Everybody would like to be able to prepare his/her own ice cream. When homemade, it is the best of all puddings. You can slave away at a Bake Off-worthy multi-tiered mousse for that smart dinner party – but, in the end, what guests choose is the ice cream.
Gelato is also lovely stuff to make, particularly for those who like to play with flavor. Being creamy, unthreatening comfort food, cooks can add intense, sometimes surprising, flavors, and get away with it – people are much more likely to taste an ice cream that’s flavored with fig leaves, say, than a fruit salad with fig leaf syrup.
The base mixture
Once you have a good base mixture, known as well as the base, you can add any flavor you like.
Some sugar is necessary for texture as well as flavour – it helps keep the ice cream smooth and soft – but keep it minimum. If you like ice cream sweeter, go ahead and add more sugar. You can also use honey (two-thirds the volume of sugar, as it’s sweeter) or other sweeteners like agave syrup, or maple syrup. Bear in mind that these are invert sugars, making the ice cream even softer, but also smoother as they inhibit ice crystals from forming.
As for cream (or other fat like coconut cream) you need enough for a rich texture, but not so much that it coats your mouth in a buttery slick. Egg yolks give a luscious, velvety texture and a depth of flavor, but some delicate ice cream flavors do taste “cleaner” without. The Italians, masters of gelato, use cornflour, which stops the simple milk ice from melting too easily.
Once you have chosen the style, you can add the flavor, either by infusing the milk and cream or by stirring it into the finished mixture. Fruit mix will need sweetening and you may want to add a little more cream to compensate for the water in the fruit.
Taste the mix after it has chilled but before freezing and keep in mind that it needs to taste a bit too strong and a fraction too sweet, as the freezing will dull the flavors.
Elbow grease or electric?
Now for the freezing: the process turns the water to ice and ice likes to clump together so, in most cases, if you simply scrape the mix into a box and bung in the freezer, you’ll end up with a rock-hard lump rather than an airy, creamy mass.
There are “no-churn” concoctions that break the rules, like ones made with condensed or evaporated milk (such as the recipe below) or mixed with lots of egg yolks, which impede the formation of ice crystals.
For most mixtures, though, including the traditional custard-based ones, you’ll need to churn. This can be as low-tech as opening the freezer every hour or so and beating up the mix until it is smooth and creamy again, or taking the half-frozen mix and blitzing it in the food processor, which incorporates some air, making for a lighter finish.
For the smoothest results, a gelato maker is probably the answer. There are broadly two kinds: the self-freezing models are most expensive. These are bulky bits of kit which allow you to make consecutive batches of ice cream or sorbet, with just a few minutes of “cool down” time between each. They need 24 hours’ rest every time they are moved so are most suitable for people who make ice cream often and have space for a microwave-sized bit of kit.
Much cheaper are the kind with a bowl that has to be pre-frozen for up to 24 hours. Pour in the mixture, then slot the motor on top, which drives the paddle around. If you store the bowl in the freezer you can make gelato just as quickly as one of the more expensive machines – but, unlike them, you can make only one batch before the bowl needs refreezing.
It’s also dependent on your freezer – you may find you have to turn the temperature up or down, as a couple of degrees too warm and the ice cream won’t set, while too cold and the paddles can jam.