FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Ice Cream Trivia

One of the most enjoyable aspects of being a professional cook is the breadth of the occupation, and also the endless amount of available information and knowledge on the subject of food and cooking. A person could live two lifetimes and still not have learned all there is to know of the culinary arts. And this is equally pertinent when writing on the subject, for there are always numerous obscure and senseless facts to spew out on any given recipe, particular dish, type of cuisine, or any foodstuff for that matter. Take something as common place as frozen desserts, such as ice cream and sorbet. The month of July, for example, carries the distinction of not only being National Ice Cream month, it also includes National Ice Cream Day, Creative Ice Cream Flavor Day, National Vanilla Ice Cream Day, National Peach Ice Cream Day and National Strawberry Sundae Day. Not surprisingly most frozen dessert recognitions are deemed for the summer months; August includes such equally nonsensical days as National Spumoni Day, National Ice Cream Soda Day and even National Creamsicle Day. Who thinks these things up, and who actually designates them, I wonder? (National Creamsicle Day?) These are true, so I've read; trust me, I couldn't fabricate these mundane facts if I wanted to (there's even an organization called The Ice Screamers, which has been in existence since 1982; they're a group of people who hold a national convention each year to discuss their passion for the frozen stuff). As ridiculous as these "holidays" may seem, ice cream--and frozen concoctions in general--do have some interesting facts behind them.

As with many foods, there is more than one theory on the origin of these frozen treats, but there are two in particular that seem to stand out. One such assumption is that the modern method of ice cream-making is directly related to methods in which the Chinese have used for many thousands of years to preserve and enjoy fruits and fruit juices. They would pack containers of mashed fruit and juice in ice and salt to freeze it; the salt lowers the temperature of the ice thus easily freezing the fruit. The other common speculation is that the famed emperor Nero was the first to introduce these frozen treats when he commanded his slaves to gather snow from the mountains and drizzle it with honey and fruit juice. Whichever the origin, one can only imagine the luxury (and status) it must have been to consume a frozen food that far prior to the advent of modern refrigeration. Interestingly, it is easy to note that ice cream was originally in the form of an ice rather than a cream, similar to a modern sorbet. The addition of cream came later at an attempt to enrich and "whiten" the ice, which made it more exclusive and desirable to the upper classes. The French word sorbet, the Italian sorbetto, and the English sherbet are all said to be derived from the Turkish chorbet, or possibly the Arabic charbab, which generally refers to syrup-based fruit drinks. It seems odd, though, knowing the ancientness of frozen desserts, that the ice cream cone took so long to be developed--1904, at the St. Louis World's Fair. Apparently, as fate would have it, there was a Syrian immigrant that was selling waffles directly next to an ice cream vendor who was serving his frozen dessert to patrons in glass dishes (remember this was prior to the prevalence of "all things disposable"). Anyhow, the ice cream purveyor ran short of clean dishes and the entrepreneurial waffle maker saw the opportunity and fashioned his waffles into the shape of cones, and the rest is history.

Ice creams, sherbets and sorbets fall into that category of foods where there are so many quality brands readily available that they are very rarely made from scratch at home. There are, though, also two categories of cooks: those who cook in order to supply their daily meals, and those who cook for the sheer enjoyment of it. I am fortunate to be of the latter. And with visions of standing over an old-fashioned hand cranked machine, ice cream making is most often thought of as an arduous task, but its not necessarily so. Many frozen desserts are made easily in the home kitchen and without fancy or expensive equipment. Indeed this was always the case--in Fannie Merritt Farmer's groundbreaking 1896 cookbook, The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, she gives a recipe for vanilla ice cream that contains only three ingredient: cream, sugar and vanilla; the directions state simply "Mix ingredients, and freeze." The lightness of ice cream comes from the aeration, or the churning action of a machine, thus the recipe in Ms. Farmer's book would no doubt yield a very stiff, albeit tasty, product. But if you are a person, like myself, who is without an ice cream maker, there is a shortcut method to achieve lightness, and that is the action of whipping the cream prior to folding it into the base of the recipe (note the frozen chocolate mousse recipe below). And in the case of sorbet, one simply needs to stir the syrupy base periodically while it is freezing; often the texture will have larger ice crystals than if made in an electric machine, and in that case it would be more appropriate to call it a gratina, rather than a sorbet.

The above said, I leave you with one more boring ice cream fact: more ice cream is sold on Sunday than any other day of the week. Go Figure.

Simple Frozen Chocolate Mousse Yield: about 3 cups

8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup sugar

Melt the chocolate in a small bowl over a pot of simmering water. Stir the beaten eggs into the melted chocolate and stir them until they cook and are thickened (about 2 or 3 minutes). Remove the bowl from the heat and refrigerate until cooled to room temperature. Whip the cream, while gradually adding the sugar, until it forms stiff peaks (be careful not to over-whip it). With a large rubber spatula, gently fold the chocolate base into the whipped cream. Transfer the mousse to a shallow bowl that is just slightly larger than the mousse itself, cover it with plastic wrap and freeze for at least 3 hours, but preferably overnight.

Plum Sorbet Yield: about 5 cups

6 ripe plums, quartered and pits removed

1 cup water

3/4 cups sugar

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Combine all of the ingredients in a small saucepot and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer slowly for approximately 10 minutes, stir often. Remove the pot from the heat and allow the sorbet mixture to cool slightly. Once cooled, transfer the mixture to a blender and purée until smooth. Pour the sorbet into a shallow pan, such as a round or square cake pan. Cover the sorbet with plastic wrap and place it in the freezer. After about 2 hours there should be a ring of frozen sorbet beginning to form around the edges of the pan. Using a wire whisk, stir the frozen portion into the center of the pan; return the sorbet to the freezer for another hour and repeat the process. The sorbet is ready when it has the consistency of flaky snow, and it can be scooped out of the pan without running. If the sorbet freezes too firm it can be aerated by spinning it in a food processor for a few seconds, then returning it to the freezer.

Baked Alaska Yield: 8-10 servings

2 pound cakes

1/2 gallon vanilla ice cream (in a square container)

8 egg whites

3/4 cup powdered sugar

1 teaspoons vanilla extract

Cut each pound cake into 3 horizontal slices, thus creating 6 slices. Set a slice of cake on a large platter. Working quickly, remove the ice cream from its container in one piece, and trim the ice cream so that it is slightly smaller than the slices of pound cake. Place the ice cream onto the piece of cake that is already on the platter. Encase the ice cream with the remaining pieces of cake, trimming them as necessary. Place the platter in the freezer to re-solidify.

Make a meringue by combining the egg whites, sugar and vanilla in an electric mixer, and with the whip attachment, whip on medium speed until the eggs form stiff peaks. Remove the platter from the freezer, and with the aid of a pastry bag, pipe the meringue onto the cake-covered ice cream, covering it completely. Return the platter to the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Just before serving the Baked Alaska, remove it from the refrigerator, and with the aid of a small household propane torch (available at any hardware store) caramelize the entire surface of the meringue. Slice with a sharp knife that is warmed by repeated dips into warm water. Serve at once.

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