I have made and eaten more ice cream this winter than what I did all of last summer. Why, you may ask. The answer is quite simple: I had gotten better at making ice cream.
Making you own ice cream at home is not only easy and fun, but allows for more creativity in the kitchen; and in my book, anything that boosts creativity is a worthy cause. Period.
At it’s most basic level ice cream consists of only a few ingredients: milk, cream, sugar, air and flavourings. Even more basic is the sorbet – it is only flavoured water (usually a juice) and sugar.
Milk-based ice creams consist of two broad types: French style custard-based ice creams made with eggs, and Philadelphia ice creams that has no eggs. Of the two, the latter is easier to make at home because there is no risk of over-cooking the custard and producing flavoured scrambled eggs. However, eggs do provide a slightly better texture and flavour to your ice cream and it helps the ice cream to set better, so for more confident home cooks this might be the way to go.
Good quality ice cream requires fat. Fat carries flavour, provides good textures and gives a good mouth-feel. Thus, it is better to use heavy cream and full cream milk. Start with a ratio of 2:1 (cream to milk) and see where this takes you.
Good quality ice cream requires air. By churning the ice cream, air is introduced in the mixture. This makes it lighter. Milk solids are required for capturing air, so having milk in your ice cream base is important, so do not think you could substitute the milk for more cream. This balance is important, so stick to the ratio.
Good quality ice cream requires sugar. In addition to giving sweetness to the ice cream, sugar also reduces freezing so the ice cream stays softer. No one wants solid frozen cream and milk for dessert, so make sure you add enough sugar. For milk-based ice creams use a ratio of 2:1:0.5 cream and milk to sugar. Thus, 2 cups cream, to 1 cup milk, to ½ cup of sugar. This translates to a base recipe of 500ml cream, 250ml milk and 125g of normal sugar. If you use liquid sugars such as fructose you need to use slightly less, about 75% of the volume for normal sugar.
Good quality ice cream requires flavour. Fat is very good at absorbing and carrying flavour (especially when heated), and given that cream and full cream milk contain loads of fat, you could add just about any flavour or flavour combinations to your ice cream. The sky is the limit really. The most common way to introduce flavour into ice cream is to let the base absorb the flavours. This is done by adding the flavouring agent such as vanilla, to a base that is heated (not boiled) and let it steep for 30 minutes or more before straining the mixture to remove solid components. This could be done with just about any herb, spice or dry matter such as fruit peel, cookies and even bacon.
Liquid and powder flavourings are simply added to the base mix and stirred through. Solid bits like chocolate nibs, praline flakes and chunks of fruit are added toward the final stages of the churning process, about five or so minutes before it is completed.
When making custard-based ice creams the most critical stage is perhaps when the heated liquid is added to the beaten eggs (whole or just yolks). The danger here is that the eggs would start to cook in the hot liquid and you’ll end up with scrambled eggs. This could be avoided by whisking the eggs and sugar together before adding the hot liquid. Heat the milk and cream mixture to about 85˚C. The eggs should be tempered by adding only a small amount of the hot liquid very slowly to the eggs while whisking. Whisking cools the mixture down further preventing coagulation of the eggs. Whatever you do, do not stop whisking! Lower the temperature of your remaining custard by turning the heat down low, before adding the tempered eggs back into the remaining custard. Whisk, whisk whisk! Make sure the temperature is low enough to prevent the custard from boiling.
Finally, if you have a bit of scrambled egg in your mixture, all is not lost. Simply pour the mixture through a fine sieve to remove the coagulated bits.
Home cooks face a second set of challenges, once they have mastered the making of a base mixture, especially if going the custard route. This is how to churn the ice cream. Churning is the process whereby the ice cream base is frozen whilst incorporating air into it.
The biggest enemy is ice crystals. No one likes grainy ice cream. The grain in ice cream is formed when it freezes too slowly giving the water time to form large crystals. Thus, the key is to get the temperature down as low as quickly as possible.
Home ice cream machines are affordable these days, so make the investment and get one, especially if you want to make ice cream on a regular basis. It is possible to make ice cream without one, but it does require some extra time and effort, and this, as I know from personal experience, dampens the spirit of most home cooks.
Much easier methods to make ice cream without a machine, is to use food grade dry ice or liquid nitrogen, both of which you could buy locally. Start with dry ice, it is cheap and readily available at Afrox. You need only a small amount (about 1 kilogram for a few batches). Because dry ice has a temperature of about -78˚C, the water in your ice cream is frozen almost instantly and there is no time for large crystals to form and spoil your ice cream. Liquid nitrogen is even colder -210˚C and thus makes even smoother ice cream. Both these frozen gasses do carry some safety risks, so please do your research and wear protective gear before using them. You have been warned. But, they do add some spectacular special effects in the form of bubbling smoke to the process, and thus adds to the fun.
In recent times, even home cooks have discovered the benefits of using natural stabilizers to their ice cream to make it smoother. Most popular are xanthan gum and guar gum. These are hard to find locally, but I have found some in the health food section of at least two supermarkets. Only a very small quantity of this gum is required – about 1/8th of a teaspoon is enough for 750ml of ice cream base. These gums prevent the formation of large crystals because they attach themselves to the water in the mixture and thus prevent these tiny drops from combining into larger ones. Too much gum makes the ice cream chewy, so be careful. It is best to add these gums to your raw sugar and rub it into the sugar. If you simply dump them into the mixture, you’ll get big gooey lumps of gel which is not pleasant at all.
Once churned in a machine, or frozen with dry ice, the ice cream could be eaten immediately (if you are anything like me) or has to be decanted into a freeze proof container (like airtight plastic tubs) and put into a freezer for a few hours to set.
To start you on your quest, I have included a very simple recipe for making sorbet, the easiest of all frozen desserts. I have used the lovely Mandarin oranges that are currently available everywhere, but you are free to pursue your own preferences. And may the ice cream god of your choice bless you.