French Ice Cream Base

All of the recipes printed here start with a custard base. Once you master the base, making any ice cream, from a simple, demure vanilla to lusty lavender, is easy.

French Ice Cream Base

By October 21, 2012



  1. Combine cream with half of the sugar and the salt in a saucepan. Place over medium heat; let come to a boil. Set aside to cool for 20 minutes.
  2. Whisk egg yolks with remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a mixing bowl. Add milk to yolk mixture; whisk until combined. Add egg mixture to cream and place over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thickened. This can take from 5- 15 minutes, depending on heat of base when you begin. When done, the custard should coat the back of a wooden spoon. (If you swipe the back of the spoon with your finger, the swipe mark in the custard should not immediately fill in. )
  3. Strain the mixture into a bowl, let cool slightly, then refrigerate from 4 hours to overnight to chill completely.

Making the base: Heat cream on the stove until lightly boiling. This scalding smooths out the cream, making it less likely that ice crystals will form in the finished product. Steep the cream with herbs, spices or other flavorings for at least 20 minutes, or overnight for a more assertive taste. Use caution because stronger flavors can deepen tremendously if they are left in the cream too long. I like to strain out the flavorings, but it’s not a necessary step.

Next, whip egg yolks with half the sugar until light yellow. The sugar stabilizes the eggs, priming them to be mixed with hot liquid. Mix the eggs with milk, then add it to the cream mixture and cook gently over medium heat, stirring constantly.

Many people worry that they will wind up scrambling the eggs or won’t get the thickness right. But in testing the recipes, I let the custard boil briefly more than once and it never curdled on me.

Here’s a trick — strain the custard before it cools. That way, if a tiny bit of egg does scramble, you’ll still have a smooth finished product. A little of scrambling won’t affect the taste significantly.

One way to judge the thickness is to dip a wooden spoon into the custard. Remove it, hold the spoon horizontally and swipe the custard with your finger, making a line. If the line doesn’t immediately fill with dripping custard, then it is done.

Cooling the base: This step is the most important. The custard must be cooled completely, until cold to the touch. If you’re in a hurry, transfer the custard to a bowl and put the bowl on top of an ice water bath. Stir the custard constantly while it is on the water bath to release some of the heat.

Otherwise, let the custard cool in a bowl on the counter for a bit, then put the bowl in the refrigerator for at least four hours or overnight. The custard will thicken more as it cools.

Adding flavors: Once you master the custard, embellishments are easy to add. To make fruit ice cream, fold fresh fruit puree or crushed fruit into the cooled custard. Try to use the ripest, almost overripe, seasonal fruit. If the fruit isn’t as intense as you’d like, add a little sugar or lemon to balance the flavors.

Some fruit, like melons, work best raw, as in the Mitchell’s Cantaloupe ice cream recipe. For those recipes, the custard should be completely cold or the fruit may become bitter.

Other fruits, such as berries, benefit from a bit of cooking to bring out their juices, colors and a jammier, sweeter quality to the fruit.

Freezing: This is where your ice cream maker comes into play. There are plenty of options in the marketplace now, and all of them will make any kind of frozen dessert, including sorbet and frozen yogurt.

The easiest, simplest and least expensive models are the modern machines that use bowls containing an enclosed outer casing of liquid that stays frozen long enough to make your ice cream. Then you return the bowl to the freezer to re-freeze the liquid for your next batch of frozen dessert.

The fanciest and most expensive ice cream makers have built-in freezing units. There are no parts to be frozen and you can turn out batch after batch of ice cream. This is great for parties or catering, but not necessarily for the novice at home.

Then there are the old-fashioned, labor-intensive hand-crank machines, which some stalwarts still insist make the best ice cream. These machines require rock salt, ice and a strong arm (or a few kids) to churn the ice cream. The salt is necessary to lower the temperature of the ice water bath so that the ice cream it surrounds will freeze more effectively.

Some electric models, including one The Chronicle recommends (see accompanying story, this page), also use ice and rock salt.

Whatever your machine, keep in mind that different custards will freeze at different rates, depending on volume or temperature. If your maker doesn’t get the ice cream to the consistency you desire, simply pack the ice cream into a container and let it firm up in the freezer.

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