Everyone has food quests. One of mine is making ice cream, particularly at this time of year, and it gets more positive reinforcement than, say, the quest to find Clamato (an American brand of tomato juice mixed with clam broth) in the UK (turns out you can get it on Ocado), or to reverse-engineer the Bath Oliver (in case of a Marmitegate-style supply problem). Sometimes the power of ice cream overrides rational thought: flipping through food-art book Experimental Eating (Black Dog, £16.95), I saw the artist duo PUTPUT’s piece “Popsicles”, and felt a powerful, instinctive desire to consume it. It took a few moments (or more accurately the third flip through the book) for me to realise the popsicles were dish sponges on sticks, photographed with the aesthetics and attention of an advertising shoot.
It’s fun to play with expectations in ice cream, though I advise you do it in a more obviously edible way. Agnes Marshall, the First Lady of Victorian ice cream making, has a coffee cream ice in her book (reprinted, most recently, as Ices and Ice Creams, Square Peg, £9.99): whole coffee beans are simmered in cream or milk, making a coffee ice that’s almost white. Blackcurrant leaves infused in sugar syrup make a base for a blackcurrant-ish sorbet that is paradoxically green. Milk and cream absorb flavours well: try infusing rosemary or bay leaves into custard instead of vanilla. Or cornflakes into milk (the basis for the Momofuku restaurant’s signature “cereal milk” ice cream).
And then there are savoury ices. I’ve never tried to make the famous bacon-and-egg ice cream but tomato ice cream, pea sorbet (cook and purée peas, push them through a sieve, dilute with sugar syrup), and Stilton ice cream (mostly Stilton and fromage frais, from Robin and Caroline Weir’s Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati, Grub Street, £25) have all been successful. The tomato works just as well in a granita or sorbet: a good basic concept is just to roughly chop some tomatoes, dress them a little bit with salt, pepper, sugar, a tiny bit of vinegar, and olive oil, leave overnight to macerate, then push the mixture through a sieve. The resulting purée seems to do just fine whether churned in an ice cream machine into sorbet or frozen into a granita. (In either case I would put a squeezy plastic bottle of vodka in the freezer too, for a drizzle while serving.) This ice is light, sweet-and-sour, extraordinarily refreshing. One of the limitations of savoury ices is that some sugar is always needed to make them freeze properly; one of the nice things is ending up with clean-tasting ices which are not very sweet. The Victorians were certainly more open to savoury ices than we are: Mrs Marshall has a cucumber cream ice in her book, as well as “iced spinach à la crème”, and a sort of frozen curry mousse, “souffle of curry à la Ripon”. These last two sound too over the top to work even as show-offy palate-cleansing entremets.
Another direction to go in, when you are in the mood to freeze something, is to contemplate textural variance. The softness and smoothness of commercial ice cream is uniform — but why should it be? Harold McGee, in a 2007 New York Times article, says the great smoothening didn’t happen until the early 20th century, at which point it became “the hallmark that distinguished commercial ice cream from homemade”. He quotes a “professor of dairy industry” referring in 1938 to the “sentimental enthusiasts” who prefer the texture of noncommercial ices. In my own ice cream making I’m always a little bit disappointed when I get a very smooth, very fluffy ice (it often happens with fibrous fruits in sorbets — plums, blackcurrants). I basically (sentimentally?) don’t trust that texture.
On the crunchy side of ice there are granitas, of course. And looking at older recipes, the Weirs’ book mentions the 18th-century “pin ice”, or “fromage aux épingles”, sweetened cream and milk frozen without churning in moulds, creating icy shards. New England has an ice cream style which is dense, almost chewy, made with a lot of egg yolk. On the stretchy side, Turkish ice cream (dondurma) is traditionally made with mastic and salep (a ground orchid root), making it elastic, almost chewy, and somewhat resistant to melting. It has to be kneaded and stretched and pounded; its texture is quite unlike European ice cream. I haven’t managed to find salep in this country; it’s apparently possible to substitute guar gum, or konjac flour (a kind of taro), but I don’t think either of those are stocked in my local Lidl.
A more complex iteration of the texture debate happens in faloodeh, an Iranian sorbet, and bastani sonnati, a traditional Iranian ice cream, which you can get in Persian restaurants. Faloodeh is a rosewater sorbet with fine vermicelli noodles stirred in and lime juice squeezed over; bastani sonnati is saffron-flavoured ice cream with chunks of frozen cream (yes, extra cream in your ice cream!) and slivered pistachios. For faloodeh, make a simple syrup, add a tiny bit of rose water and freeze it like a granita (stirring it up every so often). When it’s almost done, cook a few rice vermicelli noodles, drain them, chop them up into short lengths, and stir them in. (The noodles freeze on contact and turn opaque; it’s a little bit disconcerting.) Then put it back into the freezer. Serve with a serious squeeze of lime. For the Persian ice cream, the Farsi-language YouTube tutorials all seemed to be using salep to thicken the cream base. At the opposite end of the difficulty spectrum, some Americans were just beating saffron into shop-bought vanilla; I just made a custard and flavoured it with saffron rather than vanilla. Separately, I softly whipped some cream with a tiny bit of rosewater and spread it into a plastic box. When serving, break the frozen cream into pieces and scatter it over the ice cream.
Have both at the same time and it feels as if you’re consuming every texture at once: icy, chewy, crunchy, creamy, soft, brittle — a textural marvel. It’s slightly over the top, but it beats Clamato sorbet.