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Homemade ice cream: Man v. machine

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Emily Angle Emily Angle | 17:00 UK time, Friday, 13 July 2012

You can’t have ice cream without one specific machine: a freezer.  But in our continuing series of cooking without gadgets, if you don’t want to invest in another piece of single-purpose kit to clog up your kitchen, namely an ice cream maker, can you still make ice cream?

The machine
I have a powerful ice cream machine in my basement. Nothing like the electric churn atop a bucket of ice and salt my grandmother had - slow, noisy and smelling of burning engine oil.  My machine cools down in five minutes and churns ice cream in about twenty. The prep time can vary - upwards of half an hour to make a custard, then hours of chilling it in the fridge until it’s ready to churn, making it a two-day process. But at its quickest, you can upend a tub of Greek yoghurt into the machine and have soft, scoopable ice cream in minutes. This is going to be a hard machine to beat.

The freeze and stir method
The first trial was a mocha ice cream, using the freeze and stir method. The recipe combined ready-made custard, whipped cream and coffee. Fold the ingredients together, pour into a plastic box with a lid, and freeze. Every hour or so, break up the crystals of ice that are forming around the edges of the box, stir them through the mixture and return to the freezer until the mixture is ice creamy.

I could almost hear laughter emanating from the basement as I tried to break up increasingly large shards of ice with a fork. Once formed, large ice crystals won’t break up without serious power. In the end I resorted to the handheld electric mixer. But it was no good – I’d let it set too firm before stirring. The problem with this method is that once it’s out of sight in the freezer, it’s easy to forget.

Freezing coffee ice cream without a machine creates large ice crystals and a rough texture.

Whisk early, whisk often to avoid big ice crystals forming.

But like all failures, it is when we learn the most: how ice cream is a delicate balance between fat, sugar and water content, with air to lighten it. The water in this ice cream (from the custard and coffee) had frozen separate to the cream, so that in each mouthful they were distinct. The lack of sweetness then made the cream taste fatty, rather than creamy, as if it was on its way to butter. 

This method is recommended by a lot of cooks, and maybe reducing the water content – starting with an all cream mix – is a less risky approach for a forgetful cook like me. Let my failure be a lesson: whisk early, whisk often.

The semifreddo and parfait methods
Some ice creams aren’t for churning, and I think it’s a more achievable result. A semifreddo or parfait is an oblong block of close-textured icy sweetness that is sliced and served on a plate rather than scooped into a cone.

Semifreddo with nougat

Semifreddo with nougat - takes ten minutes to make, then into the freezer.

This nougat semifreddo took no time to make and uses mascarpone instead of cream. There are definitely ice crystals within, but the low water content makes them smaller and less intrusive.

Raymond Blanc’s classic coffee parfait is a bit more fiddly, but tastes amazing. The addition of sweet wine adds complexity to an ice that can taste a bit insipid and the lemon juice gives it a lift.

To make a parfait, egg yolks and sugar syrup or sweet wine are heated over simmering water until just thickened.  Some recipes are very precise about the temperature. Raymond Blanc and others cite a classic 80C/176F, but Hervé This in Molecular Gastronomy has successfully shown that the egg foam will stabilise at as low as 68C/154F, with less risk of scrambling your eggs. 

Some people whisk constantly during heating, some only whisk upon cooling. But all whisk like mad to incorporate the maximum amount of air as the eggs cool, creating an exceptionally light and stable foam. Whisking the sabayon by hand takes an Andy Murray forearm so I still relied on my trusty handheld electric mixer to get the necessary lightness.

Whisked sabayon ready for chilling.

The unbearable lightness of sabayon

Then fold in some whipped cream, but be careful not to whip it too firmly, or there will be little blobs of cream  in the mix that are difficult to eliminate – I learned this the hard way. Pour the mixture into a loaf tin and freeze without stirring. Lining the mould with clingfilm makes it easier to turn out, but wrinkly.

Conclusion
I think that the machines have won this round.  But for the price of a handheld mixer and a bit of effort you can make a classic frozen dessert that will certainly impress.

Semfreddo and parfait round-up

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    My ice cream maker gathers dust at the back of the cupboard. The drum takes up so much freezer space, and I think there are so many really good ice creams in the shops now, it hardly seems worth the hassle. I agree about the parfait, very easy and looks impressive

  • Comment number 2.

    I've found the best way to make your icecream smooth and scoopable is to add a generous glug of some spirit or another. The alcohol prevents the mixture from freezing so solidly so you don't have to take it out of the freezer and hour before serving!

 

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