This old-fashioned custard ice cream recipe is a great all-purpose base to then add your own ingredients to make your favorite flavor (see Variations, below). The egg yolks keep the ice cream smooth and scoopable straight out of the freezer. If you want to make more ice cream, this recipe doubles easily; just be sure to churn the custard in batches so as to not overwhelm the ice cream maker.
Pour the cream and vanilla into a large bowl, then place a fine sieve or strainer over the bowl. Keep this near your stove, along with an instant-read thermometer, if you have one.
In a small saucepan, whisk together the sugar and salt, then tilt it to one side so half the bottom of the pan is empty. Place the egg yolks on the empty side of the pan, then stir them together with a whisk, slowly pulling the sugar to mix with the egg yolks, little by little, until they form a thick yellow paste. While whisking, pour in the milk until smooth.
Place the saucepan over medium heat. Switch to a small rubber spatula or wooden spoon and stir the custard slowly but steadily the entire time it’s over the heat, making sure the tip of the spatula is in constant contact with the bottom of the pan and that you’re scraping it evenly all over; don’t forget the edge of the pan. The custard will stay loose and watery for a while but then, as soon as you start to smell the aroma of the egg yolks and milk, it will thicken slightly to the consistency of heavy cream.
There are two ways to know it’s done: One is to lift your spatula or spoon out of the custard and then swipe your finger through the custard clinging to the spatula (it will be hot); if the line left by the swipe stays put and the custard around it doesn’t run into the clean swipe, it’s ready. The second, more accurate way is to place the instant-read thermometer in the custard. It should read between 175 and 180 degrees; if so, it’s good to go. There’s no set time here since it all depends on the precise level of the heat of your stove, but aim for between 7 and 10 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and immediately scrape the custard into the sieve. Lift the sieve so all the custard passes into the bowl, pressing if necessary so all the custard flows through, then quickly stir to combine the custard and cream. Let the custard cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the custard is chilled, at least 2 hours or up to 3 days.
When ready to churn, set up your ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions, turn it on and pour in the chilled custard. Churn until the ice cream is thickened, 10 to 15 minutes, depending on your machine. Immediately scrape all the ice cream into a resealable container and freeze until firm, at least 4 hours.
Split 1/2 vanilla bean lengthwise with a paring knife, then use the tip of the knife to scrape out the soft black seeds in the center. Add the seeds and the spent pod pieces to a small saucepan and stir in the 1 cup whole milk. Place the pan over medium-high heat and cook just until bubbles begin to form around the edge of the milk. Remove the pan from the heat, cover with a lid and let stand until completely cool to steep the vanilla bean and seeds in the milk. Strain the milk through a fine sieve before using in Step 2.
Whisk 1/4 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder into the sugar and salt (before adding the egg yolks) in Step 2.
Strawberry (or any berry):
Toss together 1/2 cup quartered strawberries (or halved blackberries or whole blueberries) and 1 teaspoon granulated sugar in a small bowl and let sit while the custard cooks. Add the macerated berries along with 1/4 cup jam (to correspond with whatever berry you’re using) into the strained custard and cream in Step 5.
Stir 1/2 cup mashed ripe banana (about 1 medium) into the strained custard and cream in Step 5. Drizzle 1/2 cup store-bought or homemade caramel sauce into the ice cream during the last 5 seconds of churning.
Melt one 4-ounce bar of semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, then drizzle into the ice cream during the last 30 seconds of churning. The chocolate will seize into small pieces once it hits the cold ice cream.
Peanut Butter (or Almond Butter):
Whisk 1/2 cup smooth or chunky peanut butter into the strained custard and cream in Step 5.
Peach or Cherry:
Combine 8 ounces of finely chopped fresh or frozen peaches or halved cherries and 1 tablespoon water in a large skillet. Place over medium-low heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the fruit reduces in volume and starts sticking to the pan. Remove from the heat and stir in 1 tablespoon peach schnapps or kirsch (cherry eau de vie) or bourbon and let cool completely. Stir the cooled fruit into the strained custard and cream in Step 5.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil and grease the foil lightly with vegetable oil. Melt 4 tablespoons unsalted butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add 1 cup whole pecans or pieces and cook, tossing occasionally, until they’re toasted and have absorbed most of the butter, about 5 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and let the pecans cool. In a large bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar with 1 large egg white until frothy. Add the pecans and toss to evenly coat with the egg white mixture. Spread the nuts out on the prepared baking sheet and bake, stirring once halfway through, until the sugar mixture is dried on the outside of the nuts, about 10 minutes. Remove the sheet from the oven, let the nuts cool completely, then break up or chop into small pieces. Pour the nuts into the ice cream during the last 10 seconds of churning.
In a small saucepan, combine the milk with either 1 cinnamon stick, 1 cracked nutmeg pod or 4 cracked cardamom pods (or your favorite combination). Place over medium-high heat and cook just until bubbles begin to form around the edge of the milk. Remove the pan from the heat, cover with a lid and let stand until completely cool to steep the spices in the milk. Strain the milk through a fine sieve before using in Step 2. For more intense flavor, whisk either 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg or 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom into the sugar and salt (before adding the egg yolks) in Step 2.
In a small saucepan, combine the milk with 1/4 cup coffee beans. Place over medium-high heat and cook just until bubbles begin to form around the edge of the milk. Remove the pan from the heat, cover with a lid and let stand until completely cool to steep the beans in the milk. Strain the milk through a fine sieve before using in Step 2. For more intense flavor, whisk 1 to 2 tablespoons instant coffee powder into the strained custard and cream in Step 5.
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