Monthly Archive for August, 2012

Origin of a Dish: Vanilla Ice Cream

Sage and rosewater ice cream.

In the age-old question vanilla vs. chocolate, chocolate is the older ice cream, but vanilla has been the most popular ice cream of the last 200 years.

Ice cream as we know it descended from the European tradition of  dessert custards made with eggs.   The base for a “custard style” ice cream, or one with egg yolks in it, is the same as that for a baked custard.  So after the freezing process was discovered, it was a natural progression to frozen creams.  Some of the more interesting flavors from Medieval Europe include: saffron, honey & citron, sage & rose-water, laurel leaves, tarragon, celery, and crumbled cookies.

Vanilla was very hard to acquire before the mid-19th century.  It was only produced in Mexico, because of the vanilla orchid’s symbiotic relationship with the local bee–the bee pollinated the flowers.  Instead of vanilla, early ice creams were flavored with orange flower water or rosewater, ingredients commonly used in all sorts of desserts.

The first known written recipe for ice cream is from 1665,  handwritten in the recipe book of Lady Anne Fanshawe.  Notice she flavors her “icy cream” with mace, orange flower water, or ambergris (a ball of smelly brown stuff that whales puke up (ew)).  There’s a great article by culinary historian Ivan Day, who made ice cream from this recipe, here.

The first known ice cream recipe.

Vanilla doesn’t appear in ice cream recipes until the 1760s, and then it would have been used very rarely.  But Vanilla had been a favorite ice cream flavor even before the spice was readily available: there are about a dozen recipes in Thomas Jefferson’s papers, and one of them is for vanilla ice cream (see it here).  The earliest ice cream recipes published in American, in The Virginia Housewife in 1824, includes vanilla as well as almond, coconut, citron, and fresh fruit flavors (see it here, buy it here).   By the early 19th century, it was described as one of the most common ice cream flavors–despite the fact that the spice itself was still fairly uncommon.

I made an ice cream inspired by medieval custards from the pre-vanilla days: sage and rosewater.   I used a basic ice cream recipe and added one teaspoon of rosewater, and steeped a small handful of fresh sage leaves in heated milk.  I added one teaspoon of crumbled, dried sage leaves as the ice cream was freezing in the ice cream maker.

I wasn’t crazy about this ice cream, but I wouldn’t call it bad.  Many of the people who tasted it enjoyed it.   The flavors are extremely subtle: if you didn’t know what you were eating, it would be nearly impossible to identify the taste.  It’s vaguely like soap, but pleasant, if that’s possible.

Next: Ice cream of the future!


Research for this post came from:

Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making by Jeri Quinzio
Lady Ann Fanshawe’s Icy Cream by Ivan Day



Origin of a Dish: Chocolate Ice Cream

Ice cream made with 18th century chocolate!

There are only a few more official days of summer left, so I’m going to use them to their best advantage by devouring as much ice cream as possible.   But chocolate or vanilla?  A very important question.  According to the International Ice Cream Association, 30% of ice cream eaters prefer vanilla, while a mere 10% prefer chocolate.

But more important important to me is the question: which flavor came first, chocolate or vanilla?

Some of the earliest frozen desserts were scoops of snow or shaved ice topped with flavored sugar syrups;  sometimes, these were made into icy drinks.  In the Middle East they were known as sharbates or serbets–the origin of the words sorbet and sherbet.

Drinking Chocolate making tools: a pot and mixing device. From Lady Anne Fanshawe’s journal, c. 1665.

Because of the precedent of frozen drinks, some of the earliest ice cream flavors were drinks, like coffee and tea. Which is why chocolate ice cream was invented long before vanilla.   The first frozen chocolate recipe was published in Naples, Italy in 1692 in the book The Modern Steward.   “Chocolate” was popular hot drink in 17th century Europe, and was  commonly mixed with spices like cinnamon, chili peppers, anise, almonds or musk (glandular extracts from the musk deer (eww)).  Today’s “Mexican Chocolate”  is actually a descendant of how chocolate was served in the Spanish court, not how it was served by the ancient peoples of Mexico.

The Historic Division of Mars make a historic chocolate based of an authentic 18th century recipe.   It looks like a chocolate crayon, and is blended with anise, red pepper, nutmeg, orange zest, and cinnamon.

I decided to make a version of the original chocolate using a basic ice cream recipe and half a cup of grated historic chocolate.  Before the 19th century, ice cream was made using only cream, but I think that gives it a borderline buttery texture.  I like a 2:1 ratio of cream and whole milk.

As the cream and chocolate froze in my modern ice cream maker, the rotated action of the dasher release the oils of the ground spices, and made my kitchen extremely fragrant.  Homemade ice cream is supposed to freeze once in the ice cream maker, and then it should go into the freezer, to become hard-packed ice cream.

I stole my first taste of historic chocolate ice cream off the dasher as it came out of the ice cream maker:  it tasted just like a Mc Donald’s chocolate milkshake, which was super weird.  Or at least how I remember them tasting–I haven’t had one since middle school, when my mom would always buy me one as a treat after visits to the orthodontist.  I tasted the ice cream after it was fully frozen a few hours later: the chocolate wasn’t the prominent taste.  Instead, all the warm spices the chocolate was blended with where in the forefront.  Anise was the most pronounced, but without leaving a  liquorice aftertaste.

If you’re interesting in trying this recipe out, you can buy historic chocolate here.  It’s also great hot with lots of cream and sugar.

Next up: Vanilla!  How America’s favorite ice cream came to be.

Much of the research for this article came from Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making.  Learn more about this book here!  For a history of drinking chocolate, check out A History of the World in Six Glasses here.


Events: The Masters of Social Gastronomy Get Tipsy

MSG is our free monthly lecture series all about the history and science behind some of your favorite foods, and this month, we’re taking on drunkenness and drinking games.

Jonathan Soma  of the Brooklyn Brainery will unravel the science behind inebriation, from the moment it hits your lips to your next-day regrets. We’ll break down “beer before liquor,” red wine’s affection for hangovers, and other boozy old wives’ tales.

After Soma explains the whys of getting drunk, Sarah Lohman, author of Four Pounds Flour, will actually get you drunk! She’ll unveil the history of drinking games, from the Greeks flinging wine at each other in a game of skill, to the American practice of “toasting,” that instigated the prohibition movement. From Geisha Games to Ancient Rock, Paper, Scissors, you’ll be invited on stage to play and compete for fabulous prizes and free drinks!

During storytime, Sarah will tell the tale of the best drinking game ever, The Hour That God Forgot: an annual, Daylight Savings-themed Power Hour that will become a holiday tradition of your own. Soma will cover the history of that standard-bearer of game-based alcohol, the red Solo cup, and how a recent redesign could change the face of flip-cup forever.

Details: Public Assembly, 70 North 6th Street, Williamsburg
Tuesday, August 28, 7pm