Dr. Sen’s sole purpose in going to a Chinese restaurant is most often ordering a plate of extra spicy Singapore rice noodles or may be a bowl of tongue-numbing Sichuan beef tendon noodle soup. For most of us, the thought of Chinese food doesn’t revive memories of bowls of ice cream, more likely you’re thinking of stir fries or orange chicken. But, to my surprise, Chinese people have been eating ice cream far longer than you and I can imagine. The documented history of ice cream goes back to AD 618-907 during the reign of Emperor Cheng Tang, founder of the Shang dynasty. Among the army of 2,271 staff in his kitchen and winery, 94 were ‘ice men’. It was the ice men’s job to go and collect ice from the mountains, cut them in uniform sizes and then store them in ice houses made of stones. The ice was then used to freeze a milk-based dessert made from water buffalo, goat or cow’s milk. The milk was first fermented and then flavored with camphor (although I hate it, adding camphor to desserts is still practiced in India), thickened with flour and finally frozen into something very close to modern-day frozen yogurt. So basically, Tang was eating ‘tangy’ frozen desserts long before ‘froyo’ became popular. Caucasians (not “whites”, the original inhabitants of the Caucasus region) are known for drinking a fermented milk drink called “kumiss” made from mare’s milk for thousands of years. The Russians still drink something similar to it. The Mongolian equivalent is called “airag” or “tsegee”. This culture of fermented milk must have traveled to China and then Persia and to India.
But this was all still using natural ice/snow to make frozen drinks or desserts. The real trick was to make ‘man made ice’ which in above-freezing climates needed an endothermic reaction to be created. Although Indians and Egyptians were making ice for a long time, the first documented evidence is found in a book written by Ibn Abu Usaybi’a (A.D 1230-1270), the famous Arab historian of medicine. Here, we find the first record of ice being made with cold water and saltpeter. Persians were known for making exotic and delicious frozen drinks made from fruits or fruit extracts. The Westerners got their taste of “sorbets’ from the Persian “sherbets” which are basically frozen fruit desserts in various forms.
Although making ice is pretty historic, it was not common to make it on an industrial scale even until the late 1600s and early 1700s. Ice was still being sourced naturally and stored in ice houses. Harvesting and transporting ice became a great business model for the Americans. From United States, ice was travelling to Caribbean, South America and to India via large cargo ships in the 19th century. Making of artificial ice and then ice creams slowly started from the late 1600s in France and Italy. The ice cream back then was pretty much frozen creams with flavors added to them. There was no egg involved. The the French chef Vincent La Chapelle mentions for the first time in 1742 the addition of eggs, which became immensely popular as ice cream additives as it added a desirable texture and reduced the use of more expensive cream as an ingredient.
American started eating ice cream probably in the early 1700s when it traveled from Europe to New England. George Washington was so fond of this frozen treat that he bought a couple of pewter pot freezers from France and a “cream machine for making ice” to make ice cream at home (probably he lost all his teeth from eating an excess amount of his favorite flavor). His handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream, preserved in the Library of Congress, is a burning testament to his passion.
Thank goodness making ice cream is not so tedious anymore and I do not have to climb mountains to harvest ice. While I standardize another flavor, go and make this ice cream, you’ll thank me later. And, wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful new year 2015. Let’s celebrate this festive season one (or maybe two or three) scoop(s) at a time!
Recipe: (adapted from Food52)
Vanilla-Bourbon Ice Cream
- 1.5 cups whole milk
- 1.5 cups cream
- 1/2 cup sugar, divided
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 vanilla bean
- 2 tablespoons bourbon, divided
- 4 egg yolks
- 1 cup raw walnuts, lightly toasted and broken into smaller pieces
I have ‘almost’ copy-pasted the recipes as I haven’t changed anything in the recipe except making the walnut crumble. I just added toasted walnuts but if you have time, you can make the crumbles.
- In a medium pot, combine the milk, the cream, 1/4 cup of sugar, the salt, the vanilla bean (split it open first, and scrape it), and 1 tablespoon of the vanilla bourbon. Heat the liquid over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until it froths. Turn off the heat.
- In a separate small bowl, collect the egg yolks. Add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, and whisk for about 2 minutes, or until the yolks look a lighter yellow.
- Take a tiny measure of the milk mixture, and whisk it into the egg yolks. Keep adding the milk, little by little, whisking without pause as you go. When you’re finished, run the custard base through a sieve, add then add it back to the pot.
- Turn the heat again to medium-low. Stir the custard almost constantly as it heats. You want it to coat the back of your spoon; after that, it’s done.
- Move the custard to an ice bath. If you give it the occasional stir, it should be good and cold in about 45 minutes-1 hour. (You can also chill overnight in the fridge.) When the custard is cold, I like to stir in another tablespoon of the vanilla bourbon.
- Pour the cold custard into an ice cream maker. Let it go for about 20-25 minutes, or until the ice cream reaches the consistency of soft-serve. (Don’t let it go too long, or you will start to make butter.) At the last minute, add the walnuts.
- Spoon the ice cream into a plastic container, leaving as little air between the ice cream and the lid as possible, and move it to the freezer for at least 2-4 hours.
- As it is as natural as it can get, it melts really fast, so you have to be quick while serving.