Most people remember Nero (37-68 BC), Emperor of Rome, as the tyrant who “fiddled while Rome was burning”. Whilst it is true that much of the ancient city was indeed destroyed or damaged during that fateful night of 18 to 19 July 64 AD, historians have since dispelled the myth of Nero’s “fiddling”.
Instead they found evidence that he opened his palaces for those left homeless and organized food deliveries to those in need.
Yet, Nero’s legacy extends far beyond his sadistic musical endeavors as he is credited as being one of the earliest Europeans to serve chilled desserts. Ice brought by slaves from the mountains was served with various fruit or fruit juice toppings. Much like our modern sorbets.
Evidence exists that the Chinese were making frozen desserts from milk and rice as far back as 200 BC.
They are also also credited to be the first to use a mixture of snow and saltpetre to produce ice cream.
The first recipe for ice cream as we know it was published in 1718 in England. In 1768 – L’Art de Bien Faire les Glaces d’Office – a book devoted entirely to ice cream was published in France.
It was the Quakers who first brought ice cream to America. In 1834 Nancy Johnston from Philadelphia patented the first ice cream churner paving the way for ice cream to become food for the masses.
In essence ice cream consists of three basic elements: ice crystals consisting of pure water, concentrated cream left behind by the water as it crystalizes, and tiny air cells formed as the mixture is stirred or churned.
When the ice cream mixture (usually milk and/or cream, flavorings, sugar and sometimes eggs) is cooled down to freeze, tiny ice crystals form from the water in the milk or cream to give the ice cream its solidity. The bigger these crystals, the more coarse and grainy the ice cream.
The addition of sugar to the ice cream mixture lowers the freezing point of water. Therefore, it prevents all the water in the mixture from freezing rock hard, giving us a thick mixture of cream, liquid water and sugar.
Air cells are trapped in the mixture when it is stirred or churned. The end product is then soft enough to lick or bite into.
As in life, always strive for balance. Too much water and the ice cream will have large water crystals and will not be smooth. Too much milk and sugar will make the ice cream heavy and soggy. Too much cream and thus fat, will turn your ice cream into flavored butter.
Philadelphia-style ice cream requires a basic mix of only milk, cream and sugar. French-style ice cream sees the addition of egg yolks muck like you would make custard or crème anglaise (a thin pourable custard). Egg-based mixtures must be cooked to kill all potential bugs that might live in eggs.
Making your own ice cream at home is very easy and it is a lot of fun. It takes only three steps: preparing the mix, freezing the mix and hardening your ice cream.
Get the kids to do the work – they love ice cream, don’t they? And no, you do not have to own an expensive ice cream machine. Just a few zip-lock bags, some salt, a good quantity of crushed ice and a pair of old kitchen gloves or a towel. Oh, and a child or two.
Prepare the basic mix in one bag, seal tightly. Put it in a second bag with ice and salt. Seal tightly. Sit back. Take out your violin, watch the children play with their food and fiddle to your hart’s content. Ask the ancient Emperor; life does not get any better.