Perhaps it's because of our sultry summers, but residents in the Maryland-Virginia area were probably the first in America to enjoy ice cream and other frozen desserts. According to Anne Cooper Funderburg's carefully researched "Chocolate, Strawberry and Vanilla: A History of American Ice Cream," (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1996) the first known mention of ice cream being eaten in the Colonies (it was already known in Europe) appeared in a 1744 journal entry by William Black, a Virginia official. On Saturday, May 19, he attended a dinner hosted in Annapolis by Maryland Governor Thomas Bladen, who served "Among the Rarities, . . . some fine Ice Cream. . . . " Black added that it contained strawberries and milk.
The source of the ice used to create the Maryland governor's novel dessert isn't known. However, a 1759 account by Virginia governor Francis Fauquier indicated that after an "extraordinary storm" he had put hail to work freezing ice cream. Presumably, he followed the usual method of the day and packed the hail with salt around a metal "pot freezer," which was rotated by hand. Since ice cream makers with dashers and hand cranks hadn't been invented yet, the ice cream also had to be frequently removed from the inside wall of the container with a scraper.
Despite the difficulties of obtaining and storing ice in summer and the labor involved in making it in that era, ice cream quickly grew in popularity among the Washington elite. Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Elizabeth, served it to President George Washington during a dinner in 1789. In August of the same year, the president and first lady likewise served ice cream at a party attended by Vice President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, and Chief Justice John Jay and his wife, Sarah. (An inventory of Mount Vernon shortly after Washington's death listed 10 ice cream pots among the kitchenware.)
Thomas Jefferson was also a great fan of ice cream, especially vanilla, which he first enjoyed in France and may have introduced to America. During his presidency, he sometimes served ice cream balls encased in warm pastry. According to Barbara G. Carson's "Ambitious Appetites: Dining, Behavior, and Patterns of Consumption in Federal Washington" (Aia, 1990), this generated "great astonishment and murmurings" from the dinner guests. By the end of the 18th century, the commercial harvesting and shipping of ice from the cold states to warmer ones was taking hold, and Washington-area residents could purchase ice year-round. The ready availability -- and eventual affordability -- of ice, plus the invention of the hand-cranked, dasher-style ice cream machine and appearance of soda fountains in the mid-19th century changed the ice cream experience dramatically. Ordinary folks, as well as the region's elite, could enjoy the amazing pleasure of keeping cool with ice cream, sorbets, sherbets and such.
Today, electric-powered ice cream machines have eliminated the need for hand cranking, and models that involve pre-chilling the tub in the freezer also eliminate the need for ice and salt. Some ice creams and frozen desserts can even be made in the food processor, so no special equipment is required at all. Despite the fact that these sweet treats are finally easy to create, they are as well received as they were 250 years ago. Here is one of my favorites:
Vanilla Frozen Custard
Makes about 1 quart
The ingredients in modern frozen custard recipes haven't changed much since Thomas Jefferson brought a recipe back to Monticello from France. At the time, vanilla was still little known in America. Provided by his personal French chef and written down by Jefferson himself, his version called for two bottles of "good" cream, six egg yolks, a half-pound of sugar and a "stick" of vanilla.
As its name suggests, this recipe involves readying a custard mixture. The flavor is richer, the color creamier and the texture smoother than that of regular vanilla ice cream.
11/2 cups heavy (whipping) cream
3-inch vanilla bean, halved lengthwise (may substitute 11/2 teaspoons vanilla extract in addition to amount below)
3 or 4 nickel-size pieces lemon zest
2 cups whole milk
4 large egg yolks
Generous 3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
11/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
In a heavy 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the cream, vanilla bean and lemon zest just to a simmer. Do not boil. Remove the pan from the heat; set aside to steep for 45 minutes.
In a heat-proof bowl using a fork, combine the milk, egg yolks, sugar and salt until well blended. Microwave on high power for 41/2 to 6 minutes, stopping and stirring each minute, until the mixture is very hot but does not boil. Set aside.
Return the cream mixture to medium-high heat and heat just until hot. Stirring constantly, slowly pour half the cream into the milk mixture. Pour this mixture back into the remaining cream in the pan and stir well. (This prevents the custard from curdling.) Place the pan over medium-low heat and cook, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom of the pan, to prevent the mixture from boiling or scorching. It may be necessary to adjust the heat. Watch carefully; if bubbles appear at the edges, immediately lift the pan from the burner and stir vigorously to cool the mixture slightly. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens slightly and is very hot to the touch, 4 or 5 minutes. Immediately remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the vanilla extract. Pour the mixture through a fine sieve placed over a storage container; discard the solids. Cover and refrigerate until very cold, at least 4 hours and preferably overnight.
Pour the chilled mixture into an ice cream maker and proceed according to manufacturer's directions. Transfer to a chilled storage container, cover and chill until firm. May freeze for up to 2 weeks.
Per 1/2 cup serving: 295 calories, 4 gm protein, 22 gm carbohydrates, 21 gm fat, 176 mg cholesterol, 12 gm saturated fat, 86 mg sodium, 0 gm dietary fiber
Nancy Baggett is the author of "The All-American Cookie Book" (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). She can be reached through her Web site, www.kitchenlane.com.