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.

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.

Crushed Strawberry Ice Cream

If your ice cream maker holds less than 2 quarts, divide this recipe in half.

2-1/2 pints strawberries, hulled and halved lengthwise
1/4 cup sugar
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 cup milk
4 eggs
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Finely chop 1 cup of the halved strawberries and set aside. Sprinkle 1/4 cup sugar over the remaining strawberries in a medium bowl. Let stand for 30 minutes, and then process the sugared strawberries in a food processor or a blender until completely smooth. If you prefer no seeds, pour through a fine-mesh sieve. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the cream and milk and heat until scalded. Remove from the heat.

In a bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the eggs until frothy. Slowly add 3/4 cup sugar and vanilla and beat until thick and a pale lemon color.

Gradually whisk 1 cup of the hot cream mixture into the egg mixture. Then gradually pour the egg-cream mixture into the saucepan while whisking constantly. Cook slowly over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thinly coats the back of a wooden spoon, 5 to 10 minutes. Do not overcook or the mixture will curdle. Remove from the heat, pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a medium bowl. Let cool.

Add the puréed strawberries to the cooled custard and mix well.

Pour the custard into an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions just until ice cream begins to thicken. With the machine running, add the finely chopped strawberries. At this point, the ice cream will be firm but not hard. You can either spoon it into a container and place in the freezer to harden or serve it immediately.

Makes 2 quarts.

- From 'The Taste of Summer: Inspired Recipes for Casual Entertaining,' by Diane Rossen Worthington (Chronicle Books)

Caramel Chocolate Nut Ice Cream

2-1/2 cups sugar
6 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
3 cups pecan halves (10 ounces)
6 to 7 ounces best-quality sweet chocolate, diced

Place 1/2 cup of water and the sugar in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, and cook over low heat, without stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Increase heat to high and boil until the sugar turns a caramel color, 3 to 5 minutes. Do not stir, but swirl the pan occasionally so the caramel cooks evenly.

Remove the caramel from the heat and carefully pour in the cream. Since the caramel is very hot, the mixture will bubble up violently, then solidify. Don't worry. Return it to low heat and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the caramel dissolves, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the vanilla. Pour into a container and refrigerate until very cold.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Roast the pecans on a baking sheet for 8 to 10 minutes. Cool, chop, mix with diced chocolate, and store in the freezer until ready to use.

Freeze the caramel mixture in an ice-cream maker according to the manufacturer's directions. (It may take several batches.) When it is frozen, add the cold, chopped pecans and chocolate and mix in completely. Transfer to quart containers and store in the freezer until ready to serve.

- From 'Barefoot Contessa Parties! Ideas and Recipes for Easy Parties that are Really Fun,' by Ina Garten (Clarkson Potter)

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