One scoop of ice cream is a dusky rose, light and airy, with a flavor that is purely plum. But what’s that warm floral quality in the finish? Another is a delicate daffodil yellow, the texture a little denser and chewier; the flavor is the essence of mango. But what’s that fresh note in the background? Yet another is creamy golden orange. There’s no mistaking the high-toned taste of a ripe nectarine, but that haunting spice echo is hard to place.
I’ve got a new ice cream maker, and I’ve been playing.
It started with a stray thought: Homemade fruit ice cream is one of the rituals of summer, but it is usually made by stirring chopped fruit into a nearly frozen vanilla base, keeping the fruit and the cream distinct from each other. As wonderful as nectarine ice cream is, it’s hard to ignore that it is really vanilla ice cream with nectarines churned in at the last minute, almost as an afterthought.
But, I thought to myself, what if you made ice cream based on the fruit itself? That would be something -- a dessert that had the clean, vibrant flavor of a sorbet and the luxurious texture of an ice cream. Furthermore, instead of using the fruit to accent the vanilla base, doing this would allow you to play other flavors against the fruit.
It took a few tries to work out most of the kinks, but now that I have, that shiny new ice cream maker won’t be leaving my kitchen counter for the rest of the summer.
The hardest part was working out the balance between texture and flavor. All ice cream makers struggle with this to one extent or another. To oversimplify, the fattier the ice cream, the more voluptuous the texture. But fat also clouds the flavor. This is why frozen desserts with the truest fruit taste are almost always sorbets (which are made without cream), while most ice creams are based on flavors like vanilla or chocolate that can float above the fat.
My first attempt was nothing more than pureeing together nectarines and a custard ice cream base (made by cooking egg yolks and cream until they thicken). This was not bad, but the flavor of the fruit was so muted that it was almost indistinct. In fact, it was not nearly as good as leaving the pieces whole. At least that way you get some bites of pure nectarine.
So I abandoned the whole idea of a custard base and went instead with what is called a Philadelphia-style ice cream, which is made simply of cream and milk. I had played with these ice creams several years ago, coming up with what I thought were the ideal proportions of fat (18%) and sugar (14%, or a little more than one-half cup per quart).
This had worked splendidly with ice creams that were created with an eye to accenting the taste of the cream, using flavorings such as cinnamon and lavender. Why shouldn’t it work with fruit?
In my earlier experiments, I had carefully calculated the proportions of whipping cream (2 cups), half-and-half (1 cup) and milk (1 cup) that were necessary to reach that ideal fat percentage. But when I tried to repeat those calculations using fruit as a base, my already flimsy math skills flew apart like an over-revved lawn mower engine. Let’s see: 4 cups of zero-fat fruit, plus how much cream to make 18%?
In the end, I simply dumped in a couple of cups of whipping cream. Two cups of 30% fat plus 4 cups of zero should be around 10%, right? Wrong. The result was way too fatty -- it left the inside of my mouth feeling like I’d been gargling with wax.
It turns out that even though fruit is fat-free, it does have body when pureed (in fact, it’s used as a fat substitute in low-fat baking), and that has to be considered in your calculations. After a couple more tries, I arrived at a ratio of one-half cup each whipping cream and whole milk for every 4 cups of chopped nectarines. And I haven’t even bothered trying to do the math on this.
This worked great, until I tried to make ice cream with mangoes. The flesh of a mango is denser than that of a nectarine, and the proportions that made a pleasantly creamy nectarine ice cream made a concoction that was a little too stiff and chewy when used with mango. So I adjusted the mix, pureeing 4 cups of the fruit with a full cup of milk and only one-half cup of cream.
I ran into the exact opposite problem with plums, which are much juicier than nectarines (and much, much juicier than mangoes). My first shot at plum ice cream turned out icy -- more like plum sorbet with some cream stirred in. So I corrected the milk mix in the other direction.
Obviously, making fruit-rich ice cream is not a “one-size-fits-all” situation. Judge the density of the fruit you’re using and then adjust accordingly.
Figuring the sugar was easier. Most ripe summer fruits that might end up in ice cream are within a few percentage points of each other, sweetness-wise. What did surprise me is that fruit-based ice creams require more sugar than those based on subtler flavors.
When I made nectarine ice cream with my standard one-half cup of sugar, the flavor of the fruit was drab. It was somewhat better at two-thirds cup, but it wasn’t until I got to three-quarters cup that the nectarine really stood out. Oddly enough, even with this amount of sugar, the ice cream doesn’t taste overly sweet.
When I’d finally gotten all those basics out of the way, it was time to play, mixing and matching fruits and accent flavorings like some mad scientist. Some of the combinations weren’t too surprising when you think about it -- using ginger to bring out the spicy fresh aspect of a ripe mango is certainly not revolutionary, though in an ice cream context it is a revelation.
Similarly, nectarines and cardamom are sometimes paired in baked goods, but the effect seems completely different in an ice cream. The slightly astringent, slightly floral flavor of cardamom perfectly underlines that particular creamy tart note that separates nectarines from peaches.
On the other hand, I’m not sure what made me think that cracked black pepper would supply the bass note I wanted for plums, but once I’d added a little allspice to the mix, the combination was incredible.
Use a subtle hand with all of these accent flavorings. You don’t want the taste to be so pronounced that it becomes obvious. The flavor should support that of the fruit, underlining a certain aspect of it. You don’t want tasters to say, “Wow, black pepper,” but rather, “That’s great plum.”
Do remember, though, that the taste will change quite a bit from the unfrozen base to the finished ice cream. Because of the muting effect freezing has on flavor, the base should be a bit over the top when it comes to taste. Chilling and ripening will mellow everything into a seamless whole.
These spiced-fruit ice creams are incredibly simple to make. Chop the fruit, mix it with the sugar and leave it to macerate and soften for half an hour. Scald the cream mixture with the seasonings and leave them to steep for the same amount of time. Puree them together, chill and then freeze. (The initial chilling allows the ice cream to freeze faster, giving it a smoother texture.)
If you prefer, you can strain the pureed mixture into the ice cream maker after the chilling step. This will make the color and texture more uniform, but you’ll sacrifice some of the lusciousness.
I have to admit that the texture of these ice creams will probably never be as luxuriously voluptuous as that of the best custard-based ones. They tend to be a little lighter and slightly icier -- though certainly nowhere near a sorbet or granita. This is much less noticeable if you serve them within 24 hours of churning.
On the other hand, take a look at the nutritional analyses -- how can you knock a quart of really good ice cream that contains only half a cup of cream? And at the same time, the fruit flavors come through with so much more fidelity -- to paraphrase a wine-writing friend, it’s like the difference between a clock radio and an expensive sound system.
Especially now, when summer fruit is so wonderful it begs to play center stage, that’s a bargain I’m more than willing to make.