Today we’ll take a look at the basic recipe for everyone’s favorite summer dessert: ice cream! The Italian version of ice cream, called gelato, meaning simply ‘frozen’, is typified by the density of its texture and intensity of flavor. It achieves these qualities by avoiding any fillers or fluffers like whipped cream or egg whites. The basic batter for gelato is simply milk and/or cream, thickened with sugar and egg yolks.
Here’s how you make the most basic of gelati, variously called gelato di crema, gelato fior di latte or, if you flavor the batter with vanilla, gelato di crema alla vaniglia. Practically all other gelati begin with this basic recipe and add additional flavors, whether chocolate, pistachio or other nuts, or some sort of fruit purée.
In Italy, gelato is more often something to eat out, as a kind of snack, than a dessert to have at home. For this reason, and with a gelateria available literally around the corner from most homes, Italians don’t generally make their own gelato. But those of us not lucky enough to live there, this recipe is guaranteed to transport you to the Old Country, if only for a few blissful moments… – Memorie di Angelina
- 500 ml (2 cups) milk or equal parts milk and cream
- 150g sugar (¾ cup)*
- 4 egg yolks
- 1 vanilla pod, split open down the side, or a piece of lemon zest (optional)
* NB: Superfine sugar is best, but regular granulated will do.
- Pour the milk, or milk and cream, half of the sugar and, if using, the vanilla pod or lemon zest, into a saucepan and bring the milk nearly to a boil. When the very first bubbles begin to appear, take it immediately off the heat and let it cool. (If using the optional vanilla or lemon zest, you can cover the saucepan, which will slow down the cooling process and prolong the steeping process, thus drawing out more of their flavor.)
- When the milk has cooled, put the egg yolks into an electric mixer together with the other half of the sugar. Beat at a high setting until the egg yolks and sugar have been totally combined and developed a creamy quality. You will be able to see ripples as the mixer turns.
- Lower the setting and slowly add your cooled milk (from which you will have removed the vanilla or lemon zest if using) in a steady stream. Mix until everything is well amalgamated.
- Transfer the mixture back into the saucepan. Heat the mixture gently until the eggs thicken it into a thin custard—thick enough to coat a spoon lightly—but not so much that the egg curdles. Be attentive, increasing the heat very gradually from low to medium or medium-high, stirring constantly until you begin to ‘feel’ the mixture beginning to thicken, and then lowering the heat immediately to low. If you fee the mixture is getting too hot, you can add a bit of cold milk to the saucepan to avoid curdling.
- Once the mixture has thickened nicely, remove it from the heat, pour it into a bowl and chill in the fridge for about an hour. Stir from time to time to prevent a film from forming on the surface of the mixture.
- Pour the batter into an ice cream maker and proceed to churn per the instructions that came with the machine. Typically, you will churn the batter for 20-30 minutes, which results in a ‘soft serve’ texture. If you want a firmer gelato, freeze it for an hour or two before serving.
If you are keeping your gelato in the freezer for a longer time (gelato will keep for quite a while in the freezer) then remove it from the freezer about 15 minutes or so before serving, as it hardens further over time, and the texture of gelato can be firm but never hard.
So this is your basic recipe for gelato. It is perfectly delicious as it is. You can also serve gelato with berries on top as pictured at the top of the post. Other nice toppings include powdered cocoa, melted dark chocolate or even a bit of best-quality balsamic vinegar. Only use the very best balsamic, well-aged (and very expensive) kind, which has a wonderfully mellow flavor, almost like a fine port.
One of the most exquisite ways to serve gelato di crema is called affogato al caffè, literally ‘drowning’ in strong espresso coffee, which has been allowed to cool down a bit and, if you like, laced with rum, cognac, Cointreau or other liqueur of your choice.
An affogato is sometimes served with some savoiardi (‘lady fingers’) crumbled and moistened with the same liqueur, at the bottom of your ice cream bowl or cup. You can also top it with some slivered almonds, crumbled walnuts, cinnamon or grated dark chocolate.