Ice Cream for Beginners

Burnt caramel is a flavor that will make even novice ice-cream makers feel like sophisticates

Furnald Gray

ANYTHING sweet is a friend of mine, I usually say, and as usual, I'm telling only part of the truth. Cookies do make up a scandalous portion of my diet, but I draw the line at anything cloying (and I, of course, define what's cloying). Just as wine-lovers say that all wine aspires to be red, to my mind all chocolate aspires to be bitter and all sorbet to be lemon.

Ice cream has thus held little appeal. It's harder for flavors with a balancing acidity to cut through butterfat and sugar than it is for clear fruit flavors to shine through the sugar syrup in sorbet. My frozen-dessert making has been focused on the perfect lemon and coffee granitas -- the uniquely refreshing Italian versions of slush. Granita can be made in ice-cube trays and requires no special equipment, although breaking up the crystals every half hour or so as it freezes is tedious.

Ice cream seemed not worth the effort until I discovered the burnt caramel at Toscanini's Ice Cream, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gus Rancatore, the owner, is the sort of eccentric who makes Cambridge eternally appealing. The original and largest of the three Toscanini's -- there are two at MIT and one in Harvard Square -- is a magnet not only for new Internet millionaires but also for artists, intellectuals of all stripes, and what remains of academic bohemia.

Many of Toscanini's original flavors are strikingly good: gingersnap molasses, for example, and khulfee (Urdu for "ice cream"), which includes cardamom, almonds, and pistachios ("This is a flavor that most people like when they try it," a sign from Rancatore reassures doubtful customers). Some flavors appear seldom but have their devoted admirers, chief among them Rancatore himself: saffron, avocado, halvah, cucumber sorbet.

Unusual suggestions are frequent, and Rancatore acts on many of them. When I visited Toscanini's kitchen recently for a burnt-caramel demonstration, Chi Leung, an ice-cream maker, was deftly ladling two kinds of softened ice cream from plastic tubs -- cocoa pudding, Toscanini's best and strongest chocolate flavor, with almonds and chocolate chips added in, and Belgian chocolate with Hydrox cookies added in -- into a third tub and drizzling Pollockesque swirls of cooled hot fudge between the layers. This updated parfait is called Chocolate Sluggo, for the nickname of the longtime customer who requested it -- "the pugnacious professor Paul Slovenski," as another sign says. ("He has a thing about twos," Rancatore told me. "He tried to get me to put in two toppings, but I had to tell him that was too much.") Leung closed the third tub and danced energetically with it on the way to the walk-in freezer, to eliminate air pockets and amalgamate the layers. This sort of elaborateness is rare for Rancatore, who prefers unadorned flavors that are innovative in their concept, not their "add-ins." Chocolate Sluggo is, however, irresistible. I kept spooning the nearly melted ice cream from the two tubs on their way to be washed, and Leung packed himself a small container of the parfait to take home -- high praise.

Burnt caramel is generally agreed to be in a class above Toscanini's other flavors and is never off the menu. The bittersweet intensity of burnt sugar -- too strong for even diehards to take straight -- is diffused and amplified by milk and cream. There are none of the egg-yolk distractions that mar nearly all commercial ice creams. Only the richness stops me from eating unlimited quantities. With most ice cream, palate fatigue sets in on my third bite, when it becomes clear that the flavorings can't stand up to sugar, cream, and yolk. Burnt caramel is almost forbiddingly spare and austerely perfect. It is Rancatore's Seagram Building. LIKE many great inventions, Toscanini's burnt caramel began as an accident. As Rancatore, pouring sugar into a big, battered saucepan, began to tell me the story, a former ice-cream maker named Adam Simha wandered in to borrow some Belgian chocolate and cocoa for a flourless chocolate-espresso cake he intended to make at home. Although Simha now designs and makes steel furniture, he still has the keys to the kitchen; he told me that every so often he comes in at two or three in the morning to make a few batches of ice cream -- an activity he finds therapeutic. Simha was present at the creation, when Bruce Frankel, then the chef and owner of a neighboring restaurant, dropped by late one night after work. Frankel was an inspirational but curmudgeonly figure in the city's food world; he once tasted Simha's plum-Armagnac-habanero sorbet and announced, "This is all that's wrong with food today."

