Dear readers:

Happy Fourth of July! We at the Irrigator hope you have found time to be with your favorite people, and are enjoying your holiday activities which, presumably, involve food.

And what could be better for topping off a summertime gathering than homemade ice cream?

Some of us remember learning patience by way of the sweet treat: ice cream could pretty much only be made by hand in this writer’s very early years, in a churn that had to be cranked for what seemed like hours (to the kids, anyway). The cannister, fitted with a paddle, was placed into a bucket and surrounded with ice and rock salt, both of which were replenished as the ice melted. The salt helped freeze the creamy dessert.

The gatherings were always potluck, and everybody brought their best. More was homemade then, and, as now, the cooks took their reputations seriously. Anyone who wanted to be there was welcome in the kitchen – there were always things to peel, chop or stir. Except when the women – it was always the moms, grandmas and aunties, in those days - wanted time to visit, when we would all be sent outside to play.

The food would be so good the memory of it could hold you over until the next big get-together.

As we grew older, we were allowed in the kitchen a little more, learning as much about life from the adult conversation as we did the finer points of, say, frying chicken.

Those gatherings were good for all of us.

The kids spent time with our out-of-town cousins, learning about ourselves in the context of the larger family group, testing our skills and abilities against each other, learning and practicing social skills, catching up, comparing notes on growing up and, for those of us so inclined, learning both the culinary basics and a few tricks at the elbows of the women in the kitchen.

Making ice cream

The kids were generally responsible for churning the custard, or base, which had been cooked and fussed over by a mom or aunt, into ice cream. Making the custard took patience because it had to be cooked slowly and stirred frequently at first, and constantly when it was nearing done. Pride came later, when the finished product was enjoyed with enthusiasm by everyone with taste buds.

To a group of kids who’d spent the day playing with family and friends they didn’t get to see often, and whose tummies were full of good food, cooked by their grandmas, moms and favorite aunties, and well-seasoned with both spices in the cupboards and pleasure in the company, it seemed to take f-o-r-e-v-e-r.

At first, the crank would be fairly easy to turn, so the younger kids took their turns. As the mixture began to thicken and freeze, the work got more challenging. The older kids were at it by then, egging each other on.  And, at long last, an adult would pronounce it done. By then, the sliced peaches or perfectly-ripe berries tossed with sugar were ready, and the whole wonderful treat was enjoyed by everyone – including the occasional dog or cat, when the rascal could sneak close enough to get a taste.

Homemade ice cream may have been a bit of a production, but it actually took just about the right amount of time after the meal to finally land in bowls, topped with whatever fruit was ripe. Folks didn’t seem to be in as big a hurry to get back to whatever was going on in their lives back then, and the visiting would go on until long after the crickets began to sing and the youngest began to drop off to sleep.

Eventually, reasonably-priced and reasonably good store-bought ice cream, along with other desserts, pushed labor-intensive homemade ice cream aside, and the tradition eventually faded into memory.

Until Cuisinart came out with its first ice cream maker, when it began to enjoy a revival of sorts.

Properly enjoying ice cream

While many of us love ice cream and have been eating it since before we could talk, there is actually an approach to eating it that can help us enjoy it even more. This may seem silly, but enjoying ice cream this way can help you get the most out of the experience. And after all, if you’re gonna indulge in the calories, you might as well enjoy it as much as you can!

Start with the best quality ice cream you can find, or, preferably, make. It’s no secret that most homemade dishes are far superior to their store-bought counterparts, and it’s hard to imagine a better example of that than ice cream. Whatever you choose, it definitely needs to be good enough to be worth the indulgence.

You’ll want to allow the dessert a few minutes out of the freezer before you attempt to serve it. Ice cream with a higher butterfat content will soften differently than, say, sherbet, which has very little dairy; or sorbet, the latter of which has no dairy at all – usually just fruit juice and sweetener, so whatever you have, keep an eye on it. And before anyone gets excited about “sherbet” vs “sherbert,” a quick visit to Merriam-Webster’s site confirms that either pronunciation is correct.

So, to enjoy ice cream: Once it lands in your dessert glass (the shape of which allows this sweet treat melt at the perfect rate) and is topped as you like, or not, wait until you see the edges begin to soften. Dip your spoon (no bigger than a dessert spoon – you don’t want to get too much at a time) into the treat near the edge, scooping up some of the melted cream with a small bite. Hold it in your mouth for a few seconds as it melts. If your timing and technique are good, you will be surprised at the complex flavor of perfectly-softened ice cream. I haven’t tried this with store-bought ice cream, but presume the experience would be the nicest with the best quality ice cream, which, in my book, is homemade, hands-down.

