Making hand-cranked ice cream—and passing the torch

Making hand-cranked ice cream—and passing the torch
(J.M. Giordano/City Paper)

I was digging around in my dump of a basement the other day and caught a glimpse of aqua-blue fiberglass. It was the hand-cranking ice cream maker that my mom had recently handed over to me—a sort of changing of the guard from when she was mistress of our family's summer vacation and its ice cream ritual.

My mom is the eldest of three sisters, and her mom is the youngest of three. These six women made up her family and we always vacationed with them for a week each summer.


The aqua-blue fiberglass contraption and the peach ice cream we made in it were integral parts of our summer vacation. Mom was the cook, cruise director, and mistress of the ice cream. She found the "Maid of Honor" ice cream maker at the thrift store, then cut out a recipe from the newspaper and pasted it in her over-stuffed notebook. She peeled and chopped the peaches purchased from a roadside stand. She mixed half of the peaches with sugar, vanilla, lemon juice, cream, and milk, and mashed the rest before putting us all to work cranking.

Nearly everyone took turns cranking—me, my two brothers, our cousin, Mom, her youngest sister Colleen, Grandma, and her older sister Rita. I don't remember my dad cranking; he would stay inside playing Tonk with Woodrow, Grandma's husband. Perhaps Mom tasked him with keeping the dreaded Woodrow out of the way? We all had our jobs.

Aunt Rita—a dead-ringer for Mr. Drysdale's secretary on the "Beverly Hillbillies," sharing Miss Hathaway's fondness for Bermuda shorts, penny loafers, and bird watching—was not fond of Woodrow. She was fond of being out in the night air, glad to take her turn at the crank, and relieved to be spared his company. That Woodrow grew really nice tomatoes and cured some very tasty country hams were the only kind things she had to say about him.

Grandma, being generally of a blasé, non-attentive nature, was not particularly eager to have a go. But with some coercion, she'd take a turn after she'd finished her cigarette. I held her can of Pabst while Mom reminded her how to do it.

Aunt Rosita did not take a turn because she preferred to stay inside, recumbent on the couch. From this post, she'd inquire every five minutes "Is it ready yet?"

I could hear her voice—almost—as I stood looking at the aqua-blue fiberglass bucket in the basement and made a decision. Charged with providing dessert for my neighbor's dinner party that evening, I planned to show up with my "Maid of Honor" and the ice cream "custard" to go in it. Knowing there would be kids there, it seemed a great idea—in spite of the fact that the party was just a couple of hours away, I had no rock salt, nor the luxury of time to prepare a custard.

Mango-lime ice cream spiked with a wee bit of ancho chili powder, I decided, would compliment the New Mexican menu my neighbors had described. More importantly, it offered a real advantage in a time crunch: pectin. Mangoes, having lots of this soluble gelatinous polysaccharide that is used to set jams and jellies, allowed me to skip cooking a custard. Because of the pectin, a richness and weight on the tongue is achieved without eggs. Instead of having to heat milk, temper eggs, cook the custard, then chill it, all I had to do was puree the mango with sugar and lime, stir in the milk and cream, and leave it in the fridge until churning time.

I did that and excused myself after the pulled-pork tacos, missing the watermelon and cojita cheese course, to run out to get salt. I returned to an unruly mob of urchins demanding dessert; word had gotten out about the ice cream. Pressure on, my husband and I quickly filled the canister with the mango mix, inserted the dasher, placed the canister inside the bucket, layered the ice and salt around it, and secured the crank mechanism. Placing a towel over the bucket for insulation, but also to provide a place to rest a hand while the other arm is cranking, we summoned the little beasts who jostled each other for a turn.

We threw in a science lesson.

What Morton's sells as "ice cream salt" is rock salt, we explained. Adding salt to the ice depresses the freezing point, making it possible to transfer cold by conduction from the ice water to the cream mixture, an effect known as the endothermic process. Rock salt is used rather than table salt because the larger grains spread more evenly throughout the ice bath. Smaller-grained salt has a tendency to clump, and though it causes the cream to freeze faster, the freeze is uneven so ice crystals form. The desired uniform and creamy texture is then lost.

In my best Mary Poppins manner, I supervised. As I learned from Mom, I topped off the ice on occasion, and kept an eye on the water level. (Most buckets are marked or have a drainage hole to keep salt water from getting above or into the canister.) I made sure, too, that the little monsters did not get over-zealous when cranking: slow and steady is the right tempo for achieving a velvety consistency.

In addition to the science lesson, the kids embraced the team effort, benefitted from a sense of purpose and connection, and enjoyed the suspense. Meanwhile, the parents sat back, drank wine, and watched the frost form on the outside of the bucket.

As the mix froze, it became quite stiff, so we roused the adults for their turn. When the dasher was just barely able to pivot (after about 30 minutes of churning), we knew it was time to let the ice cream rest and set up. We covered the bucket with a towel and left it for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, the kids clamoured like Aunt Rosita, wondering, Is it ready yet?

Mango-Lime Ice Cream


(Makes enough to fill a one-gallon canister. We fed five lovely, enthusiastic children and their pleasant parents with some to spare.)

10-12 ripe mangoes, peeled, pitted, and chopped

5-6 limes, zested and juiced (to yield about _ cup)

2 cups of sugar

4 cups of whole milk

4 cups heavy cream

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ancho chili powder (optional)

An ice cream maker

Rock Salt

Lots of ice

An old towel

1.In batches, puree the chopped mangoes in a food processor using half of the lime juice, all of the lime zest, and all of the sugar.

2.In a large bowl, whisk the puree with the milk, cream, and salt until well blended.

3.If using, add 1/8 teaspoon ancho chili powder, and continue to add more powder and lime juice to suit your personal taste, keeping in mind that flavors will not be as pronounced when the ice cream is frozen, so go a little bolder than you might usually.

4.Cover the mixture and chill in the fridge for at least four hours. It will keep in there for three to four days before churning.

5.Follow the instructions for your maker, if you have them. If not, consult the general guidelines of this article, remembering to layer the salt and the ice (ratio=5 cups ice/1 cup salt). You might also find instructions online if you're using a vintage machine.