By Terry Hannum
Ice cream is a universal, or at least worldly, treat as nearly every country enjoys the cool, sweet concoction in flavors as diverse as the population. This is a food with ancient history that demonstrates mankind's ingenuity at making confections fit for royalty and rulers, centuries later for presidents and finally perfected for all people to enjoy. Flavors of ice cream are what often prompt people to try their hand at making ice cream, and there are many different ways to make this frozen treat.
In a nutshell (or ice cream cone), there are some basic methods based on what type of ice cream maker you have available. Even if you don't have an ice cream maker you can make ice cream. Local micro ice cream makers such as Jake and Karen Fairbairn of Lazy Crazy Acres as well as Jamie Potter and Janet Powers of Pie In The Sky/Polar Bear Ice Cream all began their businesses as lovers of ice cream with no initial plans of ever becoming local gurus of delicious frozen desserts.
Historically, the first method from B.C. era to the early 1800s was to fill a basin or straw-lined pit with snow and ice from a nearby mountain. Bowls filled with milk (cow, goat, sheep, camel), fruit, honey and other flavors stirred in were placed in the bin or pit before covering it with straw and blankets. Several hours or a day later the uncovered bowls would be mashed and served to emperors and rulers and offered to gods. Later methods changed little except the bowls became deeper, and instead of covering the mix, royal ice cream stirrers were employed for special events.
Perhaps earlier but certainly by the early 1800s, the system of cutting and storing winters harvest of ice blocks changed the world of ice cream into a treat that everyone could enjoy. A crank-style ice cream maker was patented, with many more styles to follow suit. The addition of rock salt or saltpeter was added to drop the temperature of ice further, to a magical 27 degrees. The exterior bucket held the ice and the interior chamber held ingredients that were stirred by paddles from the turning crank. This slowly and continually dropped the temperature of the milk until it thickened _ just how thick it was before consumption was dependent on the strength of those operating the crank.
The mid-1900s was the time of adding electrical power to any process, and ice cream makers were not left behind. The hand-crank ice cream makers kept most of their appearance but the crank was replaced with a motor that turned the paddles.
All of the above mentioned methods for making ice cream are still employed today _ though royal ice cream stirrers may be difficult to find. The most modern ice cream machines generally follow one of two design ideas that have eliminated the need for ice and rock salt. Bowl-style makers require some patience or forethought as a special bowl with the ingredients is placed in the freezer for a day or two before being installed in the electric-powered unit where it is literally whipped into shape. The easiest of all is a compressor freezer machine where, somewhat similar to a bread machine, ingredients are added, the lid is closed and the "on" button is pushed. Prices have come down on the new machines but it is advised to research before purchasing, as the motor power can make a big difference on the final product's quality.
One of the interesting and sometimes confounding things about ice cream is that once you start thinking about it, the urge to have some is overwhelming. Thankfully for those of us who are impatient and really want homemade ice cream now, there is the easiest method of all. Here is the basic recipe and instructions:
Place ½ cup of milk, ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract and 1 to 2 tablespoons of sugar (honey or maple syrup will work too) in a freezer-type sealing baggie. Place this sealed bag inside another bag of the same size so it is a double bagged mix. Fill a freezer-type gallon size resealable baggie with ice cubes before sprinkling about 6 tablespoons of salt in on top of the ice. Shake this bag to disperse the salt before placing the sealed, double bagged milk mix inside. Shake, roll, toss or turn the entire creation without breaking the bag seals for about 15 minutes. It is a small and satisfying serving but keep the ice bag, add more ice and salt before starting your next batch that might include fruit, chocolate chips or other flavors.
Whatever method you plan to use, ice cream recipes are usually separated into two categories. The first being "custard" style or French-style where whole eggs or egg yolks are whisked, then mixed with milk and sugar before heating. Some people claim that this ice cream is much smoother in consistency with a richer flavor than the alternate method. The other method is sometimes called American-style, New York-style or Philadelphia-style and uses no eggs or cooking.
As mentioned earlier, some locals have taken their love of good quality ice creams that feature regional ingredients to small-scale commercial levels. At Lazy Crazy Acres in Arkville, the Fairbairns have a "from cow to cone" farming operation.
"Because we start from our own raw milk, we have several more steps to take to get to the final product," Karen Fairbairn explained. "We have a pasteurizer, a batch freezer and a blast freezer as main pieces of equipment. At home we would make a mix in a pot on the stove, cool it and then spin it in our Cuisinart Ice Cream Freezer. We freeze our various flavors in one- to two-gallon batches and we make an Italian style ice cream known as gelato, which means we start from whole milk and not from heavy cream like American-style ice cream."
When asked how long ice cream lasts in the freezer and if there is an ice cream shelf life, Karen Fairbairn stated "in our house ice cream shelf life is NOT an issue!"
That is true in most houses, but "old" ice cream that has been kept frozen is not necessarily "bad" but it "deflates: and takes on an almost gooey texture and taste. Two weeks is about the longest amount of time for good storage of homemade ice cream.
One of the biggest problems for people making their own ice cream is that if it needs to be stored for a special occasion, the home freezer can make it rock hard. Setting it out at room temperature before serving helps little as the outermost parts of the block do not soften but simply melt while the inner part remains frozen. An easy solution is to move the solid ice cream from the freezer to the refrigerator at least one hour before serving. Any ice cream that has been softened once and re-frozen will lose its quality and flavor.
When husband and wife team Jamie Potter and Janet Powers bought the Polar Bear Ice Cream business, their only previous experience was trying hand-crank ice cream making for special summer days. Jamie explained that the purchase came with a critically important component: the previous owner was willing to train them. Their equipment is mainly all the original ice cream-making devices from some time around the late 1940s. These vintage machines can be seen by customers who stand at Pie In The Sky farm store and ice cream shop counter in Otego.
The original Polar Bear Ice Cream Cookbook contains recipes for about 110 to 120 flavors to make and this old book is the beginning point for plenty of great new flavor treats. Oftentimes their customer suggestions are how wonderful flavors such as peanut butter and jelly, jamocha almond fudge, toasted coconut with raspberries and truck stop begin their fame. Powers launched a very popular series of flavors in her "Pie Series" and flavors have even been born to celebrate long-standing customers' new babies. Two of these are "Baby-cakes Nora" or "Lucy in the Pie with Diamints." Potter said. "We plan to launch vegan, fruit-based, no sugar and sorbets in the near future" so truly everyone can enjoy some form of ice cream.
Regarding flavors, Karen Fairbairn said "We've found that neapolitan is popular for a reason. People love their chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. Ninety percent of our flavors feature local farms and artisans. Our maple walnut is one of our best sellers and it's full of local maple syrup. We have a flavor called 'Mint Honey Cake' which people find to be unique. It has homemade butter cake soaked in local raw honey and then stirred by hand into fresh mint gelato."
These creative creations can encourage home ice cream chefs to be adventurous as well, but most of us would agree that sometimes the new flavor experiments can go too far. No matter what flavors you decide to try making, be sure to plan on making plenty as New York state cities fall behind St. Louis, Seattle and Portland in ice cream consumption per capita.
Make this the summer we take the lead by testing the statistic that it takes 50 licks to finish a single scoop ice cream cone.