“We just had peach ice cream,” a friend shrugged, relating the end of a dinner party she’d recently given on a hot summer evening.
“Just” ice cream.
There was a time when no one would have been so cavalier about something as rare and sublime as frozen cream on a hot summer evening. Before the development of manufactured ice in the mid-nineteenth century, frozen treats were possible only so long as the ice harvested over the winter lasted in earth-insulated ice houses.
Even after manufactured ice became common, until recently ice cream in summer remained a luxury with no equal. Perhaps we take it for granted today partly because of the thousands of cartons of commercial ice cream stacked, like concrete blocks, in every supermarket’s freezer. But being common as ants on a picnic isn’t all that makes them seem ordinary: most of them just can’t compare with the frozen creams from our past.
“For making ice-cream,” wrote Georgia’s own Annabella Hill in 1867, “genuine cream is, of course, preferable.” The author of one of America’s most influential cookbooks until well into the twentieth century, Mrs. Hill considered custard base an inferior substitute for making frozen cream, especially when it came to peach and most any other fruit-based varieties, and she was absolutely dead-on.
While custard is a fine base for vanilla, chocolate, caramel, and cinnamon, for fruit there’s just nothing to compare with pure, unadulterated cream.
In Mrs. Hill’s day, ice creams were often set in decorative tin molds, which can still be had from antique stores and restaurant suppliers. But while fanciful molds may be fun for a dinner party, most of us would rather scoop it right out of the churn, the way we used to do on those soft summer evenings, when at last the ice cream was pronounced ready. As we left off chasing fireflies in the twilight and settled in with a bowl, for a few fleeting moments, the world seemed safe and perfect.
Georgia Peach Ice Cream
Before you begin, heating the cream before chilling and freezing it may seem like a contradiction, but before pasteurization, it was necessary to temper the cream. Today even if it’s pasteurized, heating it is still necessary for infusing the flavorings. It also helps the sugar dissolve and improves the frozen cream’s texture.
Makes about 1½ quarts, serving about 6
1 quart heavy cream
1¼ cups sugar
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, optional
4-6 ripe, juicy peaches
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Bring the cream almost to a boil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring often to prevent scorching. Off the heat stir in 1 cup of sugar and a tiny pinch of salt until dissolved. Add the nutmeg, if using, and let cool. Meanwhile, peel the peaches over a glass or ceramic bowl to catch all their juices. Halve, pit, and roughly chop them. Put half of them in the bowl with their juice and puree the remainder. Add the puree to the bowl, and sprinkle with the remaining sugar and lemon juice. Let stand 30 minutes.
Stir in the cream and chill at least 2 hours. Prepare an ice cream freezer according to the manufacturer’s directions, and freeze the cream until almost set—a little stiffer than soft-serve ice cream.
Pack it into a mold or covered freezable container and freeze until completely solidified. To unmold, wrap the mold with a towel heated in the clothes dryer. Loosen the edge with a knife, invert over a serving plate and lift the mold away. If it won’t budge, reheat the towel and rewrap for a minute more. To avoid last minute fuss, unmold at least an hour before serving, cover, and keep frozen.
– From Classical Southern Cooking, 1995.
Damon Lee Fowler is a culinary historian and author of six cookbooks, including Classical Southern Cooking, Damon Lee Fowler’s New Southern Baking, and The Savannah Cookbook. His work has also appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Relish. He lives, eats, and writes about it in Savannah, Georgia, and can be reached through his own cyber-turf at www.damonleefowler.com.
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