I’m currently reading Elizabeth David’s Harvest Of The Cold Months, her final and possibly greatest book. Resting on neither recipes nor personal anecdote, those twin crutches of the food writer, it is rather an extensively researched and meticulously detailed social history of both ice and what David rather Enid Blytonly calls ‘ices’, that is, the various and surprisingly ancient attempts by humanity to store up the best of winter’s cold against the dog days to come. It is an odd book, suffused, despite its easy academic tone, with a certain melancholy, an acknowledgement of the mad futility of the ice trade, the dangerous crossings and mountain paths, the expensive landscaping and building of lakes to provide ice and cold, half-buried houses to store it in – and all for what? Cold wine and elaborate desserts for the tables of Nero, the Medicis, the Sun King, the Empire – all for sherbet.
It’s easy, I suppose, to scoff at the decadents of Florence and beyond, with palates so rarefied they require fresh snow to cool their wine; easy, because in the heat of today’s early summer I could get ice from the ice machine, and put it in my drink, if I had needed to; I didn’t, because my drink was in the fridge. What it may lack in terroir, our ice makes up in convenience. Even more conveniently, you don’t even need it to make ice-cream, let alone the quantities of saltpetre which used to be a necessity; ice-cream-makers, with their freezable bucket and simple paddle-and-motor, must stand alongside John Lanchester’s tinned tomatoes (if not the outmoded CD) as one of the unqualified benefits of modern civilisation. Of course, you still have to make a custard, chill it, realise you have forgotten to freeze the bucket, do that, and wait overnight, but once you have done that you have ice-cream in twenty minutes flat – and what ice-cream! If you have always thought ice-cream could do with more booze, you can make that happen – if you have forever longed for Marmite sorbet, then you could, I am sure, try that too. Or you could make this, because it’s delicious.
RYE & BROWN SUGAR ICE-CREAM
750ml full fat milk
200g rye flakes
6 egg yolks (obviously you make almond biscuits with the whites)
150g dark muscovado sugar
about 25oml double cream
Put the flakes in something and pour the milk over them. Leave in the fridge overnight or a little longer. Strain out the soggy flakes, squeezing some milk out but not so hard you get bits of rye. Discard this beige mush.
Beat the yolks and sugar with a pinch of salt. If you have a freestanding mixer, you’ll want to use it for this, because it takes a long time. The mixture should go much paler and at least double in volume. Meanwhile, bring the milk up to boiling point.
If you’ve timed this right, you can pour the just-scalded milk straight over the still-moving egg mixture, and whisk until well incorporated; if not, make sure you don’t let the milk boil over. Either way, return the lot to the pan, and heat very gently, stirring constantly, until it reaches the right thickness. Two guides to this are that it coats the back of a wooden spoon and that it falls in a steady stream from said spoon when lifted out of the pan; really, though, you just get a feel for it. Don’t, whatever happens, let it boil and scramble.
Now, chill overnight or at least until fairly cold, then churn in your ice-cream-maker. Ta-da!