An Ice Cream Methodology Comparison
After enjoying last week’s barbecue, I decided to continue in a summery vein this week and experiment with ice cream. An ice cream maker is one of the more specific kitchen gadgets, but it remains a popular one and one that seems to do its job pretty successfully. People don’t usually tend to consider making their own ice cream at home unless they have a handy machine like this. Certainly, as soon as I acquired an ice cream maker of my own last summer, I was suddenly filled with a desire to make as many different interesting, exciting or unusual ice creams as I could. But ice cream has existed as a dessert since long before the invention of the ice cream maker, there must be plenty of other ways to make it.
In fact, ice cream is older than you might think with both the Chinese and the Romans (the two obvious choices when anybody asks: “Who invented this thing?”) having a certain claim to having developed variants of frozen dessert foods. Even in this country we were eating a recognisable modern form of ice cream centuries before we invented the freezer thanks to the massive ice houses of the rich and indulgent. The earliest recorded eating of ice cream in Britain was as far back as 1671 and by 1718 ice cream recipes were appearing in print, thanks to Mary Eales, a confectioner to Queen Anne. By the end of the 18th century, ice cream was a relatively widespread confectionery product, albeit amongst the relatively affluent middle classes. The really interesting thing, though, with these early ice creams is the flavours on offer.
In the past I’ve been quite keen to try savoury forms of ice cream like mustard or tomato as part of a starter or palate cleanser. I even had a go at making Heston Blumenthal’s famous bacon and egg ice cream. We tend to think that these flavours are interesting (or disgusting, depending on your point of view) because they are novel, non-traditional kinds, with top chefs like Heston pushing boundaries with these combinations of classically savoury ingredients with sweet sugary desserts. However, the idea of these as “non-traditional” ice cream forms couldn’t be further than the truth. It turns out that, just as when I got an ice cream maker and wanted to try out all the different random foodstuffs I could think of, so did the Georgians and Victorians want to do the same as soon as they got into the whole idea of ice cream. Recipe books in the 1700s and 1800s offered such possible ice cream ingredients as celery, mushrooms or artichoke, while the greatest ice cream writer of them all, Victorian entrepeneur Agnes Marshall filled her Book of Ices with images of ice cream moulded in the shape of ducks or asparagus.
And how on Earth did the great confectioners of the Georgian period even manage to produce their artichoke ices? Even with a big block of ice house ice getting it to set into something smooth and creamy without huge lumps of ice must have been tricky. The answer lies in something called a “sabotiere”, basically a bucket filled with ice cubes and salt with a pewter container for the ice cream custard inside. The salt causes the ice to melt, quickly freezing the contents of the container inside to balance this temperature rise out, the custard in the pewter container could then be stirred or churned to make sure it froze smoothly and easily. I have had a go with an original (albeit not 200 years old) version of this equipment in a session at work where we were taught by the food historian Ivan Day (author of Ice Cream: A History and recently seen on TV making Mrs. Marshall style asparagus ice moulds for a Pride and Prejudice dinner party). It was an exhausting process churning, but it does indeed make smooth ices. Ivan’s website, Historic Food, is filled with recipes for ice cream from Frederick Nutt’s The Complete Confectioner. Seeing some of the interesting flavour possibilities on offer I knew I had to given one a try.
One of those recipes really stood out from the pack as something that I had never really thought to try with ice cream before, parmesan. Looking into it, though, it turned out that, like the bacon and egg ice cream, parmesan and prosciutto was a flavour that was currently proving quite popular in the world of innovative re-imaginings of popular flavours. So, I decided to follow Nutt’s recipe and see whether his parmesan ice cream would hold up to the sorts of flavours that we’re used to today. Slightly surprisingly, unlike the mustard ice cream but like the bacon one, Nutt’s parmesan ice is a sweet one. The recipe for the custard is quite simple and I quickly made a sugar syrup and mixed it with eggs and cream, simmering and thickening this and then adding the parmesan. That’s all there is to it (although walking to the local Tesco in the pouring rain to buy cheese, only to find they had six types of cheddar but no parmesan, did cause me momentary second thoughts, both about the ice cream appropriate summeriness of the day and the fact that if I had wanted to make something normal like chocolate I could have just gone to the corner shop). But how to freeze it presented me with many options. Should I rely as I usually do on my trusted ice cream maker? Should I attempt to recreate the kind of simple technology available in Nutt’s time? Or should I embrace the modern gastronomy possibilities utilised with this kind of unusual ice cream flavour today? This was the perfect opportunity to subject Professor Plum to yet another blind taste test and see if we could determine just which ice cream method made the best version. Or even if we could tell them apart at all.
