Totally chilled: Festive ice cream flavours are on the menu this winter - including Christmas cake and stilton
As the winter chill sets in, it might seem entirely wrong to be talking about ice cream, but Robin and Caroline Weir, frozen dessert obsessives, believe wholeheartedly in eating the stuff every single day of the year. "Of course, sales go up in the summer," Robin says, "but it most definitely isn't a seasonal product. Rich ice cream is a wonderful thing to have as a dessert in even the coldest weather."
The Weirs have a book out called Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati: The Definitive Guide, just in time for Christmas. As if to prove their point, it's chock-full of recipes perfect for the forthcoming festive season, including cranberry sorbet, Stilton cheese cream, all manner of recipes using mulled wine, Bloody Mary, and port, and there's even a Christmas cake ice cream.
"There is a famous quote by Churchill," Robin says. "He was driving through Moscow in a thick snowstorm when he saw a queue of people outside an ice cream shop and he said, 'Any nation that would queue for ice cream in this weather will never be conquered.' It rings very true."
The book has been 10 years in the making and is a great big pink tome with more than 400 recipes that the Weirs, and a small army of testers on both sides of the Atlantic, have worked and reworked. Rather like Heston Blumenthal, who, incidentally, is a big fan, Robin takes the scientific view and is forever experimenting, tweaking and perfecting. He now lectures all over the world and is widely acknowledged to be one of the foremost experts on the subject.
For those who thought ice cream came in tubs of chocolate, vanilla or strawberry, the book is a real eye-opener. Alongside delicious-sounding recipes such as maple syrup and pecan or buttermilk and blueberry, there are savoury flavours including avocado, and pea and mint – "one of my favourites," Robin says; "the sweetness of the peas is offset by the flavour of the cream cheese and sharpened by lemon juice."
For the man who's never cooked anything in his life, Robin says, there's a really simple marmalade one. "It requires no cooking at all and will turn you into an ice cream expert overnight." For the more experimental there's olive oil gelato and a deep-fried one. "You have to be quick making it – the contrast between the crisp, hot outside and frozen ice cream inside is just wonderful." And there's even a soya milk gelato for the lactose-intolerant.
The couple, who met back in 1986 while Caroline was managing the London shop Books for Cooks, live in a house in west London crammed full of memorabilia – old shop signs, ancient ice cream makers, an original New York 1950s ice cream counter lovingly salvaged after 50 years rusting in a warehouse, as well as 10,000 books, 500 of them on ice cream. "Once the ice cream bug bites," he concludes, "it never lets you go." Here's his guide to everything ice cream and four recipes for the festive season.
Vanilla is the benchmark of a good ice cream maker. "Whenever I am out testing ice cream, I always order one scoop of vanilla," Robin says. "If you can't make a decent vanilla, you can't make anything." The Weirs' book features more than 10 different vanilla recipes.
Check the colour
It sounds obvious, but the colour of the ice cream should be appropriate to the flavour. Why is pistachio ice cream, for example, always bright green? If it has anything to do with the nut itself it should be a greyish colour. But it's the flavour that matters, not the colour.
Parfaits, granitas, sorbets and gelatos
We are now confronted with a bewildering array of frozen dessert choices on our menus and there are subtle but important differences between them. A sorbet is made without the addition of any dairy products. So too is a granita, which is very like a sorbet but coarser. A gelato is an ice cream made using eggs and milk instead of cream. In Sicily they make these using cornflour. "Because there isn't the fat to numb the flavour, they tend to be more pure and intense." A parfait, meanwhile is made from whipped egg yolks, sugar syrup and cream, so has an extremely light texture. "It's also the most difficult one to make – for the ice cream maker, this is the ultimate."
Commercial ice cream
Robin's ice cream obsession started years ago when he was in a supermarket with his three children. They sneaked one of the biggest tubs of ice cream they could find into the trolley. "When I got home, I sat down at the kitchen table and read all the ingredients. It was horrific. If you really must buy commercial ice cream, I'd say the best of the bunch is Haagen-Dazs. But the best ice cream is always the ice cream you make yourself, simply because it doesn't make financial sense for the big companies to put proper ingredients in."
Ice cream makers
Every ice cream in the Weirs' book can be made without the use of an ice cream maker using a stir-and-freeze method, but Robin says you can pick up an ice cream maker for about £60. "Magimix do good ones and Gaggia make self-refrigerating ones for about £250. Both are ideal," he says. "An ice cream maker will pay for itself in no time and then it will pay over and over." While you're at it, he says, it's worth checking the temperature of your freezer, as most people have the temperature set completely wrong. A fridge should be set at 4C/39F and a freezer at minus 18C/0F. "Usually, you find people's freezers are set at minus 5 instead of minus 18. Most are surprisingly warm."