Caramel, as makers of nut brittle and flan know, is very hard to control and also dangerous to make. Sugar reaches extremely high temperatures -- above 300° -- when heated over a direct flame and allowed to darken. If it splatters on your skin, it sticks as it burns, and the only thing to do is plunge your hand or arm into cold water and pull off the caramel. Candy makers use various methods -- adding water or lemon juice, plunging the pan into cold water -- to halt cooking at any of several well-defined stages, including "hard ball" and "soft ball." These methods don't always work. A rich mahogany brown can turn an acrid black in a second.

It is especially unwise to chat while melting sugar. Toscanini's cook was chatting with Frankel when the honey-gold caramel for a standard caramel ice cream suddenly went black. Frankel told the cook not to start over. "Make it big," he said. The idea was to take crème caramel, say, or the crust of crème brûlée, or dulce de leche, a recent runaway success for Häagen-Dazs, to the nth degree.

Thus was born a flavor that could convert any skeptic -- or at least anyone who has ever savored the skin of a toasted marshmallow. Harold McGee, the author of On Food and Cooking, wrote an influential essay in The Curious Cook about the hundreds of flavor-making chemical changes that take place during browning. Some cooks use these transformations as an excuse to burn nearly anything they please, often ruinously. But McGee's essay explains why these flavors add so much depth, and how the burnt edges of almost all kinds of food, be they vegetable or meat, chemically resemble one another. Burnt sugar is a fast and easy way to add flavor to anything pallid. Chefs will blacken a cut onion (naturally high in sugar) over a gas flame and put it into a stockpot; if a sauce is particularly wan, they may melt sugar in a skillet and add red-wine vinegar to make a "gastric" -- a kind of quick-fix homemade Gravy Master. (Gravy Master is almost pure caramel and salt.)

BURNT caramel is a flavor particularly suitable for the novice ice-cream maker. You don't have to worry about stopping the caramel at exactly the right moment -- it's supposed to burn. In any case, the sudden addition of cold milk stops the process. Sugar gives texture to ice cream, and the relatively high sugar content of caramel eliminates the need for egg yolks, which are usually necessary to thicken and stabilize the frozen mixture. I prefer the cleaner flavors of sherbet and ice milk, both of which are usually eggless, to custard-based ice creams. (The original sherbet, whose name comes from an Arab word that provided the root for both "syrup" and "sorbet," was a sweetened drink; in this country sherbet is frozen and usually contains milk. The original ice cream was just frozen flavored cream or milk.) The absence of eggs means that the mixture won't curdle, and to my great surprise it did not stick to or stain the pan. For my experiments I bought a nonstick saucepan at a hardware store, assuming that any pan in which I repeatedly burned sugar would blacken and be impossible to clean; five or six batches later, washing easily removed any charred spots.

You'll need an ice-cream freezer. I long prided myself on using a wooden bucket that requires ice and coarse salt; masters will affirm that this kind offers generous capacity (a gallon) and the most control, and produces beautiful results -- not to mention the appeal of licking the dasher. White Mountain still makes bucket machines for home use. But having to deal with the ice and salt can mean that homemade ice cream becomes a once-a-year treat -- as it did for me, until I gave away the bucket and started using an iceless maker. Twenty years ago a hand-cranked, small-capacity machine called the Donvier made preparing ice cream practicable and easy. As long as you remember to freeze the thick-walled, coolant-filled metal bowl beforehand for at least twelve hours, you can have ice cream in about forty to fifty minutes. You can find the Donvier online for around $40. Krups and Cuisinart make similar but machine-cranked models, both priced at about $70; Krups's La Glacière takes up a bit less space and is sleeker-looking.

