Of course, there are vanilla ices and vanilla ices. I suspect that there are still some of us who think the whipped-up white stuff that is extruded from star-shaped nozzles in vans is vanilla ice. And that some well-known proprietary brands, sold in blocks and tubs, are also vanilla ice. Well, apart from the excessive amounts of air that are introduced to these impostors, purely for maximum volume purposes (particularly in the first example), both types would not have the nerve seriously to suggest that, in today's market - with superior ices such as Haagen Dazs now around - they bear any relation to a properly made vanilla ice cream.
Allegedly, some of the whipped-up muck used to contain fats derived from pigs to give it body and stability, along with the grossest artificial flavours. Do you remember how it left an unpleasant coating on the tongue? I also recall blocks of yellow Cornish vanilla, with rural scenes sporting cows, perhaps, green fields, rays of yellow sunshine and milk pails. Where did that yellow colour come from? Possibly from the same source that Mr Bird uses in his custard powder.
But I think we have become a touch more choosy over the years. It is not as if we lack decent raw materials with which to make good ices, or bigger and better freezer compartments that can accommodate a variety of excellent machinery for making home-made ices of any flavour under the sun. Sorbets, too. On a blisteringly hot summer's day, a spoonful of a super-fresh sorbet, that has been churned from freshly squeezed orange juice (the rind of which has previously been rubbed all over with a sugar lump which soaks up the essential oils in the skin and is then incorporated into the juice) is better than any ice lolly you can buy. Grapefruit is another favourite. Again, just the juice, a little sugar and a squeeze of lemon. Fruit pulp sorbets, such as strawberry, raspberry, blackcurrant (which I loathe) or - heaven forbid - kiwi, I can quite happily pass over. Somehow these are too rich and cloying. But, for me, the finest interpretation of a frozen confection is something that originates in Italy. It is called granita - and the version using coffee stands above all others.
The nearest British equivalent to granita is what we used to refer to as water-ice. Not so much a sorbet - which is smooth and churned in an ice-cream maker - but a more granular construction, with naturally formed flakes of ice. These are made manually, by stirring and lifting the mixture with a fork as it freezes, so the ice crystals become separated from one another, and gradually become light and almost crisp (a whisk is too forceful and will "mush" it too much).
At home, I keep a couple of vanilla pods in with my coffee beans. This gives a lovely subtle flavour to a cup of coffee, as it also does to coffee granita.
570mls/1 pint very strong coffee; espresso is best
110g/4oz caster sugar
Chill a shallow metal tray in the freezer in advance
While the coffee is still hot, whisk in the sugar until it dissolves. Cool completely and then pour into the chilled tray. Place in the freezer for about an hour and then have a look. What you are looking for is ice crystals forming around the edge of the tray (the opposite to ice cream or sorbets, as here the ice crystals are the essential charm of the thing). Once the crystals have reached about two or three inches towards the middle of the tray, gently lift them with a fork into the not-so-frozen coffee. Return to the freezer. Have another look in about half an hour and repeat the forking. Continue this procedure until all the mixture has formed crystals; it may take up to three hours, but is well worth it. Once made, tip into a suitable lidded plastic container and store in the freezer until ready to use; it will keep its granular texture for several days, but after that the granita starts to firm up into a block. However, it is simple to rectify this by melting the ice over heat and going through the motions once more. To serve the granita, pile into tall glasses and top with a spoonful of creme fraiche or whipped cream.
Old-fashioned vanilla ice cream
300mls/11fl oz milk
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
3 egg yolks
125g/412 oz caster sugar
300 mls/11fl oz double cream
Gently heat together the milk and vanilla pod. As it comes to the boil, give it a whisk so as to disperse the vanilla seeds into the milk. Cover, and leave to infuse for at least one hour, preferably longer (overnight is fine, but in a cool place). Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until light and fluffy. Lift the vanilla pod out of the milk and pour the milk on to the egg yolks while continuing to whisk. Pour the mixture into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and cook over very gentle heat, constantly stirring with a wooden spoon, as if making custard (old-fashioned vanilla ice cream is essentially frozen custard). When the mixture has slightly thickened - do not let it boil - pour it into a metal bowl, or another pan (hot liquids cool quickest in metal), and add the cream. Leave to cool completely. Pour into an ice-cream churn and freeze according to the manufacturer's instructions.
If you do not have an ice-cream machine, then chill the mixture in a tray in the freezer. When the mixture is semi-firm, whip it out and give it a quick whizz in the food processor - but only for a couple of seconds - preferably having chilled the processor bowl in advance. You may have to do this three or four times. All the machine does is to stop ice particles forming as it churns the mixture and, to a certain degree, the processor will perform a similar task, albeit in several separate motions. Small and well-made ice-cream machines are now widely available and are a good investment, as ice cream is one of the most convenient and simple desserts to make quickly, and, obviously, particularly popular in summer.
Caramel ice cream
It is important with this particular ice cream to take the caramel as far as you dare. Try to get it as dark as possible before adding the cream. But do take care to stand back when doing this, as there is a lot of hissing, bubbling and seething.
250g/9oz caster sugar
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways and chopped into several pieces
200mls/7fl oz double cream
350mls/12fl oz milk
8 egg yolks
Put the sugar in a roomy and heavy-bottomed pan and place on a moderate heat. Watch carefully as it melts. Be patient and do not stir. Add the vanilla pod and swirl the pan around a bit, then turn the heat up after it has started to become a syrup. The sugar will now start to turn golden. Carry on cooking until the caramel is almost the colour of treacle (if you do burn it - and I have on several occasions - then there is no alternative but to start again). Now add the cream. After the volcanic eruption has died down, put aside. Warm the milk in another pan and keep hot. Beat the egg yolks in a bowl with a whisk until thick and then gradually incorporate the hot milk. Add this to the caramel/cream mixture and mix thoroughly together. Now cook this caramel custard in the same way as the vanilla ice cream, except that with this one it is easier to pass the whole mixture through a sieve rather than trying to pick out the bits of vanilla pod. Freeze the mixture in the same manner as the vanilla ice cream
Simon Hopkinson is co-proprietor and founder chef of Bibendum, the acclaimed South Kensington restaurant. He will write here every weekReuse content