Saturday, 20 October 2012

ITKP: "Freeze: A Cool Taste Test"

As I was pulling together the last major components of this year's Food and Culture Colloquium, I learned that Laurel, our Vice President for Student Development, has been developing a knack for homemade ice cream. Quite naturally I just had to ask if she would be interested in leading a practicum for us and with much enthusiasm she accepted the challenge. After a logistical switch, the practicum--originally billed as a taste test for different ice creams and grew to an array of the culinary nuances between different frozen treats--finally took place today. And I think it's safe to say we were all "ice creamed out" by the end.

But before we tasted anything, Laurel guided us through the first steps of making ice cream, i.e., making the custard base, after having transferred a coffee custard base she had earlier made to her ice cream maker. (And for those of us who do not have our own ice cream makers, this should be of help.) Before I continue, it's important to note that we're still not entirely sure (I suppose unless we took the time to do the weights and measurements) at what point ice cream technically becomes frozen custard. According to the folks over at The Learning Channel (definitely worth the quick read, or also check out this one), there are rather common similarities among the many frozen treats on the commercial market. The point I'd like to make here is that whatever you end up making (intended or otherwise), bringing the preparation and cooking process into the home more often than not yields results with ingredients that you not only know but are also much easier to pronounce. In the case of ice cream, etc., we're not talking about the commercial ingredients as the stabilizers and emulsifiers, but more so the cream, milk fat, egg and natural flavourings, depending on what you're aiming to make.

Okay, so all of that said, I'm going to go with we made ice cream-- or rather to be more specific a vanilla custard base. In one pot over the stove, we heated together 1.5 c each heavy cream and whole milk along with 1/2 c granulated sugar until it reached 175°F. Into another bowl, four egg yolks were whisked together with 1/4 c granulated sugar. Just as one would do for flan, the important next step is to temper the eggs so they don't seize up and essentially scramble. To do so, slowly introduce the heated dairy to the eggs while whisking the egg mix so the air can cool it down slightly as the heat is added; continuing to stir, add about 1/3-1/2 of the liquid. Once the eggy-dairy mix seems to be smooth and an even temperature, add this back to the rest of the dairy mix and gently bring the heat to this combined mix until it reaches about 180°F. This process may indeed be a temperamental one, but getting this correct (as is also the case with flan) is what yields the smooth texture for which you're aiming.

To prevent any egg that may have unfortunately scrambled, pour what has become the custard base through a sieve and into a bowl which itself is nestled within a larger bowl full of ice water (predominantly ice). The next very important step at this point is to let the custard base cool down completely before getting this into the ice cream maker. When the custard base has cooled, feel free to add your flavourings. For the coffee ice cream batch, for example, Laurel added 3 tablespoons instant coffee per batch of ice cream. If you're aiming for vanilla as we did, you can add the vanilla of a whole vanilla bean pod for maximum flavour, or add vanilla extract for a slightly toned down but very much flavourful version after the custard base has frozen. (I learned that because of the alcohol content of vanilla extract it's important to add this post-freezing otherwise the alcohol will prevent or at least slow down the freezing process itself.)

While the custard base was cooling down (which can take some time), and the coffee-flavoured custard was chilling in the machine (about a half hour process), we sampled six different frozen concoctions. The first trio was an all-vanilla one, including the vanilla bean ice cream Laurel had earlier made, a "premium" vanilla bean ice cream (i.e., relatively more milk fat than regular ice cream) and Ohio-based Velvet's original vanilla. Of the three, Laurel's certainly packed the vanilla bean punch it promised (though it should be noted it can also punch a hole in your pocket book as vanilla bean is not the cheapest of ingredients) while Velvet's was incredibly creamy and rich. As for the third one, I think I'll aim to stay away from that (someone had mentioned, too, that it tasted as if it were made more of water than milk).

As for the other trio, we had a raspberry sorbet, a raspberry sorbetto (the intense Italian version of sorbet, neither of which is to be confused with gelato,) and a Cincinnati-based black raspberry chip ice cream which I tried last month (link to that post still forthcoming). In this presented order, we saw the evolution of these varieties which differed in terms of sugar and fat content, as well as processing and the amount of air added to each.

Following this initial tasting, we went back to the kitchen to check out the coffee ice cream and after transferring the nearly finished product to a freezer-safe container, we went back to the impromptu tasting room where Laurel shared with us her initial motivations and interest in making homemade ice cream. Both a creative and practical endeavour (the logistics of her cabin in northern Ontario is such that it's difficult to safely transport anything frozen), ice cream making and cooking in general continues to offer Laurel a form of relaxation and a break from the daily duties of working in a fully charged academic environment. Indeed, it's safe to say this is true for everyone who attended this program.. in the middle of a Saturday.. halfway through a semester.

And with that, final scoops of a combination of frozen options, and individual containers full of coffee ice cream, we wrapped up another successful practicum to this year's colloquium. And we're only just nearing the end of October.

Suggested readings for this session:
"Historicist: Don’t Scream for Ice Cream" (James Bradburn, 2012)
"Ice Cream Turns into Cultural Experience in Miami’s Little Havana" (Joe Cardona, 2012)

For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here. For the complete album from this practicum, click here.

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