Towards a unified theory of frozen desserts

From an early age, I had the understanding that there were four different kinds of ice cream: the traditional American style, called “Philadelphia”, which is made with milk, cream, sugar, and flavoring; “French”, which is a frozen egg custard; “Italian” (or gelato), made by the souffle method, with whipped egg whites; and “New York”, which has less egg than French. I can trace this rather simplified understanding to the early 1980s when my parents bought a White Mountain hand-cranked ice-cream freezer from Garden Way in South Burlington, Vermont. The freezer came with a book, Making Your Own Ice Cream, Ices & Sherbets by Phyllis Hobson (Garden Way Publishing, 1977), which sets out these four styles of ice cream with recipes for each (in vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry) — which I acquired from my parents about a year ago when they moved house.

This book was published well before the rise of sorbet(to), frozen yogurt, and “super-premium” ice creams, which now make a large fraction of the overall frozen dessert category — never mind all of the modern technological frozen desserts made with ersatz dairy products like soy milk. What we had at that time was “normal” ice cream (in the three default flavors of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry), lower-fat ice milk (made with little or no cream), sherbet (made with fruit juice and milk), and water ice. At a fancy restaurant, one might see a frozen mousse, but that wasn’t something you’d find in the freezer case at Martin’s or Grand Union. The Food and Drug Administration set standards for “ice cream”, “ice milk”, and something called “mellorine” (made with vegetable oil) which I have never seen.

Looking at the table of contents of Hobson’s book, in addition to the four “standard” ice-cream styles I mentioned above, she also gives recipes for “marlow” (made with melted commercially-produced marshmallows), frozen custard, rennet ice cream, gelatin ice cream, frozen pudding, sherbets (both ice and milk varieties), and water ices. You can understand why some of these products have disappeared: there seems little reason to make marlow, given the relative costs of the ingredients, and the rise of vegetarianism has put paid to products containing gelatin or rennet (both made from animal carcasses). The scare over Salmonella in eggs means that few are likely to try Hobson’s version of “Italian” ice cream, depending as it does on an uncooked egg foam for some of its structure. The differences among the other products are quite subtle: “New York” style ice cream, according to Hobson, is an egg custard with gelatin added in place of some of the egg; “frozen custard” is an egg custard with additional thickening from cornstarch; and “frozen pudding” is ice milk made using canned evaporated milk.

Looking at more modern cookbooks, while the basic division between “French” and “Philadelphia” ice cream remains, the names and dividing lines for other styles are unclear. Of course, in the commercial world, we now have frozen desserts made from yogurt, from dairy substitutes (soy milk, almond milk, coconut cream), from other dairy animals (goat, sheep, and even water buffalo), and these are thickened with a wide variety of proteins, starches, and carbohydrate gums instead of, or in addition to, the egg yolk of traditional French-style ice cream. This has been driven in large part by consumer preferences for simultaneously reducing the fat content (saturated fat, such as butterfat, having been the big dietary bogeyman of the 1980s and 1990s) of frozen desserts while simultaneously increasing their viscosity and melting time (“creaminess” or “thickness”). (Cook’s Illustrated did an ice-cream tasting some years ago and found that some premium supermarket brands did not melt even sitting in a warm kitchen for half an hour, so heavily stabilized were they with gums and starches!) Even premium brands like Breyer’s, which once prided itself on “ingredients you can pronounce”, were reformulated to use gums and modified starches — not to mention super-premium brands like Ben & Jerry’s. (Perhaps not coincidentally, both of those brands are owned by Anglo-Dutch household-products conglomerate Unilever, one of the largest ice-cream producers in the world.)

Meanwhile, other styles of frozen dessert, from semifreddo to sorbet to frozen mousses, are now well within range of the home cook — but there’s little agreement on what, exactly, defines the different types and styles. Many “ice cream cakes”, for example, are actually made with mousse, not ice cream, at least by some definitions. Nowhere is this disagreement more clear than in the case of gelato, which has largely replaced “Italian ice cream” in consumer consciousness. In looking around my own cookbook library for recipes, I found things titled “gelato” that varied all the way from a cornstarch-thickened ice milk to a true French-style egg custard; I’ll present the former later in this post.

