Thomas Jefferson’s French Vanilla Ice Cream

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Thomas Jefferson’s French Vanilla Ice Cream

By Damon Lee Fowler

Throughout the summer months founding Father Thomas Jefferson is on my mind. Not only did he write the Declaration of Independence, he died on Independence Day, and is frequently credited by over-enthusiastic admirers with having introduced Americans to what is for many the essential celebratory treat of summertime: vanilla ice cream.

The myth holds that Jefferson brought this treat and its flavoring spice back to America after his term as ambassador to France. He didn’t—both were known on our side of the pond (at least, to the wealthy) when Jefferson was in diapers.

The reason for this mistaken credit is a little scrap of paper on which Jefferson scribbled a French recipe for vanilla ice cream. He did that often: when he liked something, he took the trouble to find out how it was made and copied out a recipe for his own cooks. Unfortunately, less than a dozen of these scraps survive, and because he didn’t cook or even know how to in theory, he often misunderstood what he was copying out and got it all wrong.

But that’s hardly the point. The point is, that kind of interest in cookery was odd for a man of his time who was not a professional chef. He even went so far as to personally plan a state-of-the-art French kitchen for Monticello. We’re so used to men cooking at home nowadays that we forget that back then, a gentlemen never went anywhere near the kitchen, and in general couldn’t have cared less about what was in it.

Fortunately, his ice cream recipe is pretty straightforward and not at all difficult to understand. Our only problem in translating it for Dining at Monticello was deciding just how much “2 bottles of good cream” might have been. We settled on 2 quarts, based on the usual proportion of eggs to cream in other recipes of the period.

Mr. Jefferson’s French Vanilla Ice Cream
Adapted from Dining at Monticello: In Good Taste and Abundance.
Makes about 2½ quarts

2 quarts heavy cream
1 vanilla bean
6 large egg yolks
8 ounces (1 cup) sugar
Bring the cream and vanilla bean to a simmer in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat, and simmer, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl until smooth and whisk in the sugar. It will be quite thick.

Slowly beat about 1 cup of hot cream into the yolks and then gradually stir it into the rest of the cream. Cook, stirring constantly, until it thickly coats the back of the spoon, about 5 minutes. Strain through a double layer of cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer and remove the vanilla bean (it can be rinsed, dried, and re-used). Stir until slightly cooled. Cover and refrigerate until chilled, at least 1 hour or overnight.

Freeze the custard in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s directions until set but still a little soft. Scoop it into a 3-quart mold or several smaller molds, running a spatula through and tapping the mold firmly to remove any air bubbles and fill all the crevices. Cover and freeze until set, about 2-4 hours. The ice cream may also be set without molding in a freezer-safe container.

To serve molded ice cream dip the mold briefly in hot water or wrap briefly in a towel heated in a clothes dryer. Run a knife around the top edge to separate the ice cream from the mold. Invert the mold over a serving dish and gently lift it from the ice cream. Serve ice cream that isn’t molded in small scoops.

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 and eats in Savannah, Georgia.

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