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Regardless of season, ice cream!

29 July 2010
Published in Fiori, Society
by Christina Kolyva

Regardless of season, pilule weather and occasion, illness the sensation of a frozen dessert titillating the palate is delightful. Whether it is ice cream, sorbet, sherbet, frozen yogurt, granita or parfait, those of us with a sweet tooth find it practically impossible to politely refuse a tempting offer… for more!!

Most popular of all is undeniably ice cream. A typical ice cream mix contains milk and cream, sweeteners, sometimes eggs and of course flavouring. This mixture is briefly heated and homogenised before it is subjected to rapid freezing. Surrounding the bowl containing the mix with a medium at subzero temperature achieves swift removal of heat from the mix. Cooling the mix in this way ensures the formation of only small and uniformly distributed ice crystals in the cream, while at the same time, vigorous stirring further prevents ice crystals from forming into large clusters. But most importantly, churning is necessary in order to trap air bubbles in the mix while it freezes. Ice cream is effectively foam that has been stabilised by freezing the liquid and therefore air bubbles are necessary in order for the final frozen product to be ‘scoopable’ rather than ‘sawable’! Various frozen desserts are made from different mixes-for example, sorbet and granita mixes are based on fruit instead of dairy products-but the preparation is very much the same.

The history of ice cream is laced with intriguing stories about its eastern origin and nobility-exclusive hush-hush formula. Some of these stories are probably true and without doubt some are just charming fairy tales. However, rationally speaking, making ice cream is as close to chemistry as one can get on a white apron and toque, probably too close for comfort! Therefore, because the ingredients and way they are processed are all so specific, it is highly unlikely that someone could get it right by chance, at least not before scientists deciphered certain chemical processes. Most importantly, the low temperatures needed to freeze the ice cream could not have been easily achieved before, some 400 years ago, culinary circles got wind of the scientific discovery that salted ice induces considerably more cooling than ice alone.

I hope that the reference to chemistry will not intimidate any curious ice cream fans from making ice cream at home. It’s not difficult and it’s fun! But it would be better to avoid improvising and stick to the recipe, unless you understand well the underlying molecular processes. For example, you might be tempted to make ice cream without any sweeteners in order to reduce the calorific content. I recently learnt that this would not work so well, because the sweeteners are not just for taste, but they actually lower the temperature at which the liquid mix becomes solid (freezing point) and thus prevent it from becoming rock-hard in the refrigerator. Adding alcohol has a similar effect, but with a few extra drops you can easily cause your mix not to be able to freeze, because of the extremely low freezing point. Have an extra sip or two if you must, but leave the mix alone! If calories are not a problem and you feel like making an exceptionally rich dessert using only cream and no milk, you should reconsider because it’s the fats in the milk and not in the cream that facilitate the incorporation of air bubbles in the mix. You could end up with a very dense product that requires a drill and lots of muscle to break through it!

A vast assortment of ice cream flavours can be found around the globe nowadays, adapted for different cultures, climates and tastes. Growing a little tired of the typical vanilla-chocolate-strawberry trio, I turned …East and looked for inspiration. Here are some ideas for ‘ethnic’ ice creams that are usually received well by Western palates.

Matcha ice cream is a very popular ice cream in Japan and other countries of East Asia. Very refreshing and very… green! Matcha is the emerald-green tea powder traditionally used in the Japanese tea ceremony, but you don’t need expensive ceremonial-grade matcha to make ice cream. Red bean (azuki) ice cream is another very popular Japanese ice cream flavour, as well as Okinawan sweet potato, cherry blossom (for a limited season) and the nutty-tasting black sesame (goma) ice cream. Japan is also famous for strange ice cream flavours, so if you are feeling adventurous, this is the country to look for truly jaw-dropping tastes!

Kaimaki ice cream is a luscious ice cream, made with mastic and salep and is very popular in Greece. The ingredients are unique and give it a very distinct flavour. Mastic is the crystallised aromatic resin harvested from the tree pistacia lentiscus, mainly growing on the Greek island of Chios. Salep is a flour produced by grinding orchid dried roots and is used as a thickening agent for this ice cream, giving it also distinctive elasticity. Kaimaki ice cream is served with syrupy sweets, such as kataifi, or for something… ehm… lighter it goes well with sour cherry syrup and Aegina pistachios. Kaimaki ice cream is very similar to Turkish ice cream.

Kulfi is the Indian version of ice cream and is very popular in that part of the world. The technique for making kulfi is slightly different from ice cream in that you need to let your milk mix simmer slowly in an open pan until about a third of the water has evaporated, while you continuously stir. When the mix is ready, it is not churned during freezing, but instead it is frozen solid. Kulfi is a very dense frozen dessert that takes a long time to melt and can be eaten with knife and fork. Popular ingredients to add flavour and texture are pistachios, mangos, saffron, cardamom, rose water, cinnamon, almonds and malai (clotted cream).

If you are not after exotic flavours, but you just crave for something different, The Parlour Restaurant at Fortnum & Mason in London might inspire you! Their strawberry with balsamic vinegar and walnut with maple syrup scoops were so good that I still regret not trying stem ginger with honey as well!

So, whatever you do, stick to the recipe and… happy summer!

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