So what about that unified theory I promised in the title? Well, perhaps I over-promised a bit, but here’s what I’ve come up with:

A frozen dessert can be made from:

  • A water-type liquid:
    • Normally a dairy product (cow or other ruminant): ice cream, ice milk, mousse, sherbet, or frozen yogurt
    • Optionally a dairy substitute (coconut milk, soy milk, etc.)
    • Optionally water: water ice or sorbet/sorbetto
    • Optionally fruit juice: water ice, sherbet, or sorbet depending on other ingredients
  • One or more sweeteners:
    • Sugar/simple syrup
    • Corn syrup
    • Malt powder
  • One or more flavoring ingredients:
    • Extracts, liqueurs, and other alcohol-based flavors
    • Powders (principally cocoa and coffee)
    • Caramel, honey, molasses, agave, and other flavorful liquid sweeteners
    • Fresh or dried herbs and spices (normally steeped to extract flavor, then discarded, except vanilla seeds)
    • Chunks and pastes mixed or swirled in late in the churning process (chocolate, nuts, fruit pieces)
  • Zero or more emulsifiers and stabilizers:
    • Food starches (corn, wheat, arrowroot, tapioca, dextrins)
    • Carbohydrate gums (xanthan gum, carrageenan, guar gum)
    • Egg yolks (French ice cream = 6 yolks per quart of dairy)
    • Egg whites (whipped, in mousses and Hobson’s “Italian” ice cream)
    • Casein (dairy protein, coagulated as in buttermilk, yogurt, and fresh cheeses [ricotta, mascarpone], or powdered milk)
    • Gelatin (seen in traditional mousses and Hobson’s “New York” ice cream)
  • Optionally, additional fats:
    • Olive oil
    • Vegetable oil
    • Brown butter
    • Cocoa butter

If there are any dairy ingredients at all, but no non-dairy fats are used, you have a sherbet (if fruit juice is also included), ice cream (if at least 15% butterfat), frozen yogurt (if stabilized by denatured dairy protein from lactic-acid fermentation of milk), or ice milk. If there are no dairy products, then you have ersatz ice cream (if made from dairy substitutes), water ice, or sorbet. If cream is whipped and stabilized (with either gelatin or an egg-white foam) what you have is probably a mousse — although mousses can also be made from chocolate ganache; these are generally not agitated during freezing as is normal for an ice cream, and likewise semifreddo. Similarly, if there are no (real or fake) dairy ingredients and the product is not agitated continuously during freezing, then you have a water ice or (if stirred occasionally to prevent large crystals from forming) a granita.

Generally speaking, all of the things we add to frozen desserts other than flavorings — and many of the flavorings as well — have a similar function: to prevent large crystals from forming, and thereby ensure a smooth, melt-in-the-mouth texture. Sugars, being hygroscopic, help to tie up water molecules to prevent crystallization entirely; likewise alcohols (both those we add for their own sake, like rum, and those we add as carriers for another flavor, as extracts and liqueurs). Starches and proteins are generally partially denatured, either by cooking (as in custards) or as a byproduct of fermentation (yogurt), to form a gel that, like sugar, holds water in place to prevent crystallization; the food industry and vegans use vegetable gums as alternatives to dairy and egg proteins (industry does so because they’re cheaper and easier to store in bulk). Added fats (including those mysterious food-industry ingredients “mono- and diglycerides” — normal fats are triglycerides) also help to control the melting rate and overall mouth feel of the product; a higher-melting-point fat like cocoa butter may be counterbalanced by lower-melting fats and oils to create a product that melts slowly at room temperature but quickly at body temperature.

Did I overpromise? Perhaps, but I hope you found this discussion interesting anyway. Meanwhile, on to today’s recipe.

Alice Medrich’s Sicilian Chocolate Gelato

In looking around for ice-cream recipes, I found a whole bunch of custard-style ice creams, by various authors and under various names — including Rosetta Costantino, who ought to know something about gelato. But I’m already doing her Crostata al gelo di mellone, and I was looking for something that would be a rather lower-calorie than all those egg custards (which I’m sure are delicious but I don’t want to blow all my spare calories on one dessert). Alice Medrich’s recipe, “Sicilian Chocolate Gelato” (“adapted from Mary Taylor Simeti”, from Seriously Bitter Sweet, p. 63), seemed to fit the bill. Rather than a custard-based (French-style) ice cream, it’s actually a cornstarch-thickened ice milk — more like what I would consider “frozen pudding” than the stabilized custard described in Hobson’s book under that name. Medrich says it’s OK to use either alkalized (Dutch-process) or natural cocoa in this recipe, with different resulting flavor profiles. The best part of it all is that it works out to only 146 kcal per 4-oz (120 g) serving — so you (or I) can feel free to have two servings and still stay under 300 kcal, which is astonishing for a homemade frozen dessert. (By contrast, all of those custards work out to between 350 and 400 kcal per half-cup serving — nearly double the toll!)

