- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 30, 2005

I like chocolate ice cream as much as the next guy, and I’ll even go for plain-Jane vanilla if it’s the only flavor on offer, but lately I’ve become more and more interested in trying unusual flavors.

As a child, I thought Swenson’s blue-tinged bubble gum ice cream was exotic because it had whole gum balls in it. I thought this flavor so precious that I would suck the gum balls out of the ice cream, saving them in a little dish for later. I’ve come a long way since then.

These days, ice cream parlors and restaurants are offering some remarkable flavors. In New York City, black sesame ice cream is taking over boutique ice cream shops, and honey lavender and fromage (cheese) are showing up on restaurant menus. Likewise, in my own kitchen laboratory I find myself mixing up batches of eccentric ice creams, often taking inspiration from my garden and spice rack.

There are many ice creams that can be made without a machine. However, if you want to start your own ice cream laboratory at home, you might want to invest. For about $50, you can buy a hand-crank, frozen canister ice cream maker such as the one made by Donvier. This machine is one of my favorites because friends and family can help create their dessert right at the table — a great distraction for children and adults alike.

The traditional wooden barrel model, made by White Mountain, is available in both electric and manual models and runs between $150 and $225. These 4- and 6-quart capacity machines are a good option if you need to make large batches (the Donvier capacity is 1 quart).

These machines, however, require ice and rock salt, which can be a little messy, and unless you keep lots of ice and rock salt on hand, they require some forethought. The Donvier canister stores in the freezer and is ready to go at any moment.

After getting a Donvier, I taught myself the basic egg-based ice cream technique and only made traditional flavors such as chocolate and strawberry. The household was happy, but, as time marched on, curiosity got the better of me.

I found a recipe for espresso cardamom ice cream in Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s book “Jean-Georges: Cooking at Home With a Four-Star Chef” (Broadway). Then I tried Nigella Lawson’s bitter orange ice cream and adapted it to my taste, using less heavy cream and sugar.

Experimentation taught me that flavor combinations are endless and the formulas are fairly forgiving of adaptation. I started riffing on recipes from my cookbook collection. I found, and attempted to emulate, some of the outrageous flavors offered in New York restaurants. This meant throwing in just about anything I could find in the kitchen — and the garden, too. The results were rarely, if ever, disappointing.

The best way to approach becoming an ice-cream scientist is first to get the hang of making ice cream from scratch. With that in mind, a basic recipe for vanilla ice cream follows.

You will understand how, in a custard-based recipe, the cream, milk, eggs and sugar integrate and how the added flavor pulls it all together. Then just start experimenting. For texture, try adding bits of your favorite dried fruits: raisins, apricots, mangoes or nuts. Smash up such cookies as ginger snaps for a new take on cookies and cream.

Perhaps you like your peach ice cream really peachy? Why not try making it with nectarines and put in lots? Obviously, you wouldn’t want to outweigh the cream with the fruit, but by using another fruit ice cream recipe as a guide, you could add as much as double the amount of fruit as the original recipe uses.

One of my favorite summer flavors is based on fresh mint from my garden. If you don’t grow it, buy a bunch or two from the market. By pulverizing the mint leaves in a blender with the milk, then cooking this minty milk with the eggs as in any other custard-based recipe, you create a dramatically dark-green mint ice cream with flavor much more intense than the pale green stuff we’re all used to buying.

I added cocoa nibs to the mint ice cream, and those who tasted it stammered when trying to describe the flavor. Stammered in a good way, of course. Made by Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker Inc., these bitter chocolate pieces from the heart of the cocoa bean — with its husk or shell removed — are great for baking if you like a more intense flavor than that offered by regular chocolate.

Basil is next to the mint in my garden, and after making that delicious batch of mint ice cream, I started daring myself to try other herbs. Once everyone got past the somewhat unusual idea of savory flavors in their ice cream, they overwhelmingly voted it one of the most remarkable, if not the most scrumptious and refreshing, flavors they had ever tasted.

When you’ve created a menu for a dinner party that has you a bit overwhelmed, don’t worry. There is still room for homemade ice cream. There are ways to cheat. It’s possible to make ice cream without first preparing the egg-based custard on the stove top.

My own version of a blood orange and lime ice cream is such a recipe. The texture is sometimes not as smooth, but often speed and ease of preparation are what a cook needs. For the ultimate trick, you can add your own flavorings to store-bought vanilla or chocolate ice cream. Some of my favorites are espresso, olive oil, and Sauternes (a sweet wine) and a combination of ground spices, including cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.

As a testament to the wide range of unusual ice cream flavors and a test of what’s unusual and what’s just plain ridiculous, the Fat Duck restaurant outside London, regarded by many critics as one of the best restaurants in England, serves smoked bacon and egg ice cream.