When making his bacon and egg ice cream, Heston suggests using dry ice to make sure it has the smooth texture of scrambled eggs, a suggestion reminiscent of the spectacular experience we had seeing ice cream prepared instantly before us with liquid nitrogen at his restaurant, Dinner. Dry ice, carbon dioxide in its solid form is -80°C, when it comes into contact with the ice cream mixture it instantly sublimates – turning straight from solid to gas form without going through a liquid stage – the extreme cold almost instantly freezing the ice cream custard. The speed with which the ice cream freezes should mean that ice crystals have no possibility of forming and the mixture is completely smooth.
My first concern, then, was with acquiring some dry ice. It can be ordered online, but the smallest amount it comes in is 2.5 kg and that costs £27 and must be used on the day of delivery. So, it’s not really an everyday option and you have to make a lot of ice cream to make the dry ice go far enough (I ended up doing a batch of chocolate after all after I’d done with the rest).
In order not to end up with lumps of dry ice in your ice cream, it’s important to smash it up into as powdery form as possible and, when adding it to the ice cream custard, you need to mix it really fast in order for some of it not to set completely solid whilst the rest remains liquid. It proved quite time consuming to crush the dry ice sufficiently that it wasn’t still in lumps, meaning that my resulting ice cream probably still had a couple of bits of dry ice tucked away in it at first, but the mixing proved a real challenge. Most sources suggest you use a proper electric mixer, but suggest stirring with a wooden spoon could work. It proved tricky to stir fast enough, though, to make sure the mixture froze evenly. Having said all that, though, the dry ice certainly proved an impressive spectacle, spewing out special effects-y smoke as soon as it combined with the ice cream mix.
Meanwhile, I had another third of my cheese ice cream custard churning in my ice cream maker. That just left the low tech third option. A modern equivalent of the sabotiere does exist with this weird “freeze ball”, but I’ve used one before as well, and although it’s an interesting concept you need a lot of ice and salt and it occasionally proved quite tricky to keep the salt from getting in the ice cream! Anyway, investing in another bit of equipment seemed to run counter to the whole idea of a “low tech” solution (not to mention adding to the cost I’d already spent on that dry ice!). Fortunately, there’s lots of other advice out there on how to make ice cream without an ice cream maker, even if people don’t bother much with following it. The method suggested here by David Lebovitz seemed the closest equivalent to the 18th century method to be used now in the freezer age. Essentially, it involves letting the custard mix cool in an ice bath and then putting it in a tub in the freezer, removing it at regular intervals to stir the more frozen parts close to the tub’s edge back into the middle. This, then, is what I did with the final third of my ice cream custard (or rather with the first third, because the major disadvantage of this method compared to the machine or the dry ice is that it is incredibly slow, requiring checking on the mixture every half hour for hours before a worthwhile ice cream is set).
I put the three differently prepared ice creams in three identical tubs and served them for a tasting. After a spoonful to see how the sweet parmesan flavoured ice cream had come out, I decided to serve it with other accompaniments that are known to work both with the tangy, nutty cheese. So, I added some flaked almonds, a drizzle of honey and baked some lemon and almond tuiles, before serving the three ice creams to Professor Plum. And how did they come out?
The parmesan ice cream was certainly a type of flavour combination that I haven’t experienced before, but the strong taste of the cheese actually worked rather well as something cold and sweet. I’m not sure it’s going to be replacing chocolate as my ice cream flavour of choice, but it was definitely worth trying. Of the three different methods, there was actually very little to tell between them. Ice Cream B, the one using the maker was a little fluffier and paler than either of the other two, while Ice Cream C, using the dry ice method, had a not wholly appealing fizzy texture, probably the result of my inadequate stirring ability. To my mind the version using the machine was probably the best texture. For Professor Plum, though, her preference lay firmly on the low tech product. Either way it suggests that good ice cream is good ice cream and can be made so no matter how fancy or simplistic the technology available.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: The sweetness of the ice-cream overpowered any obvious cheesiness (unlike, for example, bacon & egg ice-cream, where it’s both bacony and sweet). CO2 seems to linger in ice-cream; not in large enough bits to burn you, but just enough to make everything fizzy. It didn’t work so well with this one, but could be really nice in a champagne sorbet.