Using his usual methodological approach, Robin has done some calculations. At Waitrose Haagen-Dazs costs £4.38 a litre and Ben and Jerry's costs about £8 a litre. Robin has calculated that the cost of making a litre of home-made French vanilla ice cream using good vanilla extract would cost £2.15. His everyday chocolate ice cream would cost £2.23 a litre and the rich chocolate version £4.25. "In every way, it's the cheaper option."
The ultimate ice cream parlour
Robin believes that in Britain, David Equi, who owns the Hamilton-based Equi's ice cream parlour business along with the famous Nardini café in Largs, serves the best ice cream in the country. "They do just brilliant, brilliant ice creams," Robin says. "He is third-generation Italian and it's made as ice cream should be made, using excellent ingredients, proper fruit purées and all done behind a glass screen to allow customers to watch how it's done."
Ice Creams, Sorbets and Gelati: The Definitive Guide, is published by Grub Street, priced £25. To see a short film about Robin Weir's collection of ice cream memorabilia, go to independent.co.uk/icecream.
Christmas cake ice cream
Makes about 1 litre
375ml whole milk
100g soft brown light sugar
3 egg yolks
185ml heavy whipping cream (36% fat)
175g Christmas cake, diced
Combine the milk and half the sugar in a (not aluminium) pan and bring to just below boiling point. Remove from the heat, cover and leave aside. In a heatproof bowl, combine the yolks with the remaining sugar and beat until pale and thick. Bring the milk back to boiling point, then pour it slowly in a thin stream on to the egg yolks and sugar, whisking steadily as you go.
Place the bowl over a pan of simmering water and stir frequently using a non-metallic spoon. As it heats over the water, the custard will thicken. This can take anything from 5-30 minutes. On no account let it overheat or boil as it will curdle.
As soon as the custard has thickened sufficiently, remove the pan from the heat and plunge the base into a few inches of cold water. Leave to cool, then cover and chill in the fridge. When it is cold, stir the chilled cream into the custard and add the brandy.
To still-freeze, pour into a strong polypropylene container and cover and put in the freezer. Check after about an hour that the mixture has a firm ring of ice around the sides and base and a soft slush in the centre. Then either beat for a few seconds with a hand beater or quickly process in a food processor until it has formed a uniform slush, and return back to the freezer. Repeat this process at least twice at intervals of 60-90 minutes. After the third beating, the ice will need freezing for a further 30-60 minutes.
When it's ready, sprinkle on the diced cake and stir or churn briefly to ensure even distribution. Serve within 1 hour if frozen solid; allow 30 minutes in the fridge to soften sufficiently before serving.
Mulled wine sorbet
Makes about 750ml
1 and a half lemons
250ml red wine
5cm cinnamon stick
pinch grated nutmeg
2 tbsp ruby port
For the sugar syrup:
Make the sugar syrup. Boil the water, pour it into a jug and stir in the sugar until it dissolves. Cool, cover and refrigerate.
Scrub-dry the orange and lemons. Use a potato peeler to remove three 2.5cm x 1cm strips from the orange and one of the lemons. Cut these across very finely to give hair-like strips. Squeeze the juice out from the orange and 1 and a half lemons. Combine the wine, spices, strips of zest and orange and lemon juice in a pan. Bring to the boil and simmer for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and stir in the port and sugar syrup. Leave to cool, then chill in the fridge.
When ready, discard the cinnamon and cloves, pour into a strong polypropylene container and cover with a lid and put in the freezer. From here, follow the instructions for stir-freezing as per the Christmas cake ice cream recipe.
Frozen Stilton cheese cream
Makes about 1.3 litres
625ml whole milk
275g Stilton cheese
4tbsp white port
500g fromage frais
Slowly bring the milk and clove to boiling point. Meanwhile, discard the rind from the cheese and chop the rest into 1cm cubes. Add to the milk and stir over a gentle heat until completely melted. Remove from the heat and beat the mixture vigorously for about 30 seconds before adding the port. Then taste and season with a little salt or ground black pepper if necessary. Cool, then chill in the fridge.
When ready, remove the clove and gently beat the fromage frais into the cheese mixture, then follow the instructions for stir-freezing as in the Christmas cake ice cream recipe. Serve cut into slices as a starter with celery or biscuits, or after a meal with port.
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