This is a flavor I will not attempt to re-create, but if flavors reminiscent of a lumberjack breakfast inspire you to make ice cream, head to your kitchen laboratory and see what you can whip up. I’ve moved on from the days of squirreling away gum balls from ice cream, but if ever given the chance to try smoked bacon and egg ice cream, I’d go for it. You never know what it might inspire.

Basic vanilla ice cream

1½ cups whole milk

2 large eggs

3/4 cup sugar

1 vanilla bean, split down the side and scraped, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1½ cups whipping cream

Beat milk and eggs together in a large saucepan. Add sugar and vanilla bean or vanilla extract, and cook over medium-low heat. Attach candy thermometer to inside of pan.

Stir constantly with a wooden spoon until slightly thickened and registering 170 degrees on the thermometer. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Remove hull of the vanilla bean, if added, and add cream.

Pour mixture into bowl and cover surface directly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 3 hours or up to 12 hours. Freeze mixture in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. The mixture will not be completely hard. To finish freezing, put mixture into a lidded container, cover and allow to harden in the freezer at least 1 hour before serving. Makes 1 quart.

Cheaters’ spiced vanilla ice cream

1 pint high-quality vanilla ice cream

2 tablespoons spices (try a mixture of cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom powder or any one spice alone)

Herbs or whole spices of choice for garnish, optional

Let pint of ice cream soften slightly by placing in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or at room temperature for 10 minutes.

Put ice cream into a mixing bowl, add spices and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon. When spices are evenly distributed, return ice cream to original container or your own plastic container and refreeze for at least 30 minutes, or until hardened, before serving. Garnish individual servings with herbs or spices, if desired. Makes 1 pint.

Easy fruit ice cream

2 cups fresh fruit such as berries, bananas or pitted fruit

1 cup milk

1 cup heavy cream

2/3 cup sugar

Fresh fruit or mint sprigs for garnish

In a blender, puree fresh fruit, milk, cream and sugar until smooth.

Freeze mixture in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. The mixture will not be completely hard. To finish freezing, put mixture into a lidded container, cover and allow to harden in the freezer at least 1 hour before serving. Garnish each serving with fresh fruit or a sprig of mint. Makes 1 quart.

Basil ice cream

2 cups whole milk

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

1/3 cup sugar, divided

4 large egg yolks

½ cup heavy cream

Bring milk, basil and half of the sugar to a slow boil in a heavy saucepan, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon as it comes to a boil. Remove from heat and let steep at least 30 minutes. Transfer to a blender (reserve saucepan) and puree until basil is finely ground, about 1 minute.

Beat together yolks and remaining sugar in a medium bowl with an electric mixer until thick and pale, about 1 minute. Add milk mixture from blender in a slow, steady stream, beating until well combined.

Pour egg yolk and milk mixture into reserved saucepan and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly with wooden spoon, until mixture coats back of spoon and registers 170 degrees on a candy thermometer. Do not let mixture boil. Immediately remove from heat and pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a metal bowl. Stir in cream. Pour mixture into a bowl and cover surface directly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 3 hours or up to 12 hours.

Freeze mixture in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. The mixture will not be completely hard. To finish freezing, put mixture into a lidded container, cover and harden in the freezer at least 1 hour before serving. Makes 6 servings.

Blood orange and lime ice cream

This recipe was adapted from “Nigella Bites: From Family Meals to Elegant Dinners — Easy, Delectable Recipes for Any Occasion” by Nigella Lawson (Hyperion).

3 blood oranges

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

2 limes

1½ cups cream

1 cup whole milk

Squeeze juice from oranges and pour into a bowl with sugar. Grate zest from limes and then juice them and add zest and juice to bowl containing orange juice and sugar. Stir to dissolve sugar. Add cream and milk.

Whip mixture with an electric mixer for about 5 minutes or until it starts to show a change in consistency and may hold some soft peaks. Pour into a shallow airtight container. Cover and freeze until firm, about 4 hours. Remove to soften in the refrigerator for 30 minutes before serving. Makes 1 quart.

Mint and cocoa nib ice cream

1½ cups heavy cream

1½ cups whole milk

2½ cups packed fresh mint leaves

2 large eggs

2/3 cup sugar

4 ounces cocoa nibs (I use Scharffen Berger) or bittersweet chocolate

In a blender puree cream, milk and mint until mint is finely chopped. In a saucepan bring mixture just to a boil and then cool 15 minutes.

Whisk in eggs and sugar and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until slightly thickened and a candy thermometer registers 170 degrees. Do not let mixture boil. Pour through a fine sieve into a bowl and allow to cool slightly. Cover surface directly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 3 hours or up to 12 hours.

Freeze mixture in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. The mixture will not be completely hard. Meanwhile, chop chocolate, if not using cocoa nibs. Transfer ice cream to a lidded container, stir in cocoa nibs or chocolate, cover and allow to harden in the freezer at least 1 hour before serving. Makes 1 quart.

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