The Very Cool World of Ice-Creams & Sorbets

With the summer coming around the corner it’s time to take a look at ice-creams and sorbets.
Ice cream as a dairy delight was probably “discovered” in the 1600’s, according to several books but none of them actually agree as to where. We do know that Charles I of England, or rather, his chef (either French or Italian), made ice cream a staple of the royal table. Depending on which version you read, either the chef had a secret recipe for ice cream (probably stolen) and the king paid him a yearly stipend to keep it a secret, or the chef was threatened with beheading if he divulged the recipe. Some attribute ice-cream making to King Tang (A.D. 618-97) of Shang, China, who had a method of creating ice and milk concoctions. It’s more likely that when Italian duchess Catherine de’ Medici married the Duc d’Orléans in 1533, she is said to have brought with her Italian chefs who had recipes for flavored ices or sorbets and introduced them in France (she is also known to have introduced the fork to the French court, among other things).

For me, my earliest recollection of this heavenly concoction is of being the recipient of an enormous cone laden with strawberry, chocolate and lemon ice-cream at the Monaco Grand Prix. I did not care much for racing but I looked forward to the trip to Monaco every summer.

The use of ice mixed with salt to lower and control the temperature of the mix of ingredients proved a major breakthrough in the creation of ice cream as we know it (we still use this rock salt & ice combination to chill Champagne). The invention of the wooden bucket freezer with rotary paddles facilitated its manufacture. I remember my uncle, on his knees, churning ice-cream like a demented maniac.

There are a couple of factors that keep ice cream from freezing up as hard as ice. The first factor is the fact that ice cream is not pure water. The other ingredients don’t freeze up at the same temperature as the water in the mixture does. So, they help to keep it soft. If your ice-cream turns icy, it is for a number of reasons. An ice-cream base (or custard) is usually made up of milk, egg yolks, sugar and cream. Milk fats in the cream and milk become solid globules when frozen and provide the ice cream with a depth of richness and creaminess. So it’s important that you cook your mixture well and the sugar is dissolved properly (sugar lowers the freezing point of the ice-cream mix making it softer, if the sugar has not been dissolved into the mix, this can cause an uneven result in the texture), it binds the egg yolk and liquid and in turn thickens the custard (the egg yolk acts as a stabilizer by thickening the custard and binding during cooking, creating a smoother texture to the final result), and it causes excess water to evaporate during cooking (water turns to ice when frozen).

The other factor is in the way ice cream is frozen. Ice cream is frozen in a churn that constantly stirs the mixture as it freezes. This prevents the formation of large, interlocking crystals. If you have a Cuisinart or a Gaggia ice-cream maker, all you have to do is to cook the mixture well, and press a button, as the churning process freezes the mixture while aerating the mix. Aerating the mix traps the solid and liquid particles between air cells and in turn softens and lightens the mix. A word of advice: set the controls of your machine right as over-churned ice-cream can overdevelop the fat molecules which basically turns cream to butter, this won’t affect the iciness, but will affect the texture of the ice-cream.

I have a commercial Gaggia at work which makes four liters at a time, very handy in the summer. I prefer to make my own ice-cream and sorbets, and apart from the obvious savings, I know exactly what’s in the product and I get to make esoteric and exotic concoctions. First let me start with the sorbets, since it is easier to prepare.

The trick to making a really good and light sorbet is to cook a sugar syrup the day before. In a saucepan pour a liter (2 pints) of water and add 250 grams of granulated sugar plus the juice of one lemon (this helps to set the sorbet without crystallizing it), bring to the boil gently and pour into a dish to cool. This will form the base of most fruit sorbets: for every liter of syrup add a liter of fresh fruit purée you can make or one of those you can buy in a good supermarket. They usually come into liter-packs and cover most fruits. Buy 2 pints of strawberries or raspberries, wash them and de-stalk, purée them in the blender, add the syrup and you’re there. Having said that, most domestic sorbetières make 1 liter, so either you half the ingredients or make 2 lots if you have room in the freezer. Make sure you write the date on top of the container, to be on the safe side. If you don’t have a machine you can freeze the sorbet and stir every 5 minutes or so. Just remember the quantities: a pint of berries or any fruit purée with a pint of syrup and off you go.

Here is a novel way to punctuate your summer lunch with a tomato & basil sorbet. I used to serve this in Sydney, between courses, and it got to be quite popular. It is breathtakingly simple: purée 2 pints of fresh plum tomatoes, add the juice of 2 lemons, a bunch of finely chopped basil, salt & pepper to taste and a dash of raspberry vinegar. Churn and serve. A variation I used to make was to combine cucumber and spinach, also with lemon and a dash of raspberry vinegar. Another way to pepper your life: simply fill a few empty ice-cube trays with the tomato mix and this will make a spectacular Bloody Mary! Just add the vodka.

Now for the ice-creams. The choice can be unlimited. In 1977 I even made a Roquefort ice-cream which I used to serve with thinly sliced cured venison. Odd but tasty. My very favorite ice-cream is the one my great grandmother taught me how to make: lavender ice-cream laced with acacia honey. For a liter + you’ll need 6 free range egg yolks, a pint of milk, a pint of cream, 1/3 pint of acacia honey or any wild flower honey you can get your hands on, 1/2 cup of white sugar and 1 ounce of dried lavender flowers. Bring the milk only to the boil and infuse the lavender tips in it. In a bowl whisk the egg yolks and the sugar to a frenzy, add the honey. In a saucepan over a low flame, pour the egg mix, add the cream and the warm milk and cook ever so slowly, whisking as you go. It should take roughly 10 minutes. Let cool and churn.

Another one of my favorite is Mocha ice-cream. it’s a blend of coffee and chocolate. What’s not to like? For roughly a liter and a bit you’ll need the following: 1 pint of milk, 1 pint of cream, 200 gr of dark chocolate, half a glass of coffee liquor, 1/3 pint of strong coffee (or the equivalent of 4 espressos), 6 free range egg yolks, 200 gr white sugar. Bring the milk and the cream to a slow boil. In the meantime whisk the egg yolks with the sugar. When the milk/cream is ready drop the chocolate bit by bit, until melted. In a saucepan, pour the egg mix, and add the milk/cream/chocolate, whisk, then add the coffee liquor then the espressos. Keep whisking until amalgamated and churn. A small trick: half way through the churning (which should be no longer than 30 to 40 minutes, depending on the machine) add a handful of chocolate beans for effect.

One more: A praline ice- cream made with pine nuts, hazelnuts and almonds. For a liter + you’ll need 3 ounces of each nut, 1 pint of milk, 1 pint of cream, 6 free range egg yolks, 200 gr sugar. In a tray place all the nuts, mix them with half the sugar and bake in a moderate oven until caramelized. Set aside to cool on clean tray or a bit of marble. When cool, break it in to pieces and add to the mixture of boiled milk/cream. Whisk in a saucepan the egg yolks, add the remaining sugar,a and pour the hot liquid, and whisk till cooked thoroughly. Churn.

Eating ice cream really does make you happy. Scientists have found that a spoonful of the cold stuff lights up the same pleasure centre in the brain as winning money or listening to your favourite music. Neuroscientists at the Institute of Psychiatry in London scanned the brains of people eating vanilla ice cream. They found an immediate effect on parts of the brain known to activate when people enjoy themselves; these include the orbitofrontal cortex, the “processing” area at the front of the brain. Now you know, eat some!

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