Learning to Make Ice Cream During Lockdown

I taught myself how to make ice cream during lockdown, and now I can't stop.

roasted strawberry sherbet
A batch of roasted strawberry-buttermilk sherbet.

Katherine Martinko

Many new food skills have been formed during the COVID-19 lockdown. I saw countless posts on social media about people keeping sourdough starters, fermenting sauerkraut, braising meat, rolling out pasta and croissants by hand, and baking spectacular cakes. I didn't do any fancy baking projects. Instead, I threw myself into learning how to make ice cream. 

It's a skill I've been wanting to perfect for a long time. Several years ago my sister gave me an ice cream maker, a simple electric 2-quart Cuisinart maker that sits on the counter and uses a bowl that's kept in the freezer between batches. She bought it secondhand for $30 because, apparently, it's a common thing for people to buy ice cream makers and not use them.

I bought a cookbook to go with it – "Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams At Home" that earned author Jeni Britton Bauer a James Beard award in 2012. The book gathered dust on my shelf until lockdown began, at which point I decided it was time to dust it off and see for myself what all the hype was about. It didn't take long to get totally hooked.

Several nights a week, I hovered over the stove, making sure that mixtures of cream and milk did not boil over. I blended bananas, roasted strawberries and rhubarb in the oven, melted chocolate and coconut oil together so they would freeze in the ice cream but melt on the tongue, and stirred white chocolate until it "caramelized" and turned amber-colored. 

I've learned about different types of frozen desserts. Jeni's ice creams are known as Philadelphia-style (or "American") because they use cream cheese, rather than egg yolks, to add protein and thicken the cream. Jeni writes, "Milk naturally contains the essential proteins necessary to bind water and fat and add body to the ice cream, and these proteins do a better job than egg proteins do." 

Not everyone agrees. The French style of ice cream is generally thought to be creamier and richer, thanks to the egg-based custard, but it can be finicky; I've allowed it to get too hot on a few occasions, and the result is a slightly grainy ice cream. (If you try this, take it off the heat as soon as it reaches 160 degrees, which is the point at which eggs are safe to eat. This advice comes via Alex Heard, in his ode to DIY ice cream.) But mostly I've stuck with Jeni's recipes and her cream cheese-based formula, which works magnificently. 

I have also learned that sherbet and sorbet are not the same thing, though frequently confused. Sherbet is a frozen dessert that has some dairy to lend creaminess while staying lighter than ice cream, and sorbet is always dairy-free; both contain a generous amount of sugar. (Gelato, which I have not yet made, has more milk and less cream, and is churned more slowly to incorporate less air, making it denser than ice cream.)

rhubarb cake with coffee ice cream
Black coffee ice cream served with rhubarb cake. Katherine Martinko 

There are many reasons to love making ice cream. It's an exercise in patience, a rare activity that forces me to slow down and not rush the various stages. I have to wait for the cream mixture to cool, then I wait for it to churn. I wait for it to freeze for several hours before eating, and then another few minutes for it to soften once it comes out of the freezer. Those first few bites are a true reward.

I appreciate that ice cream can be made in advance and does not have to be eaten immediately, like a pie or a cake does. If the urge to make ice cream hits me on a Monday night, I can reap the benefits of it during a weekend dinner party. It's the ultimate make-ahead treat.

And is it ever a treat! Homemade ice cream, I've discovered, is a real showstopper. Nobody can believe you've actually made it yourself, and everyone wants to try it. I've started giving it away in cute little paper pints (yes, I have more than I can eat) and my friends seem delighted to receive it. After all, it's a tasty and unusual gift, and one that, quite literally, money cannot buy.