The summer mantra! What is better on a hot day than silky cold custard sliding over your palate hitting every taste bud with cooling flavor?
One of my fondest and clearest childhood memories is of my great-uncle Nelson at our annual family reunion surrounded by me and my cousins watching him churn a rich custard (made by my great-aunt Virginia) dotted with fresh peaches in an old-fashioned hand-crank machine. I can still taste that rich cream and amazing bursts of sweet peach.
Ice cream, in a sugar cone, of course, is one of summer’s icons. You may be surprised to know how easy it is to make it yourself. Homemade ice cream is free of chemicals and preservatives and bursting with fresh flavor. All it takes is a good basic custard, your farmer’s market abundance, and some imagination.
The basis, or blank palette, of ice cream is good custard. The creamy base just awaits the addition of your favorite flavors. I love to browse the market and imagine what fruits and herbs could marry in that custard. Blackberries and basil; peaches and sorrel; plums and tarragon. Ice cream is a perfect way to use up fruit before it’s over-ripe. You can store it in the freezer for a month sneaking a bite every now and then; mixing up an adult milk shake; or thrilling the kids with a big bowl of lip-licking goodness made by your hands.
I tested many custards and have settled on this one as a foolproof, super creamy, smooth base. This recipe assumes you have an ice cream machine, which I highly recommend. You can make ice cream without one, but the machine adds air while churning making a lighter, smoother ice cream. I use a Cuisinart that cost about $40. You could also buy an attachment for your stand mixer.
This custard (plus flavor additions) make about 1 quart (or 8-10 scoops) of ice cream
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup whole milk
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
4 egg yolks (room temperature)
Bowl for an ice bath
Whisk or hand mixer
Glass or ceramic bowl
Freezer safe container
Fill the large bowl with ice cubes and set aside. This is for cooling your custard, so make sure the bowl can accommodate the saucepan you use for heating the milk cream mixture.
In the non-reactive saucepan, bring milk, cream, and a pinch of salt to a simmer. Keep stirring to prevent sticking and lumping and watch carefully; do not allow it to boil.
While the cream mixture is heating, in the medium bowl (one that accommodate the addition of the cream mixture) whisk together eggs and sugar (don’t do this ahead of heating the cream, the sugar will set the protein in the eggs). If you have a partner in the kitchen, they can whisk the eggs and sugar while you mind the cream. But, it is easy enough when cooking solo. Just keep your egg bowl near the stove so you can watch the cream while whisking adding a stir or two.
Once the cream mixture is hot enough (just below a boil), settle the bowl with eggs onto a folded towel or silicone trivet to prevent it from sliding around and slowly pour the cream mix in a light stream into the egg mix whisking constantly to prevent curdling the eggs. It’s very important for the first 1/4 cup of cream to drizzle into the eggs very slowly. You can speed it up a little bit after that, but don’t rush it.
Once combined, return mixture to saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens just enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon (about 180 degrees). This should take about 15 minutes. Be sure your heat is not too high, this could cause your custard to get lumpy by cooking too fast. *
Remove custard from the heat. Add some cold water to your bowl of ice so you can nestle the pan into it. Allow custard to come to room temperature (this takes about 20 minutes). Stir occasionally to prevent a “skin” on the surface and watch that the pan doesn’t tip and take on water as the ice melts.
Once at room temperature remove the pan with the custard, pour into bowl (preferable glass or ceramic), cover with plastic and chill in refrigerator overnight or at least 4 hours.
Now that you have a basic custard, start playing with your flavor additions. There are two primary ways to flavor ice cream.
Infuse the custard
You can add herbs or other flavors to the custard. Herbs are great for this; add a few bruised basil leaves or fresh lavender. Allow the herbs to remain in the custard from the moment it hits the saucepan until you’ve finished cooling it. Remove the herbs and push the custard through a fine mesh sieve. Churn according to your manufacturer’s instructions. Some other tasty infusions include nutmeg; rosemary; allspice; tea leaves; and matcha powder.
