How many harbingers of summer have you ticked off your seasonal bingo card? That first barbecue? Your first foray out of the house in shorts? Or what about surely the most pleasurable of them all – the first ice cream in a cone? If you have licked and crunched your way to ice cream heaven, chances are it wasn't at home. When it comes to chilly treats, our freezers groan with tubs or ices on sticks. But one chef is determined to bring the cone back into the kitchen. And for him, that means recreating the most evocative, if maligned, name in ice cream – Mr Whippy.
The ice-cream van staple is a peculiar treat. And peculiarly British, like margarine – we consume it by the gallon but a second thought about what it contains questions our fondness for what looks like a less-than-lovely food. "Admittedly the flavour and ingredients leave a lot to be desired," says Tristan Welch, a former Gordon Ramsay protégé and the brains behind the swinging doors at the refurbished West London restaurant Launceston Place, "but there's no doubt that the ice cream with the best texture I've ever eaten comes out of the Mr Whippy machine in an ice-cream van."
So when Welch was asked to come up with a dessert that "reminded him of home" for tonight's episode of BBC2's Great British Menu, the series in which top chefs compete to cook a banquet for VIPs, it didn't take him long to decide. "For a minute I thought I could do sticky toffee pudding or a steamed pudding, but that's all quite rich and wintry. Then it struck me – Mr Whippy ice cream. There's no greater treat."
But before Welch could pipe his icy treat out of the machine now installed in his basement kitchen, he would have to answer the simple question – just what is Mr Whippy and how could he make it good? "To work out a recipe that would produce fresh ice cream in that machine seemed damn near impossible because you've no idea what the ingredients are," he says.
Welch identified the peculiar qualities of Mr Whippy he would have to replicate using fresh ingredients (most soft-serve ice cream is made using milk powder, oil and sugar – there's no cream in sight), namely the "gluey stretchiness" (solution: the right amount and right kind of sugar – glucose in Welch's recipe); and the air. Ice cream is sold by volume rather than weight in Britain, so the more air you can pump into a tub the less you have to spend on ingredients. It makes Mr Whippy more expensive than Häagen-Dazs by weight, but the bubbles aren't all bad. "It's like tasting wine," Welch explains. "The more air you get in, the clearer the flavour becomes – it lingers and sticks to your mouth."
Mr Whippy machines work by slowly and constantly whipping and freezing a mix that has just the right balance of fats, creating a concoction that has as much in common with whipped cream as it does ice cream. To get the right texture, the recipe has to be spot on. "It was a nightmare – I've never been in such a state working out a recipe," Welch says. "Sometimes the ice cream would be too thick and come out as chunks of ice. Another time we made an ice cream that came out whipped up like nothing you've seen, but it just would not melt. It had the most horrible texture you can imagine."
But perseverance paid off and soon Welch had perfected a basic dairy ice cream whose precise ingredients are, in the tradition of Mr Whippy, a secret, but are all natural. Next job: choosing a flavour. After experimentation with lavender and honey, cinnamon and even Earl Grey, Welch settled on rhubarb and custard. "It's a British classic, perfect for the summer," he says, turning towards his pride and joy – the Mr Whippy machine. Time to pull that famous lever.
Cradling a cone we made earlier, I take hold of the handle, pull down and watch as twin pipes of pink and yellow ice cream burst from the nozzle and pile into the cone. It turns out it's quite hard to get that perfect shape and my early efforts look slightly "canine", I decide, but cone three looks more than good enough to eat. And so it proves. The sharpness of the rhubarb and the creamy vanilla of the custard combine beautifully to evoke Sunday lunch crumbles and sunny afternoons on pebbly beaches with jeans rolled up.
Welch is now obsessed with ice cream and serves his rhubarb-and-custard creation in specially made clear plastic cones as a "pre-desert", but not everyone has the space (or money) for a Mr Whippy machine. Homemade ice cream brings to mind unwieldy contraptions collecting dust next to the bread maker and the cappuccino frother, or laborious methods that require hours near the freezer and inordinate stirring. Welch's next challenge was to create a recipe that would offer all the airy, stretchy goodness of soft-serve ice cream van staple without any of the fuss.
The result is a fiendishly simple recipe, shown here, that has just three stages – make the mix, freeze it and blend it. If it means more of us are knocking up our own ice cream, it will be music to the ears of Robin Weir, a food historian and Britain's leading expert on ice cream (his 1993 book, Ices, is the definitive guide to ice cream – a new book is out later this year).
"Britain is the poor relative when it comes to ice cream," he says. "Mr Whippy represents the cheaper end of the business. Just look at the ingredients in a lot of mass-produced ice cream – vegetable oil and stabilisers and emulsifiers. The joy of ice cream is its simplicity – with just air, water, sugar cream or milk and maybe eggs you can make anything from ice cream to gelato and sorbets and parfaits. And the best you can have is the stuff you can make yourself."
Welch agrees. "There's no point spending money on fancy domestic ice-cream machines – this technique will give you a much better product any day. You can freeze loads of different flavours and invite people around for ice cream, blending them to order." There's no time like the present. Welch reaches into his industrial freezer and pulls out a stainless steel bowl full of unappealing frozen cubes. Not much to like so far. Then he loads them into a food mixer, hits go and waits for a few minutes before taking the lid off. As if by magic, a smooth, slightly stretchy dairy ice cream emerges. I stick a spoon in, take a lick and can almost hear waves crashing on to a pebbly beach. "Good, isn't' it?" asks Welch. I don't have to answer.
By Tristan Welch
150g icing sugar
65g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
140ml egg whites
175g plain flour
1 teaspoon cornflour
3-4 tablespoons sesame or poppy seeds
Place the icing sugar into a food processor with the butter. Beat the mix until pale in colour and light in texture.
Add the egg whites gradually, beating the mixture until smooth . Then combine the flour and cornflour, folding until the mixture is smooth.
Use a palette knife to spread the mix thinly into 8cm circles on a baking tray lined with slightly greased baking paper. Sprinkle with the seeds (optional).
Bake in an oven preheated to 170°C for four or five minutes until slightly brown.
Remove immediately from the tray using a palette knife and shape using a cone mould, or curl. Leave to cool
Rhubarb ice cream
125g thinly sliced rhubarb
3 Egg yolks
2 leaves (6g) Gelatin
Make a puree by microwaving the rhubarb, water and grenadine in a covered bowl for three-and-a-half minutes on high. When cooked, blend until smooth.
Bring the cream to simmer, add the puree and bring the mixture back to the boil.
Beat the egg yolks and sugar. Soak the gelatine in very cold water.
Gradually pour the rhubarb and cream infusion on the egg yolks, stirring as you go, until well mixed.
Remove the gelatine from the water, wring out well and add this to the mixture.
Place the ice cream mix back on to a stove and mix constantly but do not boil. Stop cooking when the mix coats the back of a spoon.
Pour the mixture into ice cube moulds and freeze. Shortly before serving, place cubes in a food mixer and blend until creamy.
Recipes by Tristan Welch. For his recipe for custard ice cream, go to www.independent.co.uk/