Start this ice cream in the morning and it can be all yours for dessert that night.
[Photograph: Max Falkowitz]
What You'll Need
Your basic setup: heavy cream, whole milk, six eggs, 3/4 cup of sugar, salt, and vanilla extract, plus a decent heavy-bottomed pot and a bowl. A cutting board for cracking eggs if you're feeling fancy.
Not pictured: measuring cups and spoons. You'll need those, too.
Egg Separating Setup
The first thing that scares home cooks about ice cream is separating eggs, but here's the fastest way to get it done. Set a cutting board in the center of your work space for cracking your eggs and put your pot and bowl to either side. The pot gets the yolks, the bowl gets the whites and shells.
If you want to save your whites for another project, throw the shells away.
You can pass egg yolks from one part of the shell to the other, but the fastest way to separate them is to let the white slip through your fingers will cupping the yolk.
You'll see the bowl is lined with a plastic bag. Once all your whites and shells are in there, tie up the bag and toss it. You just saved yourself from washing a bowl.
Add Sugar to Eggs
You can use as little as 1/2 cup of sugar per 3 cups of dairy, but 3/4 cup will ensure a creamy, ice-free texture.
Right in the pot. The goal is to completely combine the yolks and sugar until the mixture doesn't look or feel grainy anymore.
Make sure to dig into those corners.
This is what professional ice cream recipes call the "ribbon stage," or "lighter in color and slightly thickened." The mixture falls in a smooth, unbroken ribbon from the whisk into the pot, and the color has lightened into something like lemon curd.
Whisk in your dairy until it's well combined. You don't want to see any streaks of yolk.
My standard creamy base calls for two cups of heavy cream and one cup of whole milk. If you want it more rich, substitute half and half for the milk or add another egg yolk or two. If you want it less rich, use equal parts cream and milk or use one or two fewer egg yolks. It's really up to you and your personal taste.
For this recipe, you can also substitute in a pint of half and half and a cup of heavy cream. It's a similar—though not exactly the same—amount of fat to the above, but it has one key advantage: pre-measured ingredients, no measuring cup required.
Now's when I switch over to a wooden spoon. Set your pot on medium heat and start cooking your mess of dairy into a custard. You don't need to stir constantly, but don't walk too far away. I like to stir about every 30 seconds, scraping the bottom of the pot as I do so. The goal is to gently cook the eggs without scrambling them.
But wait, you might ask, don't I need to scald my dairy and temper it into the eggs? Nope. Commercial dairy is pasteurized and homogenized, which means it's already been heated up to a high temperature and thoroughly emulsified. You heating up the dairy to a bare simmer won't do anything on top of that except waste time. And if you start from cold dairy, you don't need to slowly temper it into your egg yolks to prevent curdling. The entire custard can be heated together all at once with no loss in quality.
The exception is if you're planning to steep a flavor in your dairy that takes time to infuse, like vanilla beans or mint leaves. In that case, heat your dairy to a bare simmer separately, add your flavorings, cover, and remove from the heat. I let a vanilla bean steep for one hour; mint goes for two. By the time it's done, the dairy is usually at a low enough temperature that you can quickly whisk it into your well-combined yolk-sugar mixture with little risk of curdling.
Your custard will slowly heat through, and visual cues are your best guide. If you'd like you can use a thermometer, but I don't bother at home. Here's the mixture just starting to warm at 125°F. There's a slight frothy head at the top, but the texture is still basically hot cream.
Another 20 degrees, not much visual difference.
At 157°F the custard is looking thicker but still pretty light.
There We Go
And here's the custard at about 170°F. It coats the back of a spoon, but a finger swiped across the back leaves a clean line—nappe in fancy kitchen talk (French). At this point the custard is as cooked as you need it to be—take it off the heat.
Use this spoon test often as the custard warms through. If the custard starts to simmer at all before you reach this stage, reduce the heat to low and stir more frequently.
Add your flavoring—vanilla extract in this case—along with some salt. I used one teaspoon of vanilla and about 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt. Taste the ice cream and adjust the seasonings yourself, keeping in mind that the flavors will dull slightly once the ice cream is frozen.
If you've been careful, you won't have much in the way of curdled egg, but a good straining never hurt anybody.
If you're adding citrus zest to flavor your ice cream, add it after straining. You can always strain the little threads out before churning.
Once your custard is strained, cover it and chill it in the fridge overnight. Realistically you only need to chill it until it's cold, but an overnight chill, or "aging" as it's sometimes called, is said to improve the final flavor even more.
What happens when you overcook your custard? A lumpy, eggy mess. Reduce your heat at the first sign of simmering to keep this from happening.
Ice Cream Maker
You canmake ice cream without a machine, but you may need to adjust standard recipes, and you'll have to dig out a food processor anyway. So do yourself a favor and get a machine. My favorite entry-level model is this Cuisinart. You'll need to chill the churning bowl overnight in your freezer until all the gel inside has turned solid. When you chill your ice cream base the night before churning, stick your churning bowl in the freezer.
Turn the machine on so the churn is spinning before you add the ice cream base.
The base will thicken along the edges.
More to Go
The ice cream will increase in volume as more and more air gets pumped in.
Most ice cream recipes tell you to "churn ice cream according to manufacturer's instructions." What does that mean exactly? Here's a guide: when your ice cream looks pretty close to soft serve, stop the machine and swipe a spoon across it. If the track you made collapses, keep churning. If it holds, you're done.
If you want to serve this purely as soft serve, you may want to churn more air into it than this. But the consistency you see here will make great hard ice cream after a few hours in the freezer. Get it into a container and in the coldest part of your freezer as soon as possible!