Ice-cream making — and the critical task of frequently tasting it — is one of the most enjoyable and creative things a person could do on a sultry afternoon. The possible flavor combinations are infinite, and endlessly satisfying.
As long as you start with a good ice-cream base and add excellent ingredients, you can make any flavor in the universe: almond, basil, lime. It’s also going to taste a whole lot better than any you can buy.
There are many kinds of ice-cream bases, ranging from the simplest mix of cream and sugar to more elaborate combinations including xanthan or guar gum, corn syrup and milk powder.
Here I offer a classic custard base using egg yolk. Yolks vastly improve the texture of ice cream, especially the kind of ice cream made in small batches in home machines. (Industrial machines are another animal.) Egg yolk acts as an emulsifier, keeping ice crystals at bay and making home-churned ice creams scoopable even after they’ve firmed up in the freezer. The yolk, along with the cream, also gives you the luscious mouth feel of a great ice cream, that tongue-coating velvet that you just don’t get from sorbet.
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I designed this base to support pretty much any flavor you, or your inner child, could think up. It also yields a lot of extra egg whites, which you should save in the fridge or freezer for other uses.
But the flavors aren’t the only variable to play with here.
Adjust the number of yolks for a richer or lighter ice cream. You can also tinker with the ratio of milk to heavy cream. I like my ice cream on the richer side, so my base recipe uses the traditional ratio of six yolks. If you like yours lighter, increase the milk and decrease the cream and yolks. Or for something richer, increase the yolk and cream. The ice cream will be heavenly as long as you use at least two and no more than eight yolks for three cups of liquid dairy. You practically have a mandate to experiment here, so take advantage.
You also have room when it comes to sugar. I think 2/3 cup is just sweet enough. But take this up or down as you see fit. Or replace some of the sugar with an intense honey to make a fabulous honey vanilla. Ditto maple syrup for a maple walnut ice cream. Brown sugar adds a slightly bitter molasses note that’s lovely with chocolate.
Making a proper custard does take careful technique, but it’s not hard, especially if you take it low and slow. You want to heat the egg yolks just enough so they thicken the custard until it’s silky and coats the back of a spoon.
Turn the heat too high and you’ll get curdled, scrambled eggs. If you’re new to custards, better to stir everything over low heat for 10 to 15 minutes rather than watching it all clump up in the frenzy of a high flame. Straining will help eliminate any minor curdling and stray bits of egg, but if you have large chunks, you’ll have to start again. The more custards you make, the hotter and faster you can push it, but it takes practice.
Once you’ve mastered the base, freestyling with flavors is your reward. You can either infuse aromatics into the milk and cream mixture as it heats, or stir flavor ingredients into the custard before chilling and churning it.
The key is to anticipate how you’ll need to adjust the base to accommodate different ingredients.
Take, for example, berries or stone fruit. “When adding fruit purée, you’re essentially adding water,” said Ben Van Leeuwen, whose company, Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream, is known for its custard-based ice creams in delicate flavors. Too much water leads to ice crystals. And when adding high-fat ingredients, such as chocolate or nuts, you risk ending up with something so rich it’s more akin to frozen butter than ice cream.
To keep things in balance, Van Leeuwen recommends adjusting the percentages of milk and cream. (He tries to maintain the fat content at about 22 percent for a custard ice cream.) He uses more cream and less milk for fruit flavors, and more milk and less cream for nut flavors.
I’ve added suggestions for nearly two dozen flavors with the accompanying recipe. Work your way through them, or use them as a jumping-off point. You may find that you never tire of making them. Or, at least, that you never tire of tasting.