Mise en place
The parts list is extraordinarily simple: three cups of whole milk, 70 g of cocoa powder (I used Valrhona, which is alkalized, because it was most convenient to hand), 135 g of granulated sugar, 1½ tbl of cornstarch, and ½ tsp of salt. The cocoa (only) goes in one bowl (you’ll see below that I swapped this Pyrex bowl out for a different one) and the other dry ingredients go into a saucepan.

Cocoa-milk paste and cornstarch-sugar-milk slurry
The next step in the process is to add just enough of the milk to both vessels to form a paste. The remaining milk is then whisked into the sugar-starch paste and simmered over medium heat until it reaches the consistency of a thin pudding.

Finished "pudding"
The thickened milk mixture is then poured over the cocoa paste and whisked thoroughly to combine, then allowed to cool.

Covering the base with plastic wrap for refrigeration
To prevent an unpleasant skin from forming on top of the “pudding”, I put a sheet of plastic wrap on it; the “skin” is a polymer formed when the milk protein is exposed to oxygen, and the plastic wrap will eliminate that contact for long enough to fully chill the base. At this point I put it in the refrigerator to chill overnight — a recommended step with any ice cream as well, as it allows all of the base to get fairly close to the freezing point before putting it into the churn, which in turn prevents the churn from absorbing too much heat from the base. (I use a modern phase-change-style churn with removable core; a too-warm base will melt the core without itself getting below freezing, ruining the final product.)

Completed ice milk on scale
Medrich cautions that this base, since it is already fairly thick, should be churned for less than the usual time. My machine’s instructions say 20–25 minutes, so I cut it back to 15 minutes, and the result was this lovely product with the consistency of soft-serve. One puzzle, however, was what happened to the rest of my gelato. As you can see clearly on the scale display, there’s only 1½ lb of gelato here, but yet I indubitably started with 2 lb of ingredients. (Go ahead, add them up based on the quantities I gave above; you can assume that the specific gravity of whole milk is close enough to unity.) OK, some might have been left stuck to the saucepan (maybe an ounce?), and I tried a tablespoon or two last night before refrigerating it, and some must have been left in the bowl or stuck to the plastic film (another ounce), but a whole half-pound?

Over-frozen ice milk stuck to freezer core
So it turned out that a substantial amount of the gelato was actually stuck to the freezer core of my ice-cream churn. Apparently even the 15 minutes I gave it was just too long. So rather than getting a nice picture of a scoop of gelato in a cup, I ended up scraping that residue out of the core with a wooden spoon and having that for my dessert. (OK, I had a bit more in a dessert cup, too!)


Nutrition Facts
Serving size: ½ cup (about 3½ to 4 oz)
Servings per recipe: 8
Amount per serving
Calories 146 Calories from fat 36
% Daily Value
Total Fat 4g 6%
 Saturated Fat 2g 12%
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 9mg 3%
Sodium 186mg 8%
Potassium 265mg 8%
Total Carbohydrate 27g 9%
 Dietary fiber 3g 12%
 Sugars 22g
Proteins 5g 9%
Vitamin A 2%
Vitamin C 0%
Calcium 11%
Iron 7%
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Recipe quick takes: Louise Beylerian’s Zucchini and Cheese Pie (via Elaine Louie)

Zucchini and cheese pie (p. 245) was the first recipe I tried to make from Elaine Louie’s cookbook The Occasional Vegetarian (Hyperion, 2011), which is a collection of 100 recipes featured in her New York Times column. I’ll admit that what this recipe had going for it most was not that it sounded interesting so much as that it was relatively low-calorie compared to the other recipes I took note of in this book. I was originally going to do a full walk-through like I usually do, but in the end I simply don’t think it’s worth it.

The recipe is “adapted from Louise Beylerian”, and said to come from the cultural stew of Cairo. It calls for a large quantity of zucchini, which is fried in olive oil, layered with chopped dill and shredded cheese in a pie plate, covered in an egg-enriched bechamel, and then baked. The recipe itself is not well-written: Louie calls for a “deep” pie plate, which was not required, and notably fails to call for broad, mature zucchini, which shortly into the prep process I decided she must have intended. I can’t tolerate mature zucchini and so never buy it, but it seems essential to this dish given the preparation instructions clearly indicate that only two batches of frying the eighth-inch zucchini slices should be necessary. Since my zucchini was narrower, I had far more slices, and it took four batches — with more oil, even if it was extra-virgin olive oil, increasing the overall greasiness of the dish.

