The view from Mike Nelson's porch on a summer evening in Hillsborough is pretty sweet—especially when homemade ice cream is waiting in the freezer inside.
Nelson served as Carrboro mayor and an Orange County Commissioner, but in his private life, he dedicates his time to his garden of mint, cucumbers, lavender, basil and other plants that he uses in his ice cream. Tonight, lavender ice cream is on the menu.
"The base needs to cool, so I'll make it in the morning and stick it in the fridge," Nelson says. "You take the lavender, two tablespoons of it, and boil it in cream and milk. Let it steep, then strain it and add a bunch of egg yolks—I'm not going to tell you how many—and sugar. And not very much sugar. The cream is so sweet you don't need very much."
Now all Nelson has to do is put the concoction into his ice cream maker and let it churn for about 30 minutes. The product is often very soft, so Nelson usually likes to stick it back in the freezer before eating.
When Nelson makes a batch of ice cream, he invites friends over to sample his flavors, and to help him with the job of eating. Too much ice cream available in the house, with no one else to eat it, would probably make him a little too "tubby," he jokes.
"I have a question for you that's totally unrelated to ice cream," he says, as we sit on his porch. "What sounds better for a turkey marinade I'm making this weekend—lemon and lavender, or mint basil?"
I lean toward mint basil, but we agree that he can't go wrong with cutting the turkey in half and trying both. The topic of entrées segues into conversation about desserts and how to thematically pair them to make a cohesive meal.
What distinguishes ice cream from other desserts, he says, is that it doesn't necessarily have to be sweet, like most baked goods. Instead, it can be a savory complement to other foods. When he traveled to Malaysia several years ago, Nelson tried corn ice cream. The prospect of an untraditional flavor like corn—and the fact that Nelson thought it was so delicious—leads us to consider other unusual ice cream flavors: sweet potato, perhaps to pair with turkey on Thanksgiving. Later, one of Nelson's neighbors, Emily, asks about making Parmesan ice cream. It would go well with some Italian dishes, she says, especially those served hot on a warm day.
Nelson can't remember why he started making ice cream, but he thinks it has something to do with a bottle of vanilla.
"Back when I was living in Carrboro, I had a roommate who got a really good ice cream recipe," Nelson says. "He started making it because he went to Mexico and came back with some really good Mexican vanilla. So he made some [ice cream], and I thought, 'That's not so hard.'"
For Nelson, making ice cream is also fairly economical. In addition to what he grows, he uses basic ingredients: cream and milk from Hillsborough's Maple View Farm, egg yolks and sugar. To make a single batch of ice cream—almost enough to fill a half-gallon tub—costs around five dollars, comparable to the price of a commercial carton.
Homemade ice cream can be made several ways. Nelson uses a Cuisinart ice cream maker, but it is also possible to do it without any machine at all. Online you can find many methods, including those using freezer bags, empty coffee cans or bowls. Aspiring ice cream makers are instructed to place their ingredients—usually cream, milk, sugar and vanilla extract or an alternate flavoring—into a small, sealed container, which is placed into a larger container of ice and salt and also sealed. Then, one shakes the entire system until the ingredients in the smaller container are whipped into ice cream. The whole process should only take about 10 minutes.
To make truly creamy and smooth ice cream, however, requires a capacity that eludes shaking. The hard ice crystals created when the liquid ingredients freeze need to be broken up, which is difficult to do effectively by hand. For ice cream fanatics, the best option is perhaps purchasing an ice cream maker, which range in price from $30 to $80.
"You will not regret buying one," Nelson says.
I tasted the ice cream—it was soft, but being a fan of soft serve, just my style. The lavender flavor was light, most apparent at first and then giving way to the sweet cream undertones. It didn't take long for any of us sitting on Nelson's porch to finish our bowls—and to want a little more.
Nelson's work of convincing me in favor of homemade ice cream was done. Baking be gone: I'll opt for the frozen stuff.
Maggie Spini is a summer intern at the Independent Weekly.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Summer of lavender."
"Slavery stole the identity of most African-Americans in this country," Deardra Green-Campbell says. "But this is home now. This house is directly tied to our family. It's a wonderful experience to know who our distant ancestors are and to be able to tie it to a physical location."