My fixation with home-making normally store-bought stuff is the product of having been fed by my Korean grandmother for the bulk of my childhood. Instead of soda or even juice, we had pitchers of barley tea in the fridge. We never had any snack foods of any kind, unless you count dried squid—and even more never-present were sweets.
So ice cream was more of a holy grail to me than most kids, for, in addition to its super-rarity, it was simply impossible to replicate at home. (To be fair, this was true for most things I tried to make, notably Ruffles brand potato chips, which drove most of my early cooking attempts.) But ice cream, I mean, it seemed simple enough to create via reverse engineering: ice cream + heat = sweet milk. Ergo, sweet milk + cold = ice cream, mustn’t it? So you mix up some milk and sugar, pour some in a bowl, put it in the freezer, and suffer an excruciating hours-long wait, only to be rewarded with . . . well, it’s tough to describe how utterly crestfallen and confused I was as I tried to dig a spoon into a diamond-hard hemisphere of cloudy ice, but suffice it to say that the whole thing was dumb and I hated it.
The same goes for homemade popsicles or, to reference yet another early DIY kitchen experience, “Sunshine on a Stick.” This was a segment on that weird circular yellow Saturday-morning-cartoon guy apparently named Timer from “Time for Timer” (of “I hanker for a hunk of cheese” fame . . . anyone, anyone?) wherein Timer instructs children to pour orange juice into an ice-cube tray, cover it with plastic wrap, stick a toothpick into each cube well (if that’s a term), and freeze them. Now I’ll admit, the plastic-wrap art is pretty clever, but I can assure you that the end result is nothing like a popsicle and more like—not unexpectedly—frozen freaking orange juice.
The main problem here is texture. And texture in this case is largely determined by two factors: crystals and air (fat and sugar content also play roles). When water freezes, it forms a rigid crystalline structure, or ice. Big pieces of ice are really hard and thus hard to chew, but little, tiny pieces of ice are still hard but obviously easier to chew. If the pieces of ice are very tiny, chewing isn’t even necessary, like in a Slurpee or other such slushie. In those machines there’s always that circular window showing the slushie material being constantly agitated while it’s subjected to freezing temperatures, which is what keeps tiny ice crystals from becoming larger, harder-to-eat crystals. A similar effect can be achieved pretty easily at home by agitating a mixture with a fork or spoon before it’s had a chance to freeze solid. The more times this is done, the finer the grain. A sweetened mixture that’s been frozen and agitated in this way is called a granita—owing to its granular texture—although if one is diligent enough, a granita can become smooth enough to be considered a sorbet (basically ice cream but without dairy). But for very smooth products, constant agitation is required.
In addition to preventing large-crystal formation, agitation incorporates air into the mixture, which lightens the texture by lowering the overall density of the base. In ice cream making, the amount of air that’s whipped in is called “overrun.” Less air means denser ice cream, and more air means lighter. Some ice cream manufacturers use overrun to stretch their product (more air equals less ice cream by volume) or to enhance the texture of otherwise less-rich recipes (since fat content also affects texture)—both cost-cutting measures, obviously. But smaller amounts of overrun might result in overly dense ice cream, and this is often balanced by using high-fat cream instead of milk, which is what a high-end manufacturer might do. Either way, it’s a tricky process, and although overrun percentages may not be a huge concern for most home cooks, the point is that the only way to have constant agitation is by using a machine. Granted, back in the day, folks just used a bucket in a bucket, salt, ice, and a hand crank, but this is still as much a dedicated machine as $1,000 Italian-made self-cooling ice cream maker. Ain’t nobody got time (or money) for that.
In addition to the aforementioned granita, I have two more neo-Luddite frozen-treat solutions for your consideration: semifreddo and pureed frozen bananas. The latter is by far the easiest of the two and had its internet heyday maybe three years ago, and although there is a machine marketed specifically for this purpose called the Yonanas (evidently not named by a Baltimore native), all you need is a blender. The recipe is simply to slice some bananas, freeze the slices, then blend with flavoring additives of your choice, e.g. peanut butter, chocolate syrup, berries. What you’re supposed to get is something just like soft-serve ice cream, but while it’s not bad, it ain’t that. There’s still some crunchy crystallization and some of the stringy gooeyness inherent in bananas. I’ve only tried this a couple of times, so perhaps I just need more practice. Doubt it, though.
The semifreddo is way more involved and makes for a much more elegant dessert. Semifreddo is Italian for “kinda freddo,” of course . . . just kidding, it means half-cold or frozen. It starts out as a custard (as do many ice creams) but is whipped with air and folded with whipped cream, all before freezing, in order to circumvent the need for agitation. This ultimately translates into something more like a frozen custard (duh) than true ice cream, but still, it’s pretty close. And all without machines! Well, except for the freezer, I guess. Oh, and the mixer. And the truck that brought the cream to the store. Woo!
1 1/3 cup sugar
1 cup water
2 1/2 cups fresh-squeezed orange juice
1/2 cup Champagne
Boil water and sugar until sugar is dissolved. Allow syrup to cool.
Combine all ingredients in a baking pan and freeze for 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, mix and stir thoroughly, breaking up any ice chunks. Repeat at 30-minute intervals until frozen.
Before serving, stir a final time to loosen the mixture.
Note: For a coarse granita, mix gently; for a finer texture, mix hard and often.
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups heavy cream, cold
In a metal bowl, beat eggs, sugar, and salt until doubled in volume. Set the bowl over a pot of barely simmering water, and continue to beat until slightly thickened and pale yellow, about 6-7 minutes. You now have a custard. Refrigerate uncovered while making whipped cream.
Whip heavy cream until stiff peaks form. Fold whipped cream into cooled custard.
Pour mixture into individual bowls, pie pan, or cake pan, and freeze. To unmold, dip frozen container in hot water and invert onto a plate.
Things you can add while folding in the whipped cream: chocolate syrup, vanilla, pureed and strained berries (substitute 1 cup of puree for 1/2 cup of cream), rosewater, or lemon zest.