Mise en place
That looks like a lot of zucchini, and it is, but it’s still two ounces short of the pound and a half the recipe calls for. (It was four edible-to-me-size zucchini.) I initially tried using my V-slicer to cut the required rounds from the (washed and trimmed) squash, but I found that neither of the settings on the slicer would produce an eighth-inch round. (With a proper mandoline, that would probably not have been an issue, so eventually I settled for uneven hand slices using my chef’s knife instead.

As I mentioned, the zucchini slices are fried on both sides in olive oil; Louie says this takes two batches, but for me, with all these slices, it took four, and was an incredible pain regardless — just flipping the zucchini rounds took much of the cooking time. For the slices that turned out really thin, I ended up stacking a few together to give me something flippable — and when I removed them from the pan, they were limp and oily. (Louie’s version of this recipe puts all the oil in the pan at once — I bet if Cook’s Illustrated ever did this recipe, they would do the more sensible thing and divide up the oil for each batch of frying. They’d probably also coat the zucchini in something like flour or cornstarch to make it crisp up better and less prone to sogging out.)

After frying all the zucchini, half of it is spread in a lubricated pie plate, then topped with chopped fresh dill and two different cheeses: shredded Monterey Jack (I used Agri-MarkCabot but grated it myself) and crumbled feta (I used a goat’s-milk feta from Vermont Butter & Cheese). Then the rest of the zucchini goes on top, followed by dill, and then the pie sits there while you make a bechamel sauce. Louie calls for a very dark roux; I chickened out and added the milk after only five minutes of cooking — normally my bechamel uses a one- or two-minute roux. After thickening the sauce, it’s allowed to cool for just long enough to stir in a beaten egg without scrambling, although I still strained it, like a custard, to ensure that any small bits of overcooked egg are removed. The sauce goes on top, and then the whole thing is cooked for 45 minutes in a 375°F (190°C) oven. This whole process, from prep to finished pie, takes about twice as long as indicated in the recipe — almost exactly two hours for me, which was not what I needed for a workday meal.

Pie minus one slice
Overall impression? Not very good. The texture is terrible, and the flavor is not great either. Would not recommend — and the next time I’m looking to cook a vegetarian main dish, I’ll stick with one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s vegetable cookbooks: the recipes there are better specified and better written.

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Limited posts for a while

I spent the past weekend in San Diego, so there’s no new food to post about. Also, we are entering that time of year when my workplace is chock full of free food, and I also have a substantial amount of food that I’ve already paid for too, so my baking will be on the limited side for the next month or so. (Kinda hard to keep to your diet when you have people shoving slices of cheesecake at you, even if they’re small slices of cheesecake!) I will try to do some other recipes as time and menu planning allow, especially low(ish)-calorie dinner stuff. Also, I have a fairly substantial amount of work ahead of me in fixing up some long-standing issues with my Web site, and I’d like to do some more reading, too. (On the flight back home, I finished reading Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great, my response to which was to add even more books to the to-read pile….) In any event, not to worry, there is more to come, just not quite so frequently as this past winter.

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Other people’s recipes: Andrea Nguyen’s Star Anise and Lemongrass Sloppy Joe Bánh Mi

This gallery contains 10 photos.

The Amazon recommender system really thinks I like cookbooks, perhaps with good reason. Pretty much every new cookbook published shows up on my recommendations, and as a result I own far too many cookbooks. Some of them are thick, weighty … Continue reading

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Recipe quick takes: Diane St. Clair’s Spicy Carrot Cake Muffins

This was originally intended to be more of a walk-through than a quick take, but my camera battery had other ideas. (It’s recharged now.) This is connected in some small degree with my research last month into carrot cake recipes, in this case from the “one of these things is not like the others” department. While several of the recipes give “muffin” (really, cupcake) presentation as an option, this is the only one that is actually formulated to be a muffin — less sweet, dryer, and unfrosted. At only 250 kcal each, it actually is a practical breakfast item (for those who do breakfast), unlike the 750–1000-calorie monster cupcakes masquerading as muffins at pretty much every chain bakery in the country.

