Last weekend, two of my dearest friends got married. And because I love them very much and don't think before I speak, I offered to make ice cream for their reception. For 110 people.
Making ice cream for a large crowd isn't as hard as constructing a wedding cake, but it's not like baking a quadruple batch of brownies for a school bake sale either. You need equipment, time, and some big-ass pots. But should you decide to share your love of homemade ice cream with 100 of your closest friends, it's not too hard once you plan out all the steps. To help you on along the way, here are some tips* on making ice cream for a crowd.
* [Checks word count...] Okay, ALL the tips...
How Much Should I Make?
An average scoop shop serving of ice cream is about three ounces by volume, or 3/16ths of a pint, so if you want to give 30 people each one serving of ice cream, count on making four quarts (one gallon). Before some last minute cancellations, my head count was 120 people, which meant four gallons of ice cream.
If you're serving the ice cream yourself, do yourself a favor and buy scoops designed to portion out to the volume you need. My favorite ice cream scoop has a spring-loaded sweeper and measures 1 1/2 ounces of liquid when filled to the brim. Arm yourself with a couple of them and you'll be set to go.
Another thing worth keeping in mind: most ice cream recipes make "about one quart." That "about" is all well and good—until you're multiplying a recipe by 16. A recipe that makes 4 1/2 cups of finished ice cream, when scaled up, could leave you with a couple quarts of extra ice cream.
And What Flavors?
If there's one tip to keep in mind above all others: keep it simple. Don't make the ice cream harder than it needs to be, and keep your flavors approachable. If you're making more than one flavor (I recommend two), make sure they're complimentary. For the wedding I made a vanilla bean ice cream and a strawberry sorbet—both easy to love flavors (though my vanilla recipe calls for some Scotch).
A note about sorbet: if you can find good, cheap fruit, go for it. I found strawberries for $1 to $2 a quart, which priced out well for the 20 pounds I needed. But if the only good fruit you can find is three or four bucks a pint, that cost adds up fast.
You might also want to consider an ice cream that doesn't involve egg yolks, like this peanut butter base. It'll save you from separating dozens of eggs and is faster to make than any cooked custard recipe.
How Far in Advance Do I Need to Plan?
Your ice cream making capacity will determine how far in advance you need to start working. If you're making ice cream for a three-digit crowd and all you have is one 1-quart ice cream maker with a bowl that needs to be frozen for 24 hours between batches...buy a second freezer bowl. With home freezer conditions, homemade ice cream tastes noticeably less fresh and awesome after a week, and if you need to start making ice cream 16 days before your event, you're putting yourself at a disadvantage.
If you own a more advanced machine with a built in compressor, time how long it takes to churn a batch of ice cream in it, then multiply that by the batches of ice cream you have to make. That's how much time you've just committed to keeping an eye on your ice cream maker. No matter what kind of machine you use, you'll want to write a timetable for yourself to make sure you're all churned in time.
To be honest, I lucked out and was able to borrow a restaurant industry friend's professional machine at a bakery. Now if only I had ten grand for one of these babies...
What Equipment Do I Need?
Unless you keep a couple dozen takeout containers at home, you're probably going to need some extra equipment to store and transport your ice cream. I'm a fan of the 1-gallon hard square plastic containers you find at restaurant supply stores—they stack easily, are pretty cheap, and are durable enough to handle some knocking around.
If you don't already have a large cooler for transporting your ice cream, time to pony up. Buy something slightly larger than what you think you need—your containers should comfortably fit, but you'll need extra room for the dry ice to keep the ice cream cold. (More on that below.)
How large is your largest pot? Large enough to hold several gallons of ice cream base? As you calculate the amount of ice cream you need, keep your big pots in mind. Ideally you'll cook a single flavor in one big batch so it's consistent, but if your pots are too small, be prepared to cook in batches or make a trip to the restaurant supply store. Fortunately, pots large enough to cook small children have their uses.
One more essential piece of equipment: your freezer. How large is it? How many storage containers can it hold? Measure it out with empty containers beforehand and see the space you have to work with. If you don't have enough room, time to start buttering up the neighbors. And needless to say, make sure your freezer is on its coldest setting.
How Much Will this Cost?
Fair question, and the answer may surprise you. I estimate my ingredient costs—bulk vanilla beans, pounds of sugar, quarts of cream and milk, 20 pounds of strawberries, and nearly 50 eggs—were about $100 for four gallons of finished product.
But that's only part of the total cost. Let's also add: $40 for storage containers, $20 for a cooler, two $35 cab rides (hey, you try moving ten pounds of sloshy ice cream base around New York City), and $10 for a block of dry ice. Estimated grand total: $240.
How Do I Transport It?
If you're serving ice cream at home, skip this section. But if you're transporting it anywhere, welcome to one of the toughest questions facing commercial ice cream manufacturers, and the real reason mainstream ice cream is pumped full of gummy stabilizers. Nothing kills the fresh, creamy texture of ice cream more than gradual melting and refreezing under variable temperature. Your goal is to keep your payload at the same frigid temperature for as long as possible.
That means you need dry ice, condensed carbon dioxide that sublimates at -109°F. A five pound block is enough to keep four gallons cold for over five hours if the cooler is tightly sealed. In fact the dry ice is so cold that you may need to move your containers of ice cream around in the cooler so the cold is evenly distributed. And make sure to wear heavy oven mitts or winter mittens when handling dry ice—it'll burn exposed skin.
Dry ice may get your ice cream so cold that it'll be too firm to scoop, so once you've reached your destination, check on your ice cream one hour before serving. If it's way too firm, start thawing it in a fridge or the open air for 20 to 45 minutes before serving, putting it back in the dry ice if it starts to get too soft.
Is This Worth It?
So now you're asking: Is this worth all the trouble? Should I bother making all this ice cream? Well...you don't have to. It's not the easiest thing to do, and it's expensive for a large group (though two bucks a head for my function wasn't too shabby). But think of it this way—do you want to show up with a dessert that's totally memorable and universally beloved, a shortcut guarantee to talk-of-the-party badassery?
I thought so.