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Active Ingredient: Ice Cream Base

From a Founding Father to Humphry Slocombe, ice cream keeps innovating

ice cream base

America’s first ice cream recipe was written by Thomas Jefferson in the 1780s —his hand-written instructions call for two bottles of good cream, six egg yolks, half a pound of sugar, and a stick of vanilla—and we stuck with his basic plan for about 200 years. 

By not adding any flavors, save the vanilla stick, Jefferson ate what we now would consider a plain ice cream base.

During the last few decades, though, manufacturers began to add stabilizers, emulsifiers, and preservatives to ice cream. It often contains ingredients like cellulose, which Jefferson would never have dreamed of putting into ice cream (though he could have, since it's just finely ground wood pulp.)

But a new generation of Bay Area ice cream makers —such as San Francisco operations Humphry Slocombe, Bi-Rite Creamery and Smitten Ice Cream —are reclaiming the Jeffersonian ice cream ideal of simplicity, starting with organic ingredients from Sonoma.

Their final product is anything but old-fashioned.

All ice cream starts with ice cream base, which is easy to make at home. There are many variations on the recipe, but the basic idea is to heat cream and milk with sugar, whisk in egg yolks and more sugar, then warm the mixture below a boil to create a custard. Additional flavors are added by steeping ingredients in the warm liquid, or mixing others at the end.

Pastry chefs at fancy restaurants can produce small batches of ice cream the same way that a home cook would, but California requires that larger facilities follow very specific regulations to ensure that the base is pasteurized by licensed operators with special equipment.

In practice, this means that even our local “artisanal” ice creams begin from bases made elsewhere. Kris Hoogerhyde, co-owner of Bi-Rite Creamery in the Mission, laughs when she recalls that she and Anne Walker started their business on the assumption that they’d be making ice cream the same way that they had as pastry chefs. When they discovered the extent of the regulations, they became the third scoop shop to use Straus Family Creamery, based in Petaluma.

ice cream base 4

Since then, a number of ice cream makers around the Bay Area have turned to Straus ice cream base, which is not only local but also organic. The Straus recipe for ice cream base is purposely very simple —organic cream, organic milk, organic egg yolk, and organic cane sugar—and the butterfat content is 14%, which is slightly lower than the percentage in Straus’s packaged ice cream, allowing its commercial customers to augment the richness of their final product with ingredients like chocolate or caramel.

So how do ice cream shops using the same base distinguish themselves? The secret tends to be a combination of flavors and process. At Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream, Jake Godby swears by the low speed of his churning machine, which creates a denser final product. He starts with Straus ice cream base and cold-infuses ingredients overnight, unlike a home cook who would use heat to extract flavors. Godby is happy working with Straus—he recently toured the dairy and was impressed with their whole operation, not least when he witnessed a calf being born—but he thinks that most small ice cream shops would rather have the chance to make their own base, if only they had the same influence as the large dairy lobby.

ice cream base 2

For now, though, Humphry Slocombe and Bi-Rite are both buying hundreds of gallons of Straus ice cream base every week. Each shop features its own creative suite of flavors, which inspire devoted fans to swear that they are totally different.

And it’s true: the experience of eating Bi-Rite’s Salted Caramel or Balsamic Strawberry is totally unlike that of Humphry Slocombe’s Harvey Milk & Honey or Secret Breakfast (bourbon ice cream with corn-flake cookie crumbles).

ice cream base 3

Meanwhile, a new organic ice cream base has recently joined the market that Straus pioneered. Three Twins, also based in Petaluma, has scoop shops in San Rafael, Napa, and San Francisco, and it sells ice cream base that local shops can use to create their own products. (Neither Straus nor Three Twins sells ice cream base to retail customers.) Whereas Straus heats its base to 170 degrees Fahrenheit for 19 seconds, Three Twins slowly brings its base to the pasteurization point of 165 degrees, and holds it for about 30 minutes in a double-walled 550-gallon tanks. Founding twin Neal Gottlieb explains that using a slower batch process produces a deeper custard flavor.

The Three Twins recipe is similar, also comprised of organic cream, sugar, milk, and egg yolks, with a 14% butter fat content—but they also produce a low-sugar, almost-eggless base for a new shop called Smitten Ice Cream, which freezes its base with liquid nitrogen. Freezing ice cream to order with liquid nitrogen creates smaller ice crystals and a smoother texture, removing the need for egg.

Smitten owner Robyn Fisher developed the first prototype of her Kelvin Machine in 2009, and she pulled it around in a red wagon powered by a battery pack until she opened her shop last spring.

ice cream base 5

Watching the machine swirl with vapor in the window, you can see the same organic ingredients that Jefferson would have used, transformed by a technique far removed from the open fire and ice-bucket called for in his recipe. I like to imagine Jefferson sitting in a swivel chair (which he invented), admiring the fine crystallization of a nitrogen-cooled ice cream cone. I think he would have liked it. The more ice cream changes, the more it stays the same.

***Active Ingredient recipe***

Here is Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten recipe for ice cream, currently housed at the Library of Congress, with a transcription below. Jefferson might not have thought of his creation as a "ice cream base," but it is essentially that.

2 bottles of good cream

6 yolks of eggs

1/2 lb. sugar

Mix the yolks & sugar

Put the cream on a fire in a casserole, first putting in a stick of Vanilla. When near boiling take it off & pour it gently into the mixture of eggs & sugar. Stir it well. Put it on the fire again stirring it thoroughly with a spoon to prevent it’s sticking to the casserole. When near boiling take it off and strain it thro' a towel.

Put it in the Sabottiere then set it in ice an hour before it is to be served. Put into the ice a handful of salt. Put ice all around the Sabottiere i.e. a layer of ice a layer of salt for three layers. Put salt on the coverlid of the Sabotiere & cover the whole with ice. Leave it still half a quarter of an hour. Then turn the Sabottiere in the ice 10 minutes. Open it to loosen with a spatula the ice from the inner sides of the Sabotiere. Shut it & replace it in the ice. Open it from time to time to detach the ice from the sides. When well taken (prise) stir it well with the Spatula.

Put it in moulds, justling it well down on the knee. Then put the mould into the same bucket of ice. Leave it there to the moment of serving it. To withdraw it, immerse the mould in warm water, turning it well till it will come out & turn it into a plate.


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