As I write this, summer over, and has been for some while. There are many things that beg to be enjoyed during the hot months of the year if you live in the Midwest. Fresh sweet corn and tomatoes were for sale at every roadside stand and farmers’ market you could find. My trusty old grille got a workout during the Summer months. Nothing fancy, but a steady stream of burgers, bratwursts and the occasional pork loin will sizzle there until they finds themselves on a plate. One of the worldly pleasures that seems so right in the summertime is ice cream. But in my world, there is no reason to restrict it to a single season.
I am not a food snob. Which is not to say that I enjoy bad food; rather, I can find great pleasure in simple things done well. While I love a good steak, I can also appreciate a well-made hamburger. And not one of those burgers with the patty stuffed with bleu cheese and chilean sea bass or whatever the food crowd is stuffing into burger patties these days. All I require is decent sized patty, nicely seared outside, placed between two halves of a toasted bun, and maybe some dill chips and ketchup for a little crunch and flavor. Don’t get me started on the bread-and-butter-pickles-on-hamburgers fad.
There is, however, one area of my life where my standards are exacting, and this is in ice cream. Life is simply too short for bad ice cream. And trust me, there is a lot of it out there.
When I was a kid, ice cream of any kind was perfectly fine. It turned out to be better than fine during the period when my mother went on an “ice milk” kick, in an ill-fated effort to improve our health and well being. But as I got older, my mother began buying Breyers. In the 1970s, Breyers was exceptional ice cream – all natural, with milk, cream, sugar and flavorings the only things listed on the lable. Our go-to was always the “Natural Vanilla”, the first I ever had with little flecks of vanilla bean visible. This was when I learned a few things.
First, vanilla ice cream can be good without being yellow. I think you will agree that it takes something unnatural to make white food (like sugar, milk and cream) turn yellow.
Second, good vanilla ice cream is heavy and dense. A carton ought to hurt you if you drop it on your foot in the store. Cheap ice cream, in addition to having a color problem, has a weight and texture problem, which comes from whipping air into it. Is it easy to scoop when it comes from a properly cold freezer? No thanks, I’ll pass. Good ice cream is a Class-A pain in the wrist to scoop because it is so blessed hard.
The corollary to this rule is that good ice cream does not form little peaks when your spoon peels away from the scoop that you have, with such great effort,. put into your bowl. Peaks mean gum, and gum is for chewing, not for ice cream. Actually, it isn’t even for chewing, but that’s another topic.
The final rule is that the test of good ice cream is to try the vanilla first. The problem with cheap ice cream is that it ruins the ability to enjoy vanilla. A really good vanilla ice cream is a delight, with a delicate balance of flavor and texture that is hard to match. I am not afraid to move on to other flavors and mix-ins, but not as a substitute for basic quality. If the vanilla isn’t any good, dumping flavorings or candy in it will not make it better.
Let me tell you, being an ice cream snob is no picnic. Do you know how many favorite brands are no longer in the running? Breyers, for one. I am not sure when it happened (probably during college when beer elbowed ice cream out of the way as my favorite vice) but the manufacturers loaded it up with all sorts of unpronounceables, made it soft, made it gummy, and simply ruined it. The same goes for those wonderful Klondike Bars that I used to buy in the ’80s.
In fact, almost the entire ice cream selection of my nearest grocery store is a fail. “Your grocer’s freezer” confirms what seems to be a pretty strict rule for ice cream quality: the bigger the container, the worse it is. The little pint cartons (like Ben and Jerry’s or Graeter’s) are usually quite good, but are priced so as to restrict their purchase to special occasions (or huge life disasters). The big plastic gallon buckets are uniformly awful, useful only for childrens’ parties or maybe for milkshakes if the party was at your house and you got stuck with the rest of the bucket.
That much is easy. As is the corollary to the rule, which is Big Buckets for kids, little pints for Mommy and Daddy. The problem is in those mid-sized cartons (that we old timers still call “half gallons” – because that is the size they once were). I have been disappointed in most of them, but there are a few that I can deal with. The best quality-for-the-money compromise in my area seems to be from Cincinnati’s United Dairy Farmers Co-Op, which is sold under the Homemade brand. This one has met a serious need at my house, because there are times when sharing decent ice cream with others becomes unavoidable.
I have made ice cream myself, with some success. We have an old family recipe that is actually more of a frozen custard (cooked and with a bunch of eggs in the recipe) that is quite serviceable and meets my criteria for quality. I stubbornly refuse to call it “artisinal”, because I am pretty sure that the artisinal police would object to anything that includes canned condensed milk. I am sure that my recipe could be improved if I were inclined to spend a lot of time in experimentation – time which actually sounds pretty pleasant, as I think about it.
My recipe also has the benefit of being practically calorie-free on a net basis, since my 2 gallon White Mountain ice cream freezer is the old fashioned variety powered by a hand crank. However, it is best employed when there are other willing laborers to assist in the twenty minutes of cranking required for dessert. Who will help me eat the ice cream, asked the Little Red Hen?
I realize that I may be stepping on some toes in the debate between hard ice cream and frozen custard. I am agnostic on this debate, because there is excellence to be had in both kinds. But please don’t use the generic term “soft serve”, because that is the soft equivalent of the stuff in plastic buckets at the stores.
Most people today don’t stop to think that ice cream was once a wintertime treat because that was the only time that ice was available for the freezing process. I am perfectly happy to keep up with this tradition if it means a steady supply of my favorite kind of caloric decadence.
In the end, I don’t suppose the season matters, so long as there are places everywhere that will offer up high quality ice cream all year long. About a year ago, Graeters (also from Cincinnati) opened a couple of stores in my area. Fortunately, none is too close or I would be getting a stern talking-to at my next annual physical as I explore some new ranges in the display on the scale at my doctor’s office. So, with a safe buffer of several miles built into the supply route, Graeters has been a good thing.
I keep thinking of a good way to end this little essay, but it is not coming to me. Perhaps a couple of scoops of ice cream will help. It certainly can’t hurt.