Frozen Heaven: Ice Creams, Sorbets, Granitas and Much More
July is national ice cream month. So city cooks -- do your part and make your own. What? You've never made your own ice cream? You're in luck because David Lebovitz's cookbook, The Perfect Scoop (Ten Speed Press, $24.95) will quickly turn you into a master.
Here's the thing about making your own ice cream: if all you do is put flavored chilled cream or fruit purée into your ice cream maker, sure it will be refreshing and an occasional treat, but it won't convert you from the store-bought brands. But if you let Mr. Lebovitz teach you the grace notes, technique and essential wisdom of making frozen desserts, you will insist on home-made ice cream in the same way you now use your own vinaigrette instead of bottled dressing.
David Lebovitz lives in Paris and writes an alluring and delicious food blog that The City Cook lists as one of our favorites. More telling, he's also a masterful pastry chef who learned chocolate in Belgium, pastry in France, and quality and excellence from 12 years at Chez Panisse. With chops like these, the man knows his sweet ingredients and in The Perfect Scoop he adds the science and art of working with them to produce extraordinary frozen results. His lively wit, clear writing style and 50 gorgeous photographs make this cookbook an absolute triumph. At a time when bookshelves can get crowded with redundant cooking topics, The Perfect Scoop stands out as a future classic.
Before getting into the recipes, Mr. Lebovitz sets the foundation with a clear and useful section called "Basics" in which he teaches technique and know-how. He offers a fail-proof primer on making the perfect custard -- essential to achieve real ice cream -- including clear and useful photographs. Next are guidelines for the ingredients he uses in the recipes, including alcohol, berries, chocolate, eggs, nuts and others, some of which have unexpected traits when used frozen. And finally, he includes an extremely useful section on equipment.
The book has 164 recipes for ice creams, sorbets, sherbets, granitas, frozen yogurts and gelati, as well as for sauces, toppings, mix-ins and what Mr. Lebovitz calls "Vessels," meaning cookies, brownies and other sweets to serve with ice cream. For most of the recipes he also adds a note called "Perfect Pairing" with suggestions for a sauce or a mix-in, helping you make the most of any effort. There are also some lengthy tips that will make you smarter and more skilled, such as how to do marbling, the basics of gelato, and working with yogurt.
The 73 recipes for ice cream and frozen yogurts include both the simple and the unexpected. For example, there are two types of vanilla ice cream (one with, one without eggs), 8 chocolates including one eggless, one with peanut butter, another with raspberry, and still another with Guinness stout adding hearty flavor to milk chocolate. Some of the unexpected flavors include basil, super lemon, pear-pecorino, and orange-Szechwan pepper, and there are scores of other ideas to use the best of in-season tastes like cinnamon, eggnog, fresh apricot, strawberry-sour cream, toasted coconut, and prune-Armagnac ice creams.
The "Sorbets and Sherbets" section offers 39 ideas for mostly fruit-based treats. Mango, blackberry, pineapple-Champagne, and grape sorbets and pina colada or mocha sherbets -- their names alone are refreshing. He fine-tunes his technique depending upon the ingredients so to get the most flavor out of each fruit, like adding a bit of sparkling cider to a green apple sorbet, making the case why this is no ordinary recipe book.
Granitas are a great choice for city cooks who don't have an ice cream maker because they only require a dish, a freezer and a fork to make. Despite their simplicity, Mr. Lebovitz gives us 18 recipes, mostly fruit-based but including ones for expresso and chocolate, as well as the potent mojito granita.
Knowing that frozen treats don't always stand alone, the book includes 27 sauces and toppings (the "Classic Hot Fudge" recipe is alone worth the book) and 21 mix-ins including buttered pecans, candied cherries, and Belgian speculoos (you'll have to get the book to find out what these spicy treats are). The 13 recipes for "Vessels" are like a bonus book because Mr. Lebovitz, a gifted pastry chef, has added his flawless versions of brownies (cake, chewy and blonde), oatmeal cookies, profiteroles, meringues and more which you'll love even if you're not making anything frozen to go with them.
Buying A New Ice Cream Maker
Just as I was about to take on Mr. Lebovitz's recipes, my long-time Krups ice cream maker broke (I accidently pieced the skin of the canister). Suddenly needing a new machine, I had the chance to do some real-life comparison shopping for both machines and sources, helped by this cookbook's equipment section.
For most city cooks, the best ice cream maker is the type that has a canister that must be pre-frozen for at least 24 hours. These are best because they're small enough to easily store (I keep the canister section stored in my freezer all the time so it's always ready to use), they're affordable (the most popular models cost under $50), and they produce an excellent result.
However, if you've got a tiny city kitchen freezer, this type of machine may be ruled out because you'll need about a square foot of freezer space to keep the canister. If you don't have a freezer this large, your alternative is either an ice and rock salt machine or one that is self-refrigerating with a built-in compressor. While neither of these have to be pre-frozen, there are still storage issues because both are considerably larger. Plus the self-refrigerating machines are far more costly to buy (usually over $200).
As to where to buy them, despite my dedication to buying from New York City merchants, I spent the better part of a frustrating Saturday afternoon unsuccessfully trying to do comparison shopping and buying. It didn't seem to be an inventory problem but a service problem: I simply could not find anyone at Bed, Bath & Beyond, or at Zabar's, or at Gracious Home who could help me or answer any questions.
I had more luck on-line. The two best models are either the Krups GVS 142 ($49.95 at Amazon.com or Williams-Sonoma.com) and the Cuisinart ICE-20 (also $49.95 at Amazon, although Williams-Sonoma sells it for $59.95 with an extra bowl). For fans of Cook's Illustrated, the magazine favors the Krups for its size, price, relative quiet and excellent result. We've added a link so you can read their test results and recommendations. For home cooks with a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer, there is an ice cream attachment (Model KICA0WH) which is handy but more expensive (about $70), plus the Cook's Illustrated testers weren't crazy about the result.
Since I had had many good years from my earlier Krups, I didn’t see any reason to change course so I ordered the current Krups model from Amazon.com and bought the ingredients for "Butterscotch Pecan Ice Cream."
Test Driving the Recipes
With my new Krups ready to make its first outing, I was set to go. I've long been a fan of making my own frozen desserts but I am by no means an expert. Still I was feeling confident in taking on one of Mr. Lebovitz's more complex recipes.
"Butterscotch Pecan Ice Cream" combines a melted butter and brown sugar custard made with both whole milk and heavy cream. Six egg yolks and vanilla added richness but the finish came from a shot of scotch. The real stuff.
This combination of ingredients produced a complex, not overly-sweet, extraordinary result. The color was a beautiful rich creamy, pale yellow and I was tempted to simply serve it as it was, maybe with a drizzle of Mr. Lebovitz's act-of-God "Classic Hot Fudge." But it was too soon for me to be improvising or cutting the recipe short and I finished it as the author instructed. I made his recipe for "Buttered Pecans," which combines real melted butter with pecan halves and coarse salt in a 350ºF oven. In ten minutes they are butter roasted and a divine slightly salty addition to the sweet butterscotch ice cream -- unless you eat them all before they make it into the ice cream.
I have only one regret with The Perfect Scoop: that I didn't review it sooner than early July. But summer is far from over and you still have weeks of warm weather ahead to enjoy this masterful book. Also keep in mind that frozen desserts are wonderful year-round. Come some chilly day in January, make his "Chocolate-Tangerine Sorbet" to follow a hearty winter stew and salute this author who has made it possible for each of us to have ice cream -- really, really good ice cream -- every day of the year.