Thursday, July 1, 2010

Let's All Scream for Ice Cream!

Fourth of July is upon us, kids are out of school, it's still daylight at 7:30, meaning more outdoor fun time after dinner. Summer is officially here at last. Summer evokes visions of backyard barbecues, lounging in a pool, days spent at the beach, gardening, and yes, ice cream. As the heat and humidity rises, the last thing we feel like doing is cranking up the oven to bake a dessert. We'll welcome that moment come fall when apples are picked and we yearn for those first warming cinnamon and apple pie scents to waft through the house. For now, we'll just settle for that summer dessert favorite loved by all worldwide: ice cream. The cooling smoothness that permeates the palate is refreshing and comforting on a blistering hot day.

We all remember those summer nights of our youth playing outdoors after dinner with our neighborhood friends. As soon as we heard the distant jingling of the ice cream truck, we would all flock home at warp speed to transform into instant little beggars, insisting to our parents that we just had to have ice cream, PLEASE can we have some money, oh hurry, hurry, quick, he's coming! And then we would all go tearing back down the street after the truck like a pack of starved dogs. It is amazing what immature palates are willing to devour. I tried one of these ice cream truck treats once as an adult and found it to be just a notch above inedible. While chasing down the ice cream truck is probably still a childhood delight, perhaps the only source of physical activity they get all summer these days apart from the thumb-flexing drills of the video game marathons, there are much more rewarding frosty desserts for grownups, and for the kids too.

Next Friday or Saturday night after dinner, before the taunting ice cream truck makes its rounds, announce to the family that you're going out for ice cream. No kid will turn that down, and if you find a high quality ice cream parlour in your area, the ice cream will be infinitely better. I'm not talking about the big corporate chains, I'm talking about the little individual shops which sell premium ice cream and usually offer a wider array of flavors, toppings, cones, etc. I have been to two excellent ice cream shops locally, one is called McNutty's in Miller Place and the other is Hollywood Sweets in Ridge. For anyone visiting the Mystic area of Connecticut, there is a wonderful shop called Drawbridge Ice Cream. Make these family ice-cream night outings on a once-weekly basis throughout the summer vacation. Invite one or two of your child's friends to tag along on some of these pilgrimages. Eating ice cream is one of the summertime highlights that everyone young and old looks forward to.

Another fun way to enjoy your ice cream fix is to invest in an ice cream machine. Most machines are electric and create ice cream in your home simply by agitating the ingredients in a frozen canister. Make a couple of batches each week and you'll have ice cream all summer. The most basic vanilla ice cream contains very few ingredients with which we are all familiar: milk, cream, sugar and vanilla extract. Moving up one notch would be the addition of a stir-in, such as nuts, chocolate chips, peanut butter, chopped candy bars, finely chopped berries or peaches, etc. A few tweaks and you can easily create any flavor you fancy. You can change from vanilla extract to mint extract and add some chocolate chips, for example. More elaborate flavors will involve steps such as slow cooking eggs, melting chocolate, making caramel, etc. You can even add flavorful liqueurs, such as Chambord or Creme de Menthe or Frangelico. I would recommend purchasing an ice cream recipe book at the time you acquire your ice cream machine, then you'll have plenty of ideas to keep you and even the kids busy all summer long. Mixing the ingredients usually does not take up much time, less than half an hour, and then the ingredients are typically poured into the ice cream machine and then processed while you walk away and catch up on folding some laundry or whatever task you've been putting off. In less than an hour, you have ice cream all ready to put into the freezer for future indulgence. You'll be able to revel in seasonal delights, such as pumpkin pie ice cream in the fall and peppermint stick and eggnog ice creams at Christmastime.

When having a barbecue or any social gathering where you don't feel like putting a lot of effort into dessert after creating a colossal meal, let your guests of all ages do the work. Set up an ice cream sundae bar. Have two or three flavors of ice cream to pick from, a chilled bowl of freshly whipped cream, a couple of sauces and a few bowls of various toppings. Everyone will feel right at home, each person creating their own idea of the perfect sundae. Adults will feel like kids again, kids will feel all grown-up as they put their creative culinary ideas in motion. This does get messy, so it's a great idea for outdoor fun and after-party clean-up will be a lot easier.

Ice cream sauces can really make the dessert. A simple bowl of premium quality vanilla ice cream or gelato can be very elegant when drizzled with fresh-brewed espresso. Another way to enjoy vanilla ice cream is to pour melted Nutella, a chocolate and hazelnut spread, over the top. I also prefer to make my own sauces rather than buy commercial jars filled with a lot of artificial ingredients. Chocolate, or hot fudge, sauce is so simple to make, and you'll feel better about it knowing that you can actually obtain, and pronounce, all of the necessary ingredients. I recently made a basic vanilla ice cream, with a stir-in of chopped Lindor white chocolate truffles. Then I made a triple raspberry sauce to pour over. It was divine, the flavors of white chocolate and raspberry are always a perfect marriage. The sauce took only four ingredients: sugar, raspberry preserves from the local farm stand, a pint of fresh raspberries, and Chambord (a raspberry liqueur).

In making something that most kids love, ice cream is a great way to get them involved in the kitchen. The reward will be them seeing how good food is really made, eating better quality treats and thus graduating them away from the lower quality artificial wares peddled by the ice cream truck. The reward for us grownups is pure indulgence after a barbecue or at the close of a day at the beach. While we need to savor healthful summer fruits like peaches, plums, melons, cherries, apricots and berries on a regular basis, a once a week treat of supreme quality is something we all deserve and should take the time to enjoy. In these hazy hot days we're having, ice cream definitely fits the bill. Make mine vanilla ... with chopped Bacci chocolates ... and chocolate-hazelnut sauce ... or raspberry sauce ... or, no, wait ... oh, better just make mine chocolate instead!

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