Why wouldn’t you just take a bigger bite and let it melt in your mouth? Well, try it. You’ll probably be surprised at the difference in the depth of flavor, as well as the texture. Not really logical, maybe, but there it is.

You may be thinking that I’m making a pretty big fuss about an almost mundane food – and you’re probably right. But, if the ice cream’s good enough…

To that end, I am sharing a recipe for a variety that immediately took me back to Swensons, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor chain that went out of business years ago. All of their ice creams were unbelievably rich and creamy, and they must have used something similar to this recipe for their Divinity Fudge flavor – which was to die for.

To be painfully honest, this ice cream has given me a bit of a reputation, and I hesitated to share it for a moment. But then I realized how much better it would be, for a lot of others to be able to enjoy it as well – and maybe even use it as a jumping-off point for their own frozen dessert creations.

This recipe can be made on the stove, following standard instructions for cooking custard. I use a blender with a soup cycle. If you have a hand-cranked ice cream churn, you’ll also need ice and a carton of rock salt.

You'll end up with a little more than the quart or so that a standard electric ice cream maker will hold.

Homemade ice cream does take a little planning ahead, but I’ve written it into the steps to make it easy for you. I usually make the custard the day or night before, and process it in the ice cream maker the next morning, so that I can put the finished product into the freezer for several hours to firm up – it will be fairly soft, right out of the machine. Surprisingly, ice cream has a short shelf life, so I try not to make it until the day it will be served; the day before at the earliest.

I usually serve it with Homemade Salted Caramel Sauce; see recipe below.

Brown Butter Ice Cream

Makes about a quart

Step 1: Brown the butter. This can be done up to a week ahead.

1 stick butter (please don’t use margarine!); I prefer Kerrygold; it has a fair amount of milk solids, which is essential for this recipe

Choose a small, heatproof container to hold the butter once it’s been browned and set it close to the stove, along with a rubber scraper.

Slice the butter into chunks and put them into your smallest pan over medium-low heat, swirling occasionally. The goal is to brown the milk solids in the butter, which gives this dessert its rich, distinctive flavor. The butter will simmer as water is driven off, before the solids begin to brown. Continue to cook, swirling more frequently as the butter begins to get foamy. As you rotate the pan, you should soon begin to see the light brown milk solids under the foam. Watch carefully, swirling the pan every five to ten seconds, until the solids become a rich brown and the butter is fragrant. Immediately pour into your prepared container, scraping as much of the browned milk solids as possible out of the pan and into the bowl, and set aside.

You can brown the butter up to a week ahead of time and refrigerate it; I’d recommend melting it again before using.

Browned butter, incidentally has a lot of culinary uses, serving as the base for various sauces, both sweet and savory. A quick online search should provide inspiration, if you like the flavor and want to explore its uses further.

For the custard base:

2-1/2 cups heavy cream

½ cup whole milk

1 cup brown sugar, packed (note: I use coconut sugar)

4 eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla extract (if you’re using real butter, you might as well use real vanilla, too – with so few ingredients, the flavor and quality of each will really impact the finished dessert)

The browned butter

Optional: Dash of maple syrup

Also optional:  ½ teaspoon hazelnut candy flavoring

                   ½ cup chopped, toasted nuts, reserved

While the butter cools (or melts), assemble the ingredients listed above, including any optional ingredients except nuts. If your blender has cup markings, you can use them to measure the milk and cream as you add them.

Once all of the ingredients, including any optional ones except the nuts, are in the blender, turn it on to low speed. Remove the clear plastic cap in the lid and drizzle the butter in through the hole, scraping as much of the milk solids as possible into the mixture.

Run the machine’s soup cycle. Pour the cooked base into a container and chill (I usually use two quart canning jars).

Once the base is completely chilled, assemble your ice cream freezer and pour the ice cream into it. (I put the jars it came out of back into the fridge, and pour the frozen ice cream back into them.) Process until the ice cream is the texture of soft-serve, about a half hour. Fold in nuts, if using. Pour into chilled container and place in freezer for several hours, until firm.

Take out of the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

Homemade Salted Caramel Sauce

Brown butter ice cream is rich and wonderful on its own, and even better with this full-flavored caramel sauce. I recommend making a double batch for the recipe above.

2/3 cup brown sugar (again, I use coconut)

2 tbsp butter, softened

¼ tsp salt

½ cup hot cream

Place all ingredients except cream into the blender container. Start at the lowest speed and ramp up to the highest. With the blender still running, slowly add the hot cream. Blend several minutes, until smooth and thick.

Pour over ice cream and serve.

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