Add a fruit puree
This is my favorite. I was at the farmer’s market yesterday and the sugar plums were irresistible. I bought a pint of red and a pint of yellow. I can’t possibly eat those before they go, so I churned up a nice large container of plum and Earl Grey tea ice cream.
To add a fruit puree;
A couple of pounds of fruit will work with the custard recipe here. Cut up your fruit (for most stone fruit, you can leave the skin; it adds more flavor). Place in a bowl, add 1/2 cup of sugar, a squeeze of lemon or lime, and a pinch of salt. Allow to macerate overnight or at least 4 hours. This will draw out the sweetness and flavor of your fruit. Plan this out so that your fruit is macerating at the same time your custard is cooling.
This is the place to really pump of up flavor. When I make peach ice cream, I add 1/4 cup of peach liquor. You could also add an extract. If you prefer a very subtle flavor allowing the cream to have voice, then omit the extract or liquor. This is not an exact science; there is plenty of room to be playful. Taste as you go to see if you want to punch up flavor or add a new element.
After the mixture is well-cooled, puree in a food processor. Add fresh herbs here, or your favorite spice (peaches and nutmeg would be good, right?. Or Strawberries and black pepper. Go wild!). Keep tasting until you shout ‘yum!’
Put the puree back in the refrigerator for 20 minutes.
Pull out both the custard and the puree. Add the puree to the custard bowl and combine using an immersion blender (or in batches in a regular blender). You are seeking a very smooth mixture.
Push the entire mixture through a fine mesh sieve so you are left with no lumps or bits. This is a very important step.
Get your ice cream machine set up and start churning according to your manufacturer’s instructions; this mixture will take anywhere from 15-25 minutes. Tt takes 20 minutes in my Cuisinart. Your final result should be cloud-like and smooth. Be careful not to over churn; it will be too firm and lose the whipped cream-like lightness.
Pour the mixture into a freezer-ready container. It will seem too soft, but this is good. It will firm up in the freezer. Top with wax paper and an air-tight lid. The wax paper keeps out air adding shelf-life to your ice cream; if you plan to eat it all up in a day or two, you can skip this. Don’t substitute plastic wrap; it will tear and be difficult to remove from the ice cream. Freeze for at least 4 hours before scooping.
Making ice cream takes two days for the best outcome. The actual preparation time is not long, but there is a lot of chilling between steps. You can shorten chilling times, but it will not produce as good a result.
More Flavor Ideas
Here are some ideas to get your culinary imagination sparked using current farmer’s market bounty.
Peaches and jalapeño (add tequila after the mixture has spend at least 6 hours in the freezer for an adult milk shake)
Peaches and basil (or tarragon or rosemary)
Berries and rosemary (or basil or sorrel)
Blackberries or plums and Earl Grey tea (steep 1 tbl of tea leaves or one tea bag in the milk cream mixture before adding eggs/sugar. Allow to stand off the heat for 1/2 hour. Strain out the tea leaves or bag using a slotted spoon, reheat the milk cream mixture, then continue to the egg/sugar steps).
Berries and bourbon (add alcohol to the puree, then cook the puree over medium heat and allow to simmer for about 30 minutes. This will cook off the alcohol and leave vanilla and caramel notes from the bourbon.
Plums, pistachio and rose water (add a drop or two of rose water, then taste. It can quickly become overpowering and soapy. Keep tasting until there is just a hint of rose flavor. Nuts can be added at the churn stage).
Beets and oranges or clementines (add ginger or basil). Beets should be roasted and peeled first. Skip the maceration step and go straight to the food processor to puree with spices or herbs.
…are you getting some good ideas? Start by cutting up a couple of pieces of fruits, herbs, and spices to taste before getting into the ice cream process. This can be your lab time to develop your signature ice cream formula.
I can’t wait to hear all about your inspired creation and hope it becomes a summer tradition and memory-maker for your family.
Go get churning.
*if your custard gets lumpy in the second cook, don’t worry, it can be salvaged. If you see lumps forming, remove from the stove and continue to follow the directions moving the pan to the water bath and chill. The lumps will come out when you push the custard through the sieve.