Mise en place
We start, as always, with an overview of the ingredients. Since these are “Carrot Cake Muffins”, we start with two large carrots, shredded, to make about 1½ cups, along with an equal volume of Graham (“whole wheat pastry”) flour, all-purpose flour, and buttermilk. (I weighed my flour, as usual, using the flour’s nutrition labeling to get an approximate equivalence — thanks to the bran, Graham flour is less dense than all-purpose.) The flour along with the usual leaveners and a fairly substantial complement of spices form the dry team; the fat comes from vegetable oil (any neutral-flavored oil will do — I just used what was in my pantry). To add some texture, a third of a cup each of chopped pecans (I had some left over) and golden raisins are folded in at the last minute, alongside the shredded carrots. Note that I used too much brown sugar: the recipe only calls for a third of a cup, but the vulgar fractions are difficult for me to distinguish in the typeface used to set this book under poor lighting (it’s not the first time I’ve made such a mistake).

Can you spot the missing ingredient?
Now it’s time to play “Spot the missing ingredient!” Can you tell which ingredient is missing here, in a fairly ordinary application of the “Muffin Method” (add dry to wet and fold)? I couldn’t either, so don’t feel bad. It was only when I was about to portion the muffins that I noticed the measuring cup full of vegetable oil still sitting on the counter! In theory, this is supposed to be mixed with the eggs as a part of the wet works to create a stable emulsion, but I totally forgot. Luckily, it doesn’t seem to have made much difference that I only added the oil at the end, and it incorporated quickly without too much extra stirring.

Muffin batter
The finished batter, with shredded carrot, pecan, and raisins, looks like this. (Actually, come to think of it, I can’t recall whether I took this photo before or after adding the forgotten oil.)

Muffins portioned prior to baking
Once again, I used my trusty #16 disher to evenly portion the batter into the wells of a twelve-muffin tin.

Muffins cooling on rack
After baking for just 25 minutes, the muffins were done. Following King Arthur’s advice (St. Clair makes no recommendation one way or the other) I let the muffins cool for five minutes in the tin before removing them to the cooling rack to finish the process.

Verdict? They’re decent muffins; I could have used a bit more crunch — perhaps a sprinkling of demerara sugar on top, and maybe a bit more sugar in the batter, would have been nice. I might actually put together a simple icing from confectioner’s sugar, buttermilk, and cinnamon for when I bring these into the office on Monday. Despite using a fairly large quantity of spices, I’m not sure that this recipe lives up to its advance billing — but that may be just me, because I tend to need to be hit over the head with most flavorings in order to notice them at all.


These numbers would obviously be higher if you used proper buttermilk (with some fat still in it) rather than cultured nonfat buttermilk as found in the supermarket.

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 1 muffin (about ¼ cup batter)
Servings per recipe: 12
Amount per serving
Calories 250 Calories from fat 90
% Daily Value
Total Fat 10g 15%
 Saturated Fat 1g 5%
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 31mg 10%
Sodium 304mg 13%
Potassium 112mg 3%
Total Carbohydrate 35g 12%
 Dietary fiber 3g 13%
 Sugars 11g
Proteins 6g 12%
Vitamin A 1%
Vitamin C 1%
Calcium 10%
Iron 10%
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My officemate Linda has a new blog, Geeky Cakes. Check it out!

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Other people’s recipes: “Katharine Hepburn’s” brownies by Lori Longbotham

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Some years ago, cookbook writer Lori Longbotham published a series of thin cookbooks title Luscious X Desserts for various values of X. Among these was Luscious Chocolate Desserts (Chronicle Books, 2004), and that book had a recipe intriguingly titled “Katharine … Continue reading

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Other people’s recipes: Deborah Krasner’s Red Wine-Braised Short Rib Sauce

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I suppose it was a bit of a mistake to promise four recipes with full write-ups in a week, even given the long weekend. I made this beef short-rib recipe from Deborah Krasner’s Good Meat (Stewart, Tabori & Chang; p. … Continue reading

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Other people’s recipes: Joanne Chang’s “New Old-Fashioned” Coffee Cake

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Continuing my rundown of this past long weekend’s cooking projects, on Monday — Patriots’ Day — I made Joanne Chang’s “New Old-Fashioned” coffee cake from Flour (Chronicle Books, 2010; p. 62). Unlike the last coffee cake I made, which was … Continue reading

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Other people’s recipes: Yotam Ottolenghi’s Green Onion Soup

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As promised a few days ago, on Sunday (which was, by the way, a beautiful spring day, on which I got both an hour’s walk and a twelve-mile bike ride) I made a vegetarian soup from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty More … Continue reading

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