IF YOU ARRANGED ice cream makers on a continuum from homier-than-thou to finely tuned machine, most examples would be clustered at either end. Friendly tubs made of down-home pine in one corner, European high-tech chic in the other.
Not that down-home pine is cheap. The standard against which all others are judged, the White Mountain (made in Winchendon, Massachusetts), runs close to $80 for the four-quart, hand-cranked model, $130 if you need electricity to go with it.
If, however, you want a machine that looks like an Italian racing car and will turn out a liter of ice cream every 15 minutes all day and all night with no ice and no salt, begin thinking in the several hundreds. That's a lot of Haagen-Dazs.
By the time you add the cost of cream, sugar and flavoring to the cost of the machine, making ice cream at home is not inexpensive. So the first rule is that you should do it because you like to do it.
Pushing a button may be faster, but sitting in the back yard turning a crank seems to be a gentler proposition. It takes about 20 minutes of cranking to turn out a gallon of ice cream. Myrna Peters, a Silver Spring bookkeeper, has been doing it since she was a child growing up in the country. "My mother had a little White Mountain that was her mother's," Peters says. "In the winter we went walking along the roadside getting ice and then we'd bring it back and make ice cream."
Today homemade ice cream is the only dessert Peters and her family serve when they have company. They make mostly vanilla, cranked by hand in a four-quart White Mountain. Then guests build their own sundaes.
A conventional ice cream maker consists of an outer tub to hold the ice and salt, an inner can that holds the ice cream mixture, a dasher that fits inside the can and agitates the ice cream while the can is being turned, and a gear mechanism that makes the can turn.
There are two main things that can go wrong with a conventional ice cream maker: the outer tub can leak, and more serious, the gears that do the turning can wear out and strip. In most ice cream makers the gears, gear frames and dashers are made of nylon or plastic. What sets the White Mountain apart is its sturdy-looking cast-aluminun innards. The dasher is also cast aluminum--meaning it won't lose heart when the ice cream is stiff and almost frozen--with two wooden scrapers on either side to clear the hardening cream away from the sides of the can.
Parts for the White Mountain can be ordered separately if they need to be replaced. White Mountain recommends soaking the wooden tub before its first use so the wood will swell and fit together tightly, and repeating the procedure if the machine isn't used a lot. If it is used often, it doesn't have a chance to dry out. Myrna Peters, who uses her machine frequently, also rubs the outside of the tub with boiled linseed oil now and then to keep it from drying out.
White Mountain makes both electric and hand-cranked models in various sizes, and all come with a one-year warranty. They are available at kitchenware and some hardware stores.
Other, cheaper models are available too, including some at discount stores. They generally have synthetic tubs (which can't leak) and flimsier gear and dasher mechanisms. Whether you need to pay more depends on how often you intend to use your machine. An ice cream maker used once a year would not wear out for a long time..
In the high-tech category are two models, both of Italian origin. They operate on the same principle as your freezer, using freon and a compressor instead of ice and salt. Operating them is an exercise in glorious hedonism. The mixture is poured into the container, a button pushed, and 15 or 20 minutes later--no muss, no fuss--there is ice cream or sherbet.
Besides their breathtaking prices, the only minor inconvenience incurred by these machines is the fact that you can't remove the ice cream container from its base. These machines make relatively small quantities at once--up to a litre--but they can be operated continuously as long as the electricity holds out. The Minigel, available at Williams-Sonoma, will be on sale through the summer for $650. The Simac Il Gelataio, available at Kitchen Bazaar, has been on sale lately for $329.
Several years ago a little electric machine that you put in your freezer was all the rage. Still available and made by Salton, the machine uses no ice or salt, depending instead on the freezing capability of the freezer. Electricity turns the can. Its problems are its small capacity (about three cups of mixture) and the length of time it takes to turn out ice cream (up to a couple of hours, depending on the temperature of the freezer), and the fact that you have an electric cord sticking out of your freezer for that length of time. It costs about $35.