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Scream-worthy ice cream

There’s a science to achieving that frozen dream

By CINDY DAMPIER Chicago Tribune

This article was published August 6, 2014 at 2:36 a.m.

On Father's Day, I picked a fight with my dad.

The argument was about homemade ice cream, and the fact that for all the rosy memories of us gathered around my father's grinding monstrosity of an ice cream machine, waiting for that first taste, the ice cream was lousy.

"I think my ice cream tasted pretty good," my dad said, fondly nostalgic.

"Ummmm," I answered.

Then I told him: The homemade ice cream I'd had (made by him or me) just wasn't worth it.

Soupy, overly sweet, icy, bland and dependent on a space-hogging appliance.

My thinking goes, if homemade ice cream can't top the creamy texture and rich flavors found in any decent supermarket, why bother? Let's face it, Haagen-Dazs' vanilla bean is still unimpeachable.

"When I was a kid growing up," says Jeni Britton Bauer, creator of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, "we'd make ice cream, and I was always the kid who just wanted to go down to Haagen-Dazs."

But a few years ago, after becoming a nationally recognized ice cream professional, Britton Bauer conquered the home ice cream demon, developing recipes based on the idea that the results had to rival what you can get in a carton. Two cookbooks later, she's still encouraging people to try it at home. Somewhere along the way, she roped me in too.

I grudgingly started what I considered to be my last run at making ice cream with a classic custard formula: eggs, cream, sugar. It froze into a near-replica of the bland homemade ice cream I remembered. Next, I tried Britton Bauer's recipe, which relies on cornstarch, not egg yolks, to thicken, and adds insurance in the form of a dab of cream cheese. It acts like the mustard in a vinaigrette -- not essential but a handy middleman between oil and vinegar. Or in this case, butterfat and water. Then I met up with Britton Bauer, on tour for her second book, to ask her advice. I brought samples along. She made a little face when she realized that the cream cheese had turned into tiny beads in the cream.

"Maybe," she suggested, "you didn't really whip all the lumps out?"

I would like to say I was undeterred, but I was a little deterred. Still, I whipped the cream cheese harder. I timed my boiling custard with more precision. I studied the chemistry of ice cream to figure out how to add flavors without upsetting texture. I forced ice cream-hungry children to study too. (My 8-year-old can now explain emulsion and what it has to do with ice cream.) In the end, we got chocolate that had more oomph than most store-bought versions. Our roasted cherry was a delicious taste of the farmers market, and a creamy lemon was tempting enough to be eaten late at night by the glow of the open freezer door, one unadorned spoonful at a time.

In the end, we'll always have Haagen-Dazs (and Steve's and Graeter's and Jeni's). But as my father said, "Really, making ice cream was just a fun project."

That was the end of our argument. Who can deny her dad a little fun? And seven or eight batches later, with the last of that cherry ice cream squirreled away in the freezer, I can admit it.

You were right, dad.

This time.

ICE CREAM DREAMS

Skip the disappointment and get straight to making delicious ice cream.

• Give in to science: Though I'm not a naturally precise cook, learning to be exact about the base recipe is key to achieving the proper texture. That, in turn, allows you to experiment with ways to add flavor. Yes, the cream cheese really does have to be at room temperature.

• Be patient: The canister machines need a good 24 hours to refreeze before you try another batch. Just go with it. And turn the freezer down as low as it will go. Colder is better.

• Watch the water: Icy ice cream comes from added water, so take care when adding any ingredient that will upset the water/fat balance. Finding ways to flavor without adding water is an interesting challenge. (Steeping lemon zest in hot cream, for instance, rather than adding juice, gave great results.) Britton Bauer's first book gives a very useful rundown of types of flavorings and when/how to incorporate them.

• Eat it up: Homemade ice cream won't keep for more than a couple of days without losing some texture. Tell that to your personal trainer.

This base recipe can be flavored with the variations below.

Sweet Cream Ice Cream

2 2/3 cups whole milk, divided use

1 tablespoon PLUS 2 teaspoons cornstarch

4 tablespoons cream cheese, softened

1/8 teaspoon fine salt

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup light corn syrup

In a small bowl, mix about 2 tablespoons milk with the cornstarch to make a smooth slurry.

In a medium bowl, whisk the cream cheese and salt until smooth.

Fill a large bowl with ice and water.

In a 4-quart saucepan, combine the remaining milk, heavy cream, sugar and corn syrup; heat to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil 4 minutes. Remove from heat and gradually whisk in the cornstarch slurry. Return mixture to medium-high heat and bring to a boil; cook, stirring with a heat-safe spatula, until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from heat.

Gradually whisk the hot milk mixture into the cream cheese until smooth. Pour the mixture into a 1-gallon zip-close freezer bag; submerge the sealed bag in the ice bath. Let stand, adding more ice as necessary, until cold, at least 30 minutes.

Transfer mixture to the canister of an ice cream maker and process until thick and creamy, according to manufacturer's instructions. Pack the ice cream into a storage container. Press a sheet of parchment directly against the surface; seal with an airtight lid. Freeze until firm, at least 4 hours.

Makes 1 quart.

Chocolate: Combine 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, 1/2 cup brewed coffee and 1/2 cup sugar in a small saucepan; heat to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Boil 30 seconds. Remove from heat; add 1 1/2 ounces bittersweet chocolate (55 to 70 percent cacao), finely chopped; let stand, 5 minutes. Stir until smooth. To make the chocolate ice cream, whisk the syrup with the cream cheese and salt. Then proceed as written.

Roasted Cherries: Toss 1 1/2 pints fresh sweet or tart cherries, pitted, with 1/3 cup sugar and 1 teaspoon cornstarch on a rimmed baking sheet; roast at 375 degrees until cherries release some juice and it begins to thicken, about 12 minutes. Transfer to a bowl; add 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice and crush with a fork or potato masher. To make cherry ice cream, add 1/2 cup crushed cherries to warm cream once it is removed from heat. Proceed with recipe. Serve the remaining cherries with the finished ice cream as a mix-in, topping or both.

Recipe from Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream Desserts by Jeni Britton Bauer (Artisan, $23.95)

Food on 08/06/2014

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