To make about a quart of burnt-caramel ice cream, have on hand a two-quart saucepan (this size will reduce the possibility of spatters); please don't use your best one, especially if it isn't nonstick. Combine and set aside one cup of heavy cream and two cups of whole milk. Put two thirds of a cup of sugar and a quarter teaspoon of salt into the pan and set over moderate heat. The salt is crucial, as I discovered last year in Brittany and Normandy, regions famous for their cream, butter, and "fleur de sel" -- shockingly expensive air-dried sea salt with an excellent, nuanced flavor. The best of the regions' famous caramels feature liberal amounts of that salt, which has recently become a prestige ingredient in American kitchens. My favorite salt of the moment -- and any cook with pretensions needs one, like a favorite olive oil -- is Maldon Sea Salt, from a small and charming family-run business on the Essex coast of England; you can order it from

Tip the pan back and forth to nudge the pockets of white sugar to the bottom. In two or three minutes all the sugar will have melted; the color will be uneven, varying from light honey to dark maple syrup. When the first black spots appear, the steam rising from the pan will turn to smoke. Immediately pour in half the cream-milk mixture all at once. The caramel will clump, or "seize," and the gobs and twisted tentacles will make it look like some creature from the deep. Stir over moderate heat with a wooden spoon or a sturdy spatula; the sticky mess will soon turn docile, and within five minutes the mixture will be homogenous and light mahogany in color. Keep it at a low simmer for twenty minutes or so, stirring frequently. The mixture will thicken and darken. During the last three or four minutes your stirring should leave a line at the bottom of the pan.

The proteins in the milk and cream will begin to solidify and form small strings, which need to be strained out. Pour the hot mixture into a fine-mesh sieve set over the remaining milk and cream and push it through with a spoon or a spatula. Stir or whisk the warm mixture; the uncooked milk and cream will cool the base sufficiently that it can go straight into the chilled container of the ice-cream maker. (Technique for the usual cooked custard calls for thoroughly chilling the mixture in the refrigerator -- a step that does have the additional benefit of allowing the flavors to ripen.)

I urge you to taste how powerful and lush just four ingredients can be. But you'll doubtless want to embellish -- resisting the urge, I hope, to "accentuate the negative," as one of my favorite writers on food, Miriam Ungerer, said of pouring sweet liqueurs over ice cream. Toppings and additions to the mixture are better seen as opportunities to add bitter or acidic or spicy flavors rather than yet more sweet ones. Italians, for example, drizzle balsamic vinegar or Scotch whisky over ice cream.

Before freezing the cooled mixture you could stir into it a half teaspoon or more of vanilla extract, or a teaspoon of instant coffee dissolved in a tablespoon of milk, or a teaspoon of ground espresso (I like the fine grit and the strength of the coffee as it steeps in the cream, but the texture is not to everyone's liking), or a dash of freshly ground nutmeg. Too much liquid, such as brewed coffee or liqueur, will risk ice-crystal formation. So will fresh fruit, which is better used as a topping. If you're set on chunky additions, add them half or two thirds of the way through freezing -- after at least twenty minutes. The only additions of which I wholeheartedly approve are crushed gingersnaps and chopped crystallized ginger, but it would be hard to oppose toasted chopped hazelnuts or almonds or finely chopped bittersweet chocolate.

I also like Rancatore's idea for a parfait he made a few years ago: cheap commercial ice-cream sandwiches cut up and mixed into coffee ice cream. Homemade coffee-caramel ice cream as a base for this typically eccentric and nostalgic Rancatore creation would be an even more persuasive way to evoke childhood memories in an adult context. That is not to say, of course, that eating ice cream need ever be a wholly adult activity.

Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic and the author of The Joy of Coffee.

Photograph by Furnald/Grey.

The Atlantic Monthly; June 2000; Ice Cream for Beginners - 00.06; Volume 285, No. 6; page 103-107.