We humans are wired, I believe, to become used to what we have become used to. Water in a pool that seems too cold at first feels just fine after a few minutes and a new song that isn’t that appealing on the first listen can become a favorite after some regular exposure to it. Well I just re-learned that lesson.
I have said critical things about my mother’s cooking. Let’s just say that cooking was not in the top tier of her many gifts. But there was one thing that never failed to send we kids into taste bud heaven – when Mom would get the urge to make ice cream.
My mother was born in the depths of the Great Depression and grew up on a farm. The ice cream recipe was from her mother. It wasn’t so much an actual ice cream as a frozen custard that was first cooked on the stove until thickened into a kind of pudding.
The real fun began when she hauled out the White Mountain hand-crank ice cream freezer. We would take turns cranking the thing while regular alternating heaps of ice and salt went into the bucket. Salt, I eventually learned, lowers the freezing point of water so that icy cold water that is actually at a sub-freezing temperature as it surrounds the spinning metal container so as to freeze the contents. Scientific knowledge is best when it tastes good.
When it was finished we had a frozen treat unlike anything you could get from the store – it had a rich vanilla flavor that was too good to pour anything over it. It was simply the best thing ever.
I got the recipe from her and when I got married I lobbied hard to take some of our wedding-gift-cash and buy our own White Mountain freezer with it. We had to order one from a hardware store – at that time, the manufacturer was still a little independent company in New England and the things were still made much as they had been for the previous hundred years. Wait, I just looked it up – since 1872, according to our friends at Wiki. Or 1853 if we are to believe Sunbeam, the current owner of the company. They were not cheap, but what is when it’s made to last?
The ice cream became a favorite in our family too. But there was a point – I forget exactly when – when I realized something horrifying: This family heirloom ice cream recipe that I had grown up with was (perish the thought) not as good as quality ice cream from the store.
That was a hard thought to process. This had not been true in, say, 1970 when store freezers were full of paper cartons of ice cream made by companies like Borden or Sealtest. But by the current century there was some pretty good stuff available for those of us who choose our ice cream carefully, and I had to admit the hard fact that our old family ice cream just wasn’t up to snuff. Really, this was almost as bad as the brief existential crisis I suffered during the process of my transition from Lutheran to Catholic. In my world religion outranks ice cream, but not by as much as it probably should.
Somehow, deep down, I had suspected a problem – how can it really be ice cream if there was no cream in it? Perhaps whole milk was easier for Depression-era families to afford. And like any good Depression-era recipe it involved canned products – the three cans of evaporated milk had to add something, right? Things started to come together after one of my kids passed along some wisdom from a friend who tried a bowlful after it had been dipped into containers and put in the freezer for later. It was always hard as a rock, to the point that a scoop was worthless. “It gets so hard because there’s not enough butterfat” was the advice. It seemed reasonable. And, if I’m being truthful, what food isn’t improved by more life-giving fat? In the food, I mean.
We recently decided to run another batch for a small family gathering. I had done a little online research and compared other recipes for frozen custard to my own. The first step would be to substite heavy whipping cream for half of the milk. Everything else would be the same – isn’t science all about changing just one thing at a time? So there would still be the dozen eggs, the gobs of sugar, the added cornstarch and the three cans of evaporated milk – Elsie the Cow and ice cream just go together naturally, I think. We set to work and our two-gallons of fresh dessert was enjoyed.
[Author’s Note: This is where a big, heaping bowl of vanilla frozen custard would be shown had there been an ounce of self-control or pre-planning shown in the creation of this content. All actual ice cream was consumed too quickly for photos to be taken. Which is only right.]
I am happy to report that the next day it passed the acid test when I went to scoop some into a bowl and – miracle of miracles – it actually scooped. Don’t get me wrong, it took some major upper body strength to make it happen, but happen it did. I can now, for the first time in a long time say that I would be proud to serve this dessert to anyone, whether on Day 1 or Day 10. Take that, Ben – and you can tell Jerry I said so.
After some discussions with Marianne, we are still deciding which old ingredient will be the next to go – the canned evaporated milk or the cornstarch. Simpler is better, right? This project will require another two gallons of ice cream, but we are willing to sacrifice for science.
As with anything, sometimes it takes a fresh look at old habits to realize that things can be made better than they are. It worked with our ice cream. Now I think I need to apply that lesson to my use of our exercise bike.