IceCream@Home

In celebration of my 100th post, herewith is the saga of my search for makerless ice cream.

I know we are past summer, and so past ice cream season. I only bring this up now because it’s taken me this long to finish the experiments (burp). Last July, the blog Serious Eats had an entry on making ice cream without an ice cream maker. Basically, the idea behind making creamy ice cream is to freeze the cream quickly enough that the ice crystals are exceedingly small. There are a number of ways to go about this. One way is to use liquid nitrogen. Reportedly, this produces almost perfectly creamy ice cream, and is a great idea, except for the equipment costs, and the safety aspect, including the possibility of freezing your salient features off. Another approach is to use plain old dry ice. It’s cheaper, less dangerous — it still lets you hurt yourself, if you work at it — but it also reportedly adds a certain carbonated feeling, great for root beer ice cream, not so much for vanilla. The traditional way, of course, is to use a hand-cranked or electric ice cream maker – ice in salt water surrounding the ice cream. The salt water/ice mix stays below freezing while you swirl the ice cream inside it. On the downside, the equipment is a unitasker, it tends to be big and clunky, and the salt water mix is bad for the carpets.

In the blog entry, MIT-trained J. Kenji Lopez-Alt took another approach: break the water molecules up with as much fat and protein as possible, then freeze it quickly in a standard freezer. Part of the fat and protein comes from the eight egg yolks cooked into the evaporated milk (the custard part). The quickly part comes because he spread it out in an icecube tray, to give the mixture a larger surface area to cool with. I don’t have any icecube trays (my freezer has one of those icemaker thingies, instead), but I wanted to try it anyway.

The first step, in the tradition of mad scientists everywhere, was to reproduce the reported experiment, so I could improve on it. I don’t have icecube trays, but I do have a 10x6x3 9.5 cup Ziplock plastic storage tray, and my icemaker has a large box for ice-objects, just big enough to hold it. The original recipe filled the tray to about 3/4 inch. The other thing I did was use a stick blender in place of a food processor. That way I could mix stuff right in the Ziplock. Note that you can’t do this if you use icecube trays. Well, you can, but the results will be more exciting and less appetizing. Result – the ice cream was delicious!! Best home made ice cream I ever made, possibly the best I ever had (or at least, it’s among the top two). Now comes the effort to make it simpler and easier.

So the goal is to make something close to the original taste, but without all the egg shelling and de-whiting and cooking. Why? Because the shelling is tedious, the cooking is treacherous — it can easily fail, giving you scrambled eggs for dessert — and the subsequent chilling before adding the cream and freezing, is just a pain. Essentially, what I wanted to do was get close to what Alton Brown (of “Good Eats” fame) calls a Philadelphia style ice cream, while the original recipe is for New York style ice cream (really, a frozen custard).

My first attempt was a mistake. I used sweetened condensed milk instead of evaporated. I left out the eggs, but not the sugar. Result: it was too sweet, and tasted too much of the condensed milk. It also tasted like I had put too much vanilla extract in, but all of these use only two tablespoons of it.

Second attempt. Used sweetened condensed, with no eggs and no sugar; still with two tablespoons of vanilla extract. Not killer sweet, but still too condensed-milk-tasting.

Third attempt. Regular evaporated milk (100%, not lowfat or nonfat), one cup sugar, two tablespoons of vanilla extract. Half a pint of whipping cream, whipped, and half a pint, unwhipped. Result: a little too thin. I could detect the ice crystals, but only just. My wife said it tasted a little like iced milk or lowfat. Needed a little more fat or protein to keep the water out.

Note that none of these were bad. As my wife said, any of these would have been considered great, if we hadn’t had the full recipe earlier.

Fourth attempt. Egg Beaters do not make a suitable replacement for real eggs. Just sayin’.

One thing I noticed when I got around to reading the Alton Brown transcripts in detail was that he heated the milk in both the New York and Philadelphia recipes. In the NY recipe he had to — it was for a custard. In the Philly recipe, he didn’t say why he did it.

Fifth attempt. Can of evap, half a pint of whipping cream, cup of sugar. Heat to 180F. Chill in fridge overnight. Add two tablespoons of vanilla extract and whip a bit (may be a mistake, foamed). Freeze four hours. Add the other half pint of whipping cream, whipped. Freeze four hours. Result: This worked reasonably well. Just a slight hint of icecrunch if you chewed your ice cream rather than tongued it down. I suspect that if my Ziploc container was an additional half inch wide I’d have the surface area needed to freeze it fast. Taste was not as rich as the original recipe, which is understandable. I’d serve it to company.

Sixth attempt. Now let’s go more toward the custard side, only this time we use a box of instant custard and leave out the sugar. Otherwise, identical to try six. The idea is that the custard-making stuff will give us the New York style richness, and it might also kill that final little bit of crystallization. Result: Not so good. Instead of being creamy, it felt greasy. The instant custard mix didn’t have enough sugar to make up for the lack, and the custard flavor (Jello ‘Americana’) didn’t survive the freezing process. I thawed it, added a quarter cup of peach preserves, and refroze. That helped a lot, but the mouth feel was still more greasy than creamy. Note that, since the ice cream doesn’t have any of those industrial additives, you can melt and refreeze and it doesn’t ice up like commercial ice cream does.

This is probably the last effort this year. Like Marie Curie, I have destroyed my health with my research (the last six weeks have driven my Wii weight into the obese category), and it’s getting to the end of indoor ice cream season and we are about to start the make-it-on-the-back-porch season. Aside from the original recipe, my fifth attempt was the best, but there’s lots more work to do. The key is to keep the water molecules well apart, and to freeze things as fast as possible (which means get as large a surface area to weight ratio as possible). Variations I plan to try later include using a much smaller amount of a different flavor pudding mix while retaining the sugar, and using more fruit preserves (Alton Brown says you can swap preserves for sugar 1:1). I also note that all of these experiments were run at the normal temperature of my icemaker. I could have turned the thermostat down as far as it would go, and things would freeze faster, giving smaller crystals. Your mileage may vary.

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