I’m a passable cook, some of the time. What’s “exciting” about my particular combination of following a recipe up until the need for rebellion overtakes me and I fling following orders into the figurative fire is that, just like Forrest’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. Sometimes I turn out a gorgeous coffeecake studded with puddles of fresh sour cherries, or a perfectly spiced curry in silky coconut broth, and then I make the exact same dishes, (sort of), the next week or month or year and they’re disastrous. Cherries oozing all over the oven and a cake that’s rubbery and deflated. A curry so scorchingly spicy and otherwise devoid of flavor that everyone’s sinuses explode within 50 miles of my kitchen.
Up until recently, it was in this same vain that I’d always made ice cream. Sometime in college, I think after returning from an Ecuador winter to a sticky Midwest heat in late July, I bought an ice cream maker. It was obnoxious. There was a giant bucket, which you placed the canister in, then filled with alternate layers of ice and salt. It was loud. I would put it on to churn and then go take a bath, shutting the bathroom door between myself and the horrible grinding of machinery.
I tried a bunch of ice cream recipes, with varying results. I scrambled custards at the last minute, because I got distracted singing along to Joss Stone (she was so rad in 2008!). Or, I just let them cook too long, because though I told myself I could “afford” an ice cream maker, I sure as hell wasn’t buying an instant-read thermometer. Even though all the recipes told me to. But that was just one of the parts I ignored.
Two years ago, I had a summer flingy type courtship with someone who was bound and determined to teach me to make ice cream, consistently and without rebellion. He was one of those church of Alton Brown types, who go around making finicky food preparation demands all in the name of science and chemistry and testing and blahblahblah. You can see how his methodicalness and my need to stray could potentially crash and burn just out of reach of the ice water bath. (I’m already freezing a thousand ice cubes for the actual ice cream churning, must I really cool the custard in an ice water bath beforehand? That’s just more ice and another bowl to wash.)
I must admit, though, that despite his Alton Browniness, Summer Fling did coax me and my kitchen into churning out some fine ice cream. Once I saw how the instant-read thermometer really DID reduce custard scrambling, and how actually paying attention to ice and salt ratios instead of just throwing things willy-nilly into the bucket helped freeze the base more evenly, I was willing to concede to a little methodicalness. I still held, though, that even a “premium” vanilla ice cream is boring, and I insisted that it was perfectly acceptable to add cookie dough, brownie chunks, AND chocolate shavings to my freshly churned batch, instead of just settling on one of those. We made phenomenal mint-chip, and even as I complained about how mint-chip shouldn’t be eaten outside of December holidays, I was shoveling half a pint down my shivering throat the whole time. We made sour cherry, which was disastrous, because as it turns out, even the Alton Brown Wannabe didn’t realize that if you mix in the cherries while the custard is still hot, the cream curdles from the fruit’s acidity and freezes into little grainy pebbles. More important than success and failure, though, is that we made compromises. And though you could say, “it’s just ice cream”, it’s not just ice cream. It’s life.
This year, my ice cream maker began showing signs of old age. Even though the reviews on Amazon overwhelmingly insisted that theirs had lasted for years, the motor in mine sounded more pained and geriatric with each new slurry of ice and salt and cream. I offhandedly, grumblingly, mentioned this to Pat and forgot about it. Until my birthday and the first day of summer coincided on the calendar and, like some frozen treat fairy godmother, he sent me a shiny new freezer-canister ice cream maker. No ice and salt. No giant bucket. No shrieking machinery while I hide in the bathtub. Also included: a spare canister, for when one quart of ice cream simply isn’t enough. Which has been the case, every time, during this above-average-temperature Seattle summer.
Now, you still might be saying, “It’s just ice cream.” But it’s not just ice cream. It’s love.