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   Ice Dreams, Crystallizing
   By Matt Lee and Ted Lee

  Supermarkets devote so much square footage to ice creams and sorbets these days that churning your own at home can seem as pointless as whittling your own fork. But many of the flavors filling store freezers - with their peanut-butter-filled pretzels, cookie-dough pellets and stripes of marshmallow goo added in - spring from a very limited source of culinary creativity, as if they were proposed by an overcaffeinated 8-year-old. Most skew toward buttery, chocolaty flavors that can grow dull day after day.

  Inventing an exciting, enticing new flavor of your own is among the best reasons to make ice creams and sorbets at home. (Freshness is another.)

  Of course restaurants have led the charge in customizing ice creams, which range from the alluring to the lurid: balsamic vinegar, olive oil, gorgonzola, honeysuckle and rose are just a few flavoring agents we've encountered recently, many of them good.

  But somewhere between the black olive ice cream and the cough drop sorbet are simple frozen concoctions that can surpass far more elaborate desserts. And all you have to do is dream them up, because making them is insanely easy.

  We began as skeptics, recalling the arm cramps and thin vanilla milkshakes that resulted from summer-camp churning experiences. About five years ago, however, we bought a modest refurbished electric machine, a Cuisinart Ice-20, for the price of about four pints of premium (a brand-new one runs about twice that), and we've been thrilled with the results.

  Making fresh ice cream is a simple three-step process: you prepare the ice cream or sorbet base and chill it in the refrigerator. (Expensive machines have a built-in refrigeration unit so that no prechilling is required.) Then pour the cold liquid base into the ice cream maker, flick it on and let the base churn until it's the consistency of a very thick milkshake. At that point fold in any add-ins - cookie pieces, fresh or dried fruits, nuts, chewy candies - and transfer the soft ice cream to a container to chill for a few hours in the freezer, so it hardens. When you can form neat, round ice cream balls, you're in business.

  Preparing the base is where most of the creativity comes into play. Most true ice creams begin with a liquid custard, made by beating egg yolks and sugar together, then whisking in hot milk or cream - slowly, to avoid scrambling the eggs - and heating the mixture until it thickens just enough to coat the back of a spoon. Any more than that and you risk scrambled eggs again.

  We love incorporating the spicy, high-toned flavors of fresh herbs and other aromatic ingredients like ginger, tarragon, clove and kaffir lime leaf, by steeping them in either the cream for the custard or the simple syrup stirred into a sorbet base.

  But be attentive to a flavoring's acidity, which can wreak havoc with dairy products. For our gingersnap ice cream we wanted ginger root's peppery heat to contrast with the creamy custard base. We curdled two quarts of milk and a quart of half-and-half, trying to find the perfect proportion of ginger juice

  Part of the solution was to prepare the custard with heavy cream alone, which has a higher tolerance for acid and heat. The ginger ice cream had terrific flavor and a smooth, dense texture, but with 100 percent cream was over-the-top rich. In our next batch, we whisked a cup of milk into custard that had cooled to room temperature and got exactly what we wanted. So when in doubt about acidity, use cream and lighten the base with milk later.

  When we make sorbets, a great source of inspiration is the world of beverages. Virtually any refreshing drink - especially one designed for adults - produces a superb sorbet. Like offering a house cocktail, it's fun to personalize your house sorbet and to change it with the seasons. Our first such dessert was sour orange mojito. We simply substituted the sour orange's tart, flowery juice for the limes commonly used in the mojito, a mint-laden Cuban rum drink.

  Since then we've cobbled together sangria sorbets (using both red and white wine), margarita sorbet and mint julep sorbet. Alcohol inhibits freezing, so the trick is to heat the liquid gently first in a separate saucepan, to steam most of the alcohol away. Because alcohol boils at about 175 degrees it doesn't take long before you're left with the flavor component of the liquid.

  This summer a pint of overripe raspberries (and memories of the old Tommy's Lunch diner in Cambridge, Mass.) inspired a raspberry lime rickey sorbet, which had all the zesty flavor and pucker of the beverage it was modeled on.

  But great ice cream need not be high-concept (if a lime rickey could be considered that). Often a wallflower flavor of a single dimension, like strawberry, takes the slate. In that spirit we set out to create a subtle ice cream from commercial crème fraîche (sour-cultured heavy cream), whisking it with simple syrup to create the base. The flavor was phenomenal, but it left a waxy feel in the mouth.

  We then substituted two parts regular sour cream, which is lower in butterfat, to one part yogurt and produced a velvety, tart ice cream that is fun to swap for vanilla, as in a fruit parfait. (Its drier flavor is ideal for treacly grilled peaches and apricots.) We've never had much luck with fig ice cream, which flatters neither figs nor cream, but a simple stewed fig topping with lemon juice and sugar, spooned over sour cream ice cream, tastes divine.


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