For my mother, who was raised on a Nebraska farm, making ice cream was a much loved ritual. My sister and I and assorted friends would pile into the car and set off with my mom to buy all the ingredients — eggs, cream, rock salt, a big bag of ice — and hurry straight back before the ice melted.
My mother would have made her custard base the night before. Once we had everything assembled, she'd carefully pour the ivory mixture into the hand-cranked ice cream maker's inner container and then insert the wooden paddles. Outside on the patio, we packed ice and rock salt around the inner container, and started the churning in relays. The smallest kids went first, when the crank was easier to turn. The bigger kids would step in when turning required more force. Anticipation made us giddy. Who would ever trade this much fun for a carton of ice cream from the supermarket?
Once the handle got too hard to turn, my mother would remove the paddles as we all stood waiting for a lick. Then she packed new ice around the ice cream container and set the whole thing under blankets in the bathtub to "cure" for a while.
That moment when she dished out the hand-churned ice cream into waiting bowls was sheer magic. On a summer day, you had to eat it fast — before it melted into a puddle. No problem. In happy ecstasy, we rolled the silky frozen cream over our tongues, tasting egg, cream, and real vanilla.
We never had to beg my mother to make ice cream. She'd take any excuse. She loved it so much, she'd make it even in the depth of winter. Same drill. Turning the crank on the patio, only this time, instead of shorts and bathing suits, we'd be wearing jeans and sweaters. When the ice cream was ready, she'd pass out the heavy wool coats she'd accumulated when we lived on the East Coast. And we'd sit bundled in her red-and-black plaid or tweed coats, happily eating her vanilla ice cream. Of course, we always ate it so fast we'd get a headache that felt like someone had plunged an icicle into the middle of our foreheads.
In one move or another, I lost my hand-cranked ice cream maker and replaced it years ago with an Italian gelato machine that was all the rage — and deeply discounted. Crazy loud and a bit temperamental, it makes beautiful ice cream. But humming away in my pantry closet, it doesn't create any of that shared experience I had as a kid making ice cream with the gang.
Vanilla is still my favorite flavor, though strawberry and fresh peach are close. My ice cream is custard-based. The only difference from my mother's recipe is that I use vanilla bean rather than the vanilla extract. Or I did until cookbook author David Lebovitz ("The Perfect Scoop") taught me that it's way better to use both. His recipe is the best I've ever found, and I make it all the time now.
In summer, I serve it plain with butter cookies and sometimes with berries strewn over the top. If I feel a chocolate craving coming on, I make a batch of Alice Medrich's hot fudge sauce and serve that ivory ice cream with her satiny dark hot fudge poured over.
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