The first level of molecular gastronomy - making ice cream

As a six-year old, you've begun to understand a few things about the world such as gravity (you know it's there, but not why), wind (handy for various things), walking and presumably talking. Eating is mostly solo activity only requiring occasional parental intervention to open a carton or explain how the hell you eat an artichoke. (They're not really self-explanatory.) It is still a somewhat awkward process as the dexterity for knife and fork requires a bit more practice, slightly stronger (and larger) hands, and a certain tolerance for an intermediary between hand and food. Preparation of food (other than cereal) is largely a mystery usually handled by mom when you're hungry, and occasionally by grandma should you so much as look like you might be thinking about hunger. Grandmothers will usually make you something "just in case".

Of all foods, ice cream is one kids understand implicitly. They know all they need to; it involves cold, sweet, summer, and occasionally a musical truck that halts when it detects children running with money. By the age of six, kids pretty much understand the inner workings of ice cream.

However, to add a bit of mystery to this otherwise mastered topic, my father would, at random intervals, make ice cream. The process was fascinating, confusing, and frustrating all at the same time.

Think about it. First of all, you're freezing liquid in something other than a freezer. As a kid, you know that when you put water in the freezer, it will eventually freeze. The same is true for, say, bugs, worms, goldfish, etc. This experimentation gets interrupted when mom discovers non-food items in the freezer. With a perfectly good device for freezing things, why would dad be sitting in the back yard feeding ice into a rotating bucket?

The other puzzling aspect was the addition of salt to the ice. And not just regular salt, special, chunky salt. "What's that for?", I asked. "It makes the ice colder." I recall this sounding like a fishy theory even early-on. How could the ice get colder than it already is? Still, I was six; I've just discovered balsa wood can fly when cut into plane shapes, lightning bugs/fireflies glow without batteries, magnets stick to things for no apparent reason, and a magnifying glass in sunlight can make fire; in short, the world is still full of mysteries. Who am I to judge?

Then things got weird.

He added a raw egg to the mixture being combined in a blender. Over the whirring noise, I made clear my disgust and asked, "Why did you do that?" "It makes the ice cream thicker", he shouted over the whine of the blades. Equal in suspicion to the salt theory, the thought of a slimy, raw egg in perfectly good ice cream was a bit of a turn off. Fortunately the blender did its job of dissipating whatever slimy influence the egg might have into imperceptibility. Psychologically, I still knew it was in there.

Turns out, he was on the right track. The yolk is an emulsifier while the albumen (white) does pretty well at creating foams (as proteins are apt to do) which make the ice cream taste "richer" by holding air and even creating a slight insulating effect so it melts slower.

Sometimes he'd place other items in the mix such as malt or fruit, he'd even tinker with the texture of the end result by stopping the crank completely for about 15 seconds late in the churn, then crank for a minute, then pause again. "If you pause, it gives the mixture time to freeze hard and when you turn the crank, you make little crunchy bits that wind up in the ice cream." He was right. I wonder what in the world made him realize this? My father, who couldn't cook to save his life, was experimenting with the texture (or "mouth feel") of food.

Come to think of it, he experimented with just about everything. He had an electronic lock on his workshop while in his 20's, he converted our analog wall clock to an LED digital version, and converted the television in my bedroom to a computer monitor (thus relieving me of a television in my bedroom. It did, come to think of it, help with my high tech career.) Despite his fascination with electrical gadgets, he somehow preferred the control of a hand-cranked ice cream maker over the convenience of an electric one. He shunned the "place the gel-filled bucket in the freezer and avoid the ice and salt" approach as well. Maybe this is where my tendency for tinkering comes from.

As I ponder my first experiments in food, I have dad and a hand-cranked ice cream maker to thank.


R-Co said…
That takes me back. The ice cream maker is a little piece of Americana that seems to have gone the way of the butter churn. I remember there was one around when I was very young, although I can't recall if it was ours or a neighbor's. I do remember that it was something that Dad was in charge of. Like the barbecue, any making of food that takes place in the back yard is apparently Dad's domain. I was too young to appreciate the homemade, DIY aspect of making your own ice cream -- that it was the "journey" that was important. I just knew that the consistency never came out quite right and the brain freeze was more intense than store-bought ice cream. It's a lost art.

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