I find it ironic that just as the polar ice caps are melting, more and more Americans are obsessed about the ice in their freezers: whether to let a machine make it or do it themselves. If the latter, what type of tray to use, how to pop out the ice, how to craft a cube so clear that you can read the fine print on the back of a bottle of Angostura bitters through it . . .
I say “more and more Americans,” but who knows if that’s really true? All I know is that after writing recently about the joys of artisanal ice-cube making — the result of my freezer’s icemaker giving up the ghost — I heard from dozens of readers eager to share their thoughts.
Some of those thoughts were: “What a stupid article.” All we can do is feel sorry for such people. Their hearts are small and cramped, incapable of seeing the sublime beauty in a handcrafted ice cube and the honest toil involved in its creation.
Michel Stevens of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., claims to be an artisanal cube aficionado. “I have never, nor will I ever, own an ice maker,” Michel wrote. “They hog precious freezer space, intimidating my heritage pork chops into huddling woefully in a corner. If your water is particulate laden, they require expensive filters. In the middle of the night they make alien noises, disturbing my sleep with dreams of space invaders.”
My column reminded Patrick Duffy of Laurel, Md., of the novelty cubes his father made. Wrote Patrick: “He considered himself an amateur bartender, and for special events/holidays back in the late 1950s/early 1960s he amazed us by serving his ‘special’ kiddie cocktails garnished with cubes featuring maraschino cherries frozen inside.”
Patrick’s father never divulged his “secret” technique for making the cubes. “We just thought he was brilliant,” Patrick wrote. “Of course we eventually figured out he used those trays to freeze partial cubes, add the cherry, top off the tray sections and finish freezing.”
Making ice sounds basic, but cube artisans have their standards. Ann Zee of Fairfax, Va., managed to cadge her mother-in-law’s ice-cube trays, which make big, beautiful, almost square cubes. “They’re my pride and joy,” Ann wrote. “Grounds for murder in my home are using tap water to refill the trays — our tap water tastes like the smell of a swamp. Only filtered water from a Brita pitcher can be used.”
Ric Apatoff of Clarksville, Md., is even more exacting. He uses filtered water that has been boiled in the microwave in a Pyrex cup and then poured into silicone trays resting in the freezer on paper or cloth towels.
“I read about this,” Ric wrote. “Makes clearer and cleaner ice. Still get some cloudiness in center of cubes. Would need specialty ice making equipment to fully get rid of that by extracting water from the centers before it completely freezes and injecting fresh water in. Has to do with gases trapped in the water.”
A glassy cube of flawless clarity is the Holy Grail, the El Dorado, the sasquatch of artisanal ice-cube makers. There are many recommendations on the Web about how to achieve this. The Thomas Edison of do-it-yourself crystal-clear ice is Camper English, a cocktails writer who blogs at Alcademics.com and has devoted hours to the study of this thorny problem.
Camper says that boiling the water or using distilled water has little effect on clarity. Rather, one must control the direction the water freezes, a process that can involve resting trays inside a water-filled cooler that then goes into a freezer. One complex method involves repurposing an aquarium pump to keep water circulating.
This is serious stuff for something as temporary as an ice cube, but humans are curious and inventive, and the spirit of inquiry is to be complimented.
Some cube lore is simpler. Linda Crist of Fairfax said her mother was a proponent of keeping ice cubes in a brown paper bag in the freezer. “They stay harder longer,” Linda wrote.
No snickers, please.
Ice cubes can only be enjoyed if they are available, and the weakness of every human-powered ice-cube tray is that it must be refilled manually. Before Karen Reznek of Berwyn Heights, Md., had a fridge with icemaking capabilities, she was forever reminding her offspring to refill empty ice-cube trays.
“However, that didn’t happen, and I was forever going to get ice only to discover an empty bin and empty trays,” she wrote.
“One summer I was fed up and went on strike, refusing to fill another tray. And we went without ice. All summer long. Not one person besides myself was willing to refill a tray.”
A whole summer without ice? Now that’s cold.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.