For those of us old enough to remember when snow seemed pure, winter ice cream meant snow cream. My sister and I scooped the top layers of rare Raleigh snow off the deck and gently mixed it with cream, sugar and vanilla for what still seems to me one of the best desserts ever.
Beyond that, my childhood ice cream memories include summertime church pig-pickings, with the men and children turning the churn handle (which seemed enormous then). Those ice creams, softly set and in my memory always peach or strawberry-pink, weren't too far from heaven.
But when your favorite flavor is peppermint, winter seems ideal for ice cream.
I most associate peppermint ice cream with the candy cane-chunked offerings available only in December, cool in more ways than one, but still just right for frosty nights. Now, with my garden's mint that doesn't much slow its growth until the dead of winter, and with simple, inexpensive ice-cream machines available, I make my own, minus the neon pink.
For that, I make the type of ice cream that takes longest, with a cooked base that's had mint steeped in it. Cooking egg yolks and cream into a custard creates a smooth, rich ice cream that keeps well, but since the base must be well-chilled before freezing, it's not a last-minute creation.
For speed, I rely on two base recipes from the Ben and Jerry's cookbook. One calls for raw eggs, which I never used until pasteurized eggs came along.
I don't think pasteurized eggs are good for much else, except maybe for making guaranteed-safe, soft-cooked eggs for an infant. Unfortunately, they don't work for meringues, and they lack any farm-fresh flavor. But for ice cream, they're perfect. Although they're not cooked into a custard, they give ice cream better body and mouthfeel and improve the keeping qualities somewhat over the most basic ice cream, made with just milk, cream and sugar.
The other Ben and Jerry's base that makes quick work calls for sweetened condensed milk and light cream (I use half-and-half). This makes a creamy, sweet cream with a slightly cooked flavor that I enjoy, especially when I'm in a rush.
Once you choose a base, the fun begins. Coming up with different flavors requires little work and generally few ingredients. Just remember to taste the mixture before freezing. It should taste sweeter than you want the ice cream to be (cold blunts the sugar) and slightly stronger than you want--though look out if you use powerful ingredients such as mint or almond extracts, as these will come through loud and clear. If you're not sure, taste the ice cream as it's about three-quarters frozen, at which point you could still mix in a bit more flavoring if needed. Remember also that liqueurs will keep the ice cream from freezing solid.
I especially like steeping my cream with herbs to make more unusual ice creams. Try tarragon with an apple ice cream, or rosemary with chocolate or chocolate chip ice cream--a truly wintry taste. Lavender (in small amounts) works well in a honeyed ice cream, and fresh bay briefly steeped gives depth to plain-Jane vanilla.
To add chunky ingredients, such as chopped candies, nuts or chocolate chips, wait until the ice cream is soft-set, then add them to the machine.
Or use those chunky ingredients to separate two layers of ice cream in an ice cream torte. I like a Christmasy one that uses lightly pepperminted ice cream offset by a layer of chocolate-coated peppermint chunks. Put red-and-white peppermint candies in a heavy plastic bag, press out the air and cover with a towel. Take out any suppressed holiday stress by beating the dickens out of the candy with a rolling pin, then fold the chunks (leave any powder behind) into a bowl of melted semisweet chocolate. Spread onto a parchment-lined sheet, chill, and chop into small pieces. To assemble the torte, use a cookie crust in a 9- or 10-inch springform pan (try 2 tablespoons butter melted with a half cup of chocolate chips, folded together with a cup of graham crackers crumbs--just press into the pan and chill). Spread with ice cream, top with peppermint chunks, then more ice cream and more chunks to garnish. For glorious holiday excess, serve slices with a warm chocolate sauce.
What machines work best for making ice cream? I use a $50 Cuisinart machine, which uses an insert that stays in the freezer (preferably a deep-freeze) until you're ready to use it. I own a second insert as well--a good thing, as it turns out, on very hot days when the ice cream won't quite set, or when I didn't have a thoroughly chilled base to start, or when I need more than a quart. The machine's drawback is how long it takes for the insert's coolant to freeze solid, even in my deep-freeze.
Should you not have a machine, the best bet is to puree heavy cream, sugar and frozen berries in a food processor for a super-rich, soft-serve ice cream--a lovely compromise, and with a taste of the summer to come.
Cook's notes: The cinnamon and peppermint ice creams come from my book Desserts from an Herb Garden. The original peppermint recipe calls for chunks of mint julep truffles (another recipe in the book); you can substitute other mint truffles or just chocolate chips or chunks (for homemade ice cream, I prefer mini chocolate chips). The two base recipes here are from Ben and Jerry's; to make a mint ice cream with either one, whisk in 1 teaspoon mint extract before freezing. If you add other ingredients, start with 1/2 cup and work up as desired. That fills out the ice cream more than you might think.
Peppermint Ice Cream
Makes about 1 quart
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole or 2% milk
1 tablespoon minced mint leaves
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup mini chocolate chips or chunks of truffles (optional)
In a medium saucepan, mix cream, milk and mint leaves; bring just to a simmer over medium-high heat. Remove from heat, cover and let stand 5 minutes. Strain into a bowl.
In a medium saucepan, whisk together yolks and sugar; very gradually whisk in hot cream mixture. Cook over medium-low heat, whisking, until mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 8 to 10 minutes. Pour into ice cream canister and chill in freezer 30 to 45 minutes, until cold, stirring every 15 minutes.
Freeze according to your ice-cream maker's directions; just before ice cream is solid, mix in truffles. Serve immediately or store in freezer.