the freezer, determined to try again soon.
When a friend invited me to a cookout a few days later, I confidently offered to make the dessert. I arrived with the (well-frozen) ice cream maker, strawberries, heavy cream - this time, I was sure, I was prepared. But the process turned out to be more complicated, and time-consuming, than I had envisioned. When the chicken was off the grill, I still hadn't finished scalding the cream and milk and adding them to the egg-and-sugar mixture. I left the custard to cool while we ate, but 20 minutes later it was still warm.
A minor detail, I decided as I plugged in the machine and poured in the custard.
And so I discovered a second cardinal rule of ice cream making (also emphasized in the manual): Don't rush it. Though tasty, my concoction never solidified beyond a yogurt consistency. Putting it in the freezer just turned it to ice.
I've since talked with several friends more experienced than I, and have culled a few suggestions. Make the custard a day ahead of time, and keep it in the refrigerator. Allow plenty of time for the machine to do its work. And unless you like your ice cream mushy, build in time to freeze it for a couple of hours after the machine is done churning, to get a normal consistency.
The technology has changed since the hand-crank days, but making ice cream is still all about patience. Which, in the end, means it's an ideal family activity for a lazy summer day.
As for me, I'm heading back to my childhood home in Chicago this Fourth of July. Maybe I'll encourage my mother to dig out the old ice cream maker - now practically a collector's item - from the basement. At least that one I know how to use, even if it does make my arm muscles sore.