On Ice Cream, Tradition, And Innovation

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.

12 thoughts on “On Ice Cream, Tradition, And Innovation

  1. While not a big fan of ice cream, this does sound really good!

    If eliminating the remaining canned milk, you may investigate if you can procure raw milk locally. It almost brings a fourth dimension to whole milk given the differences it has when compared to whole milk from the store.

    You need the fat in the ice cream as the fat helps lubricate the synapsis of the brain. That’s why things like bacon, fried vegetables, and homemade ice cream are good for people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I was a kid we would occasionally visit my mother’s aunt and uncle who were dairy farmers in Minnesota. I still remember the metal pitcher full of milk that came straight out of their cows – it was not at all the same thing as the 2% we used to get at home.

      We are not big milk drinkers at our house since the kids moved out but when we buy it we get the whole milk. I have heard folks talk about raw milk but I am not sure I am willing to devote the time to finding a local source, especially for no more often than we buy it.

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  2. I love home made ice cream! While I am not able to speak to the ingredients we used to use, we have a fairly modern (1980s) ice cream maker. We made home made ice cream (I think eggs went in there at one time during the preparation) because my younger boy has a peanut allergy, and no store bought ice cream could be taken to be safe from cross contamination with nuts or nut by products. It was delicious as I recall.

    I can’t remember the last time I saw him eating ice cream, so he never developed a taste, but I have become accustomed to buying Chapman’s guaranteed nut free ice cream. No cross contamination, made in a nut free facility, etc. Their plant burned down a few years ago but they have rebuilt and are thriving.

    On the other hand, my son does consume Tim Horton’s donuts, which are certainly exposed to dangerous cross contaminants, so what can you do!

    Enjoy your ice cream making!

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    • Making it is certainly a production, so you really have to love it and it helps that it was a part of good family memories from my childhood. Going to the store is a lot easier!

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  3. I’m impressed JP. You can now add scientist to your resume. Once you get the recipe perfected you should consider adding flavors, like strawberry or chocolate? This could delay the scientific process indefinitely. Is there any vanilla bean in it currently to give it the vanilla flavor?

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    • I keep thinking about the vanilla beans. We just use the obscenely expensive real vanilla extract (that now costs so much I feel like we should store it in a safe). I should have noted an earlier change to the recipe – One of Marianne’s cooking/baking habits is to take whatever vanilla might be called for in a recipe and double it.

      I have thought about other flavors, but a couple of things have stopped me. First, if we don’t like it as well, that is a lot of effort wasted (and our freezer/recipe makes 2 gallons of it). Second, I continue to believe that really good ice cream can do vanilla extremely well. It is a subtle flavor that will not mask underlying inferiority in texture or taste. But I’m still intrigued about the vanilla bean, and maybe this is worth a try.

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      • I’ve heard real vanilla beans are even more expensive than real vanilla extract. I use the cheaper fake stuff, but am all for doubling it. You can never go wrong with vanilla because it always goes well with pie!

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  4. Why did I never get to taste homemade ice cream in my life? Growing up in Canada, I do remember those little Sealtest cups with the pull tab and a complimentary spoon. At the corner store, they had these great double cones … one cone with two cups. We moved to the States in ’66 and I’ve never seen either of those items here. Your ice cream sounds wonderful J.P. and I hope you can find a way to have that Thanksgiving get-together and home-made ice cream to boot. We have a dairy in our City. Calder’s Dairy makes the ice cream on site and yes, there is a difference in that rich-tasting ice cream and what you get from the freezer at the grocery store. The evaporated milk might make it taste richer … the corn starch should go! 🙂

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