- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Few summer pleasures compare to savoring just-made ice cream. Whether it’s fine American ice cream, French glace or Italian gelato, the basic mixture is the same. It’s a cooked sweet custard of milk or cream and egg yolks called “creme anglaise” or English cream, which is spiked with various flavorings.

To make it you need an ice cream machine that stirs the custard as it freezes. This inhibits the formation of ice crystals that can mar silky smoothness.

Equally important is patience. Heating egg yolks too quickly can scramble them instead of thickening the milk or cream mixture into custard. To avoid this problem, whisk the hot milk slowly into the yolk mixture and gradually warm it. This requires stirring the custard constantly while it is heating.

Don’t overcook, as 165 degrees to 170 degrees is perfect for a velvety texture. Check the temperature with an instant-read thermometer, or you can do the spoon test by dipping a metal spoon in the custard and then drawing your finger across the back. Your finger should leave a clear path in the mixture clinging to the spoon.

Now move quickly. If you leave the custard in the pan even briefly, it may curdle. Immediately strain it to ensure smoothness.

Setting the bowl of custard in a bed of ice also helps prevent the hot mixture from curdling.

For vanilla bean ice cream, place the beans in the hot milk before making the custard. You can also use this technique to steep lemon or orange zest strips, mint leaves, cinnamon sticks, almonds, coffee beans, tea leaves or even saffron threads, as the Parisians do.

Once the custard base is ready, stir in whatever you fancy, such as chocolate, toasted nuts, candied ginger, crumbled cookies, caramel or fruit puree. For an exotic touch, add a little rose water. For a Middle Eastern accent, add orange flower water. For a Japanese flavor, add sweetened red beans.

Lately, lavender ice cream has become popular at fashionable restaurants. To make it, chefs steep fresh or dried lavender flowers and leaves in milk to lend a delicate herb and floral flavor to the custard.

At Lavande in Santa Monica, Calif., I found lavender ice cream layered with small meringues and juicy strawberries. It was a fabulous combination. A San Diego restaurant, Laurel, serves lavender ice cream garnished with fresh lavender flowers.

Straight from the machine, ice cream is wonderful but difficult to handle. Because homemade ice cream is much softer than the store-bought kind, it can melt to a sweet soup before you serve it. So resist the temptation to eat it right away.

Spoon it quickly into a chilled bowl, rush it to the freezer and enjoy when it has firmed a bit. Or you might like to sandwich it between cake layers, cookies or split brownies to create a scrumptious ice cream cake, if you can restrain yourself from eating it fresh from the ice cream machine.

Italian chocolate-flecked ice cream

Chocolate chips can become very hard in ice cream but in this classic gelato the tiny bits of grated chocolate melt in your mouth.

On hot days, refrigerate the chocolate briefly before grating and hold it in plastic wrap so your warm hands won’t cause melting.

If you like your chocolate-chip ice cream on the sweet side, increase the sugar in the recipe that follows to 1 cup.

2 cups milk

2 cups whipping cream

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

8 large egg yolks

3/4 cup sugar

5 ounces fine-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely grated

Combine milk, whipping cream and vanilla bean in a heavy saucepan. (Milk easily scorches when heated and often boils over. Using a heavy pan and watching carefully can help avoid this.) Bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Cover and let stand for 20 minutes. Remove vanilla bean.

Set a strainer in a large bowl. Whisk egg yolks in another large bowl. Add sugar to egg yolks and whisk until blended. Bring milk mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Gradually ladle hot milk into the yolk mixture, whisking. Return mixture to the saucepan.

Cook over medium-low heat, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan constantly with a wooden spoon, until the custard thickens slightly and reaches 165 degrees to 170 degrees on an instant-read or candy thermometer, about 7 minutes.

If a thermometer is not available, remove pan from heat, dip a metal spoon in the custard and draw your finger across the back. There should be a clear path in the custard clinging to the spoon.

Immediately pour custard through strainer into bowl and stir it for 30 seconds. To speed cooling, set bowl of custard inside a bowl of crushed ice.

Cool it completely, stirring occasionally. If you like, refrigerate the custard for 1 or 2 hours to cut down on churning time.

Prepare ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Chill a medium-sized metal bowl in the freezer. Pour custard mixture into the machine and freeze until nearly set. Add grated chocolate and stir gently. Continue churning until ice cream is firm.

Transfer to the chilled bowl, cover tightly and place in freezer. (It will keep, frozen, for several weeks.) To serve it soft, freeze it only for about 1 hour. For firmer ice cream, freeze for 2 to 4 hours. Makes about 4 cups — 4 to 6 servings.

To make the following variations, use the preceding recipe for Italian chocolate-flecked ice cream as a base.

Lavender ice cream: Omit the chocolate. Steep cup chopped fresh lavender flowers and leaves in the milk instead of vanilla or along with it. Serve ice cream garnished with lavender flowers.

Vanilla bean ice cream: Omit the chocolate and use 2 to 4 vanilla beans.

Chocolate ice cream: Use 1 cup sugar instead of 3/4 cup. Instead of grating the chocolate, chop 6 ounces of bittersweet or semisweet chocolate.

After cooling the custard for 10 minutes, melt the chocolate in a large bowl set above hot water over low heat.

Stir until smooth, remove from heat and cool briefly. Whisk custard into the chocolate, cup at a time, blending well. Sift ⅓ cup unsweetened cocoa and whisk it into the custard until completely blended.

Vanilla-ginger or chocolate-ginger ice cream: Prepare vanilla bean or chocolate ice cream variations that precede.

After freezing in ice cream machine until nearly firm, add 6 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger and stir briefly to blend. Continue churning until ice cream is firm.

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