Herbs and flowers for flavor and color.
Who wouldn’t love a lick of these? Rose Ice Cream, Lemon Ice Cream, and, in the background, Lavender Ice Cream.
The recipes given here are appropriate for any of the ice-cream makers currently on the market. Follow the manufacturer’s freezing instructions. After freezing, let your ice cream “ripen” in the freezer of your refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours to blend the flavors and stiffen the consistency so that it’s easier to scoop.
Custard-based ice creams are best eaten within a few days of making because long storage can adversely affect their flavor and texture. However, few people have the problem of leftover homemade ice cream. Mine seems to disappear within minutes.
For me, homemade ice cream always conjures up memories of carefree summer days. When I was a child growing up in southern California, making vanilla ice cream in an old-fashioned, hand-cranked mixer was our family’s favorite summertime ritual. As the youngest of four children, my job was to sit on top of the old mixer, holding it steady while my elder sister and brothers took turns vigorously cranking the handle. When they’d all had a turn and the cranking began to get difficult, I’d jump off, and with great anticipation, we’d carefully lift the lid and peer down to catch a glimpse of the creamy white dessert that had appeared in the cylinder as if by magic.
I still enjoy making homemade ice cream, but my recipes today go well beyond plain vanilla; I especially like to find new flavor inspirations in my herb garden. Although there are many good ice creams on the market today, none has the character and flavor of the ice creams that I make myself and flavor with herbs and flowers from my garden. The subtleness of rose petals and lavender blossoms, the tangy punch of lemon balm and lemon verbena, the freshness of mint, and the sweetness of aniseed: see for yourself what kind of magic herbal flavors contribute to this old American favorite.
Frozen in time
Ice creams of one form or another have been around throughout recorded history. Marco Polo is credited with bringing the idea of frozen ices back from China in the thirteenth century and introducing it to the West. In Italy, the ices were improved with the addition of milk and cream. By the seventeenth century, the news of this extravagant “cream ice” had spread throughout Europe, and the delicacy had become a favorite of the upper class. A century later, ice cream had found its way into the homes of the common people, not only in Europe, but in Colonial America as well.
Americans had a love affair with ice cream from the beginning. Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson experimented with French ice-cream recipes. In 1809, First Lady Dolley Madison served ice cream at the White House, and in 1846 Nancy Johnson invented the hand-cranked ice-cream maker, whose basic design is still in use. The twentieth-century inventions of electric ice-cream makers and home freezers have contributed greatly to the popularity of ice cream. Today, the per-capita consumption of homemade ice cream is higher than at any other time in history, and it is considered a truly American dessert.
The ice cream that I make is based on the classic French style, which contains milk, cream, sweeteners, flavorings, and egg yolks. The base is cooked into a custard (175° to 180°F) before freezing, which not only gives it a distinctive rich, smooth flavor, but also kills any potentially harmful bacteria present in the eggs.
The best herbal ice cream achieves a delicate balance between richness and flavor. Too rich a mixture can overpower the subtle herbal flavors, but too little butterfat makes the ice cream taste like whipped-cream topping. In the recipes below, I’ve substituted whipping cream for the traditional heavy cream, which keeps the mixture from being too rich. Although the egg yolks act as an emulsifier and contribute to the ice cream’s smoothness, you may omit them if you prefer. In this case, heat the cream mixture only until the sugar is dissolved and then follow the remaining steps of the recipe. If, after trying a few of the recipes, you decide you’d like a richer ice cream, you may increase the cream, reduce the milk, and/or add another egg yolk to the base. Be aware, though, that the herb flavors may then be less distinctive.
For superior flavor, use the finest ingredients possible. Herbs and flowers should be freshly picked and free of pesticides. (If you must use dried herbs, use only half the amount called for in the recipes.) Use pure vanilla extract and the freshest cream and eggs that you can buy.
The strength and quality of the fresh herbs vary according to climate, season, and handling. The flavor of rose petals, for example, ranges from delicious to bland, so go out to your garden and taste them. The same is true of culinary herbs: pick and taste the actual flowers and leaves you are considering for your ice cream and choose accordingly. If your neighbors think you’re crazy when they see you tasting flowers, just offer them a bowl of luscious herbal ice cream.
Always taste your ice-cream base before freezing it and add more chopped herbs if necessary. Some of the recipes specify “hard-packed” herb leaves. This means that the herbs are measured while being pressed down in the measuring cup with your fingers. By contrast, “lightly packed” herbs are just placed in the cup and measured without pressing down.
Theresa Loe is an aerospace engineer, freelance writer and lecturer who tends her herb garden in a small southern California coastal community. Her book, The Herbal Home Companion, is due out from Kensington, Inc., this fall.
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