Like many folks and most towns in Maryland I have a lot of leftover salt on my hands.
Fearing a replay of last year's icy winter, the whole state stocked up on salt. Then winter wimped out. Now we are up to our Bermuda shorts in ice-melting material.
Some people are saving their salt. The folks who clear the roads for Baltimore County, for instance, have said they are going to put 13,200 tons of leftover road salt in storage sheds. But rather ++ than hoard the 25 pounds of "ice melt" in my basement, I plan to celebrate with it. I am going to use this grainy-looking cousin of rock salt to make ice cream.
When I make ice cream at home there is a touchy period during which the ice cubes are supposed to melt. The cubes surround a metal canister containing the creamy mixture that is supposed to become ice cream. These ice cubes have to melt so that the creamy mixture inside the canister can become cold and hard.
I have never understood why raising the temperature of the icy solution on the outside of the canister somehow lowers the temperature of the mixture on the inside of the canister. I think it has to do with a fundamental principle of physics I call "leakage." The cold from the melting ice cubes leaks through the metal walls of the canister and makes the creamy mixture cold.
Even though the fine points of physics involved in this process elude me, I am certain that melting the ice cubes is crucial to making ice cream.
Moreover, I know all melting materials are not equal. Ordinary table salt, for instance, will dissolve ice cubes, but it takes longer than if I use rock salt or ice melt.
In my experience the ice cream that emerges from a table-salt melt is not nearly as hard as the ice cream whose ice cubes have been melted with the rock salt or ice melt.
Two guys who know a lot about making ice cream, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, say that this step in ice cream making involves little pieces of frozen moisture in the ice cream called ice crystals. In "Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book" (Workman Publishing, 1987), the two unorthodox barons of the ice cream business talk of ice crystals.
I surmised that ice crystals are like taxes: They are inevitable, but if you make them smaller and virtually undetectable, they are palatable.
"The faster you freeze your ice cream mix, the smaller your ice crystals will be and the smoother and creamier the ice cream will taste," Ben and Jerry write.
The University of Maryland's Gary Lapenne also told me that ice crystals are important. But he added that no matter what kind of melting material I use, my homemade ice cream is likely to have bigger ice crystals than those found in commercially made ice cream. That is because the commercial operations use a very fast, very cold process called a continuous freezing, while my homemade freezer is an example of a slower process called batch freezing.
In addition to being slower, my homemade ice cream maker puts more air in the ice cream mix than commercial operations, and this extra air will turn into bigger ice crystals, he said.
But Lapenne, who is the manager of the university's dairy plant, told me not to worry about the size of my crystals. Crystals only pose a problem in ice cream that sits in a freezer for days. If you eat ice cream a day or two after you make it at home, crystals won't be a problem, he said.
Lapenne also passed along a basic recipe for ice cream mix that does not use raw eggs. Some people, concerned about the slight chance that raw eggs will cause salmonella poisoning, prefer not to use raw eggs.
The recipe comes from the book "Ice Cream" (Avi Publishing, 1986), written by the late Dr. Wendell Arbuckle, a former University of Maryland professor regarded as one of the nation's leading experts on ice cream. It calls for making a gallon of ice cream base by combining 1 1/3 quarts of heavy cream and 1 1/2 pints of whole milk with 2 cups of sugar and 1 teaspoon of gelatin. The mix can then be transferred to an ice cream maker, fruit and flavorings can be added, and the mix can be frozen following the ice cream maker's instructions.
The ice cream I am looking forward to making comes from the Ben & Jerry's book. It makes 1 quart. I will whisk 2 large eggs for 1 to 2 minutes. I will slowly whisk in 3/4 cup of sugar, then stir an extra minute after the sugar has dissolved. I will pour in 2 cups of whipping cream and a 1 cup of milk.
Next, I will prepare two of the ripest cantaloupe I can find. I will seed them, remove the fruit from the rind, cover the fruit with the juice of one lemon, then puree it in the food processor. I will draw off the juice and add it to the ice cream base mixture.
This base mixture will churn away in my electric ice cream maker. The cold from the melting ice cubes will "leak" into the ice cream. Just before the mix stiffens, I will stop the ice cream
maker, pop off the lid of the canister holding the base and pour in the mashed cantaloupe. Then I will let the ice cream maker get back to work. After about 10 minutes, the canister will stop moving. This will be my signal that the cantaloupe ice cream is ready. Then, thanks to the leftover salt of winter, I will enjoy the sweet taste of warmer times.