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RECIPES > Thomas Jefferson’s Vanilla Ice Cream

Show: A Culinary Independence: Jefferson for July 4th

Historical notes from Dining at Monticello : In Good Taste and Abundance, edited by Damon Lee Fowler,© Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.: This recipe, simply titled “Ice Cream,” is possibly the most famous recorded by Jefferson. I present it as he gave it, making an educated guess about the amount of cream since we cannot be sure of the volume of a “bottle.” The proportion of egg to liquid is lower than usual, but cream needs fewer eggs, and if we take a bottle to be a quart, the proportion is just right. My guess here, however, is guided more by the amount of sugar, which in ice cream has a function beyond sweetening. If the ratio of sugar to liquid were any less, the cream would freeze harder than could be managed. Use cream that is at least 36 percent milkfat and preferably not ultra-pasteurized. For authenticity and subtlety, use a whole vanilla bean as Jefferson directed; vanilla extract was unknown in those days, and besides, lends a harsh aftertaste.

2 quarts heavy cream
1 vanilla bean
6 large egg yolks
8 ounces (1 cup) sugar

1. Bring the cream and vanilla bean to a simmer in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl until smooth and whisk in the sugar. It will be quite thick.

2. Slowly beat about 1 cup of the hot cream into the egg yolks and gradually stir this into the hot cream. Cook, stirring constantly, until lightly thickened, enough to coat the back of the spoon, about 5 minutes. Strain the custard through a double layer of cheesecloth or a fine strainer and remove the vanilla bean (it can be rinsed, dried, and re-used). Stir until slightly cooled. Cover and refrigerate until chilled, at least 1 hour or overnight.

3. Freeze the custard in an ice-cream machine according to the manufacturer’s directions until set but still a little soft. Scoop the ice cream into a 3-quart mold, or several smaller molds, running the spatula through the ice cream and tapping the mold firmly to remove any air bubbles. Fill the molds completely. Cover and freeze until set, about 2 to 4 hours. The ice cream may also be set without molding it: scoop it into a freezer-safe container and freeze until set.

4. To serve the molded ice cream, dip the mold briefly in hot water, or wrap briefly in a towel heated in the clothes dryer. Run a knife around the top edge to separate the ice cream slightly from the mold. Invert the mold over a serving dish and gently lift the mold from ice cream. If it is not molded, serve in small scoops.

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Note: The ice cream maker of the time, a sorbetière, does not produce the smooth, heavily aerated ice cream we know today, nor will a modern churn produce cream that is glacer au neige , or “frozen like snow.” To imitate that texture, chill the cream in a container (like a rectangular cake pan) in a refrigerator freezer, scraping down the sides and stirring every Ì0 minutes after the first half hour. Though it can be scooped, ice cream of the day was often set in molds. The molds were usually lidded to seal out the briny ice bath in which it set. An open mold will suffice if care is taken not to completely submerge it when dipping it into hot water before un-molding.

To learn more about ice cream making in the 18th century with a sorbetière, listen to Ice Cream Through the Ages.

©Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.