13 September 2009
This has been a beautiful weekend. Yesterday the temperature spiked near ninety degrees and the evening, spent out in the back yard, was delightfully warm. Summer is still here but not for long. It is late and autumn will officially arrive in just a week or two. Before the summer gets away from us, let's talk about gelato...
Under the Shade Tree
When the temperature soars my mind turns to ice cream. It has ever since I was a little girl. In the summer, my Aunt Hen’s kitchen could feel uncomfortably steamy. Her house did not have air conditioning and the heat of the oven and stove, in addition to the heat and humidity of a Kentucky summer, were sometimes overwhelming. On a day like that, a great treat was to sit outside under the big old shade tree between my aunt's house and the old house where she and my dad grew up, drinking iced tea or sipping lemonade while we made homemade ice cream.
Outside my aunt's kitchen door, across the breezeway and beyond the shade tree was a cistern with a hand pump on top. After we had strategically placed lawn chairs where they would optimize the shade, my aunt would get an old ice cream freezer or two from her garage and set them up on top of the cistern. Then she would bring out canisters filled with the raw materials of what we craved: milk, cream, sugar, eggs and vanilla. The canisters were placed in the tub of the ice cream freezer, ice and rock salt were layered around, the crank assembly was attached and then we began to churn the ice cream.
The Best Part
Sometimes we would have two ice cream freezers going at once. We waited patiently, helped to turn the crank from time to time, watched the water level, added salt or ice, and waited some more until the churning got harder and water began to spill from a small port on the side of the tub. Then we knew the ice cream was ready. We gathered around as my aunt checked, taking off the crank assembly, carefully wiping away any liquid or salt from the top with a kitchen towel and removing the dasher, before replacing the lid and packing it back in the tub filled with ice to cure for a while.
That dasher covered in freshly churned ice cream was the very best part. It was especially yearned for by us kids who could scarcely wait for that first taste of the cool sweet custard we had been anticipating so patiently. I don’t remember how we determined who would get the honor but I was the youngest and I got to lick the dasher often enough.
A little later, when the canister was opened and the ice cream was served I got a full bowlful of my favorite flavor, plain vanilla, soft and fresh, with a bit of Hershey's syrup on top.
That was many, many years ago. I don't live in the south anymore and I don't even own an ice cream freezer. I had one, maybe fifteen or twenty years ago, but it had an electric motor on top and having been admonished never to feed my children raw eggs, well, the thrill was gone. I gave it away years ago.
Still the memory of my favorite flavor, vanilla, the unique taste and smell of it just as my aunt used to make, has stuck with me over the years.
Now here's where the gelato part comes in...
Years ago, about the time I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I quit eating ice cream every evening after supper. The weather wasn't right for it. It wasn't really hot in the evenings and the ice cream didn't get soft the way I liked it. Besides it was time to start watching my weight and giving up my evening ice cream seemed like a good place to start.
A Modern Day Equivalent
Leaving the ice cream alone was all fine and good most of the time. Yet there are some hot summer days when I simply crave a taste of cold sweet ice cream. I eat it outside in the shade if I can. I adore each spoonful of that soft outer layer of cream melting in the heat and glazing the cold firm center. It is a symphony of taste, temperature and texture that I can't help but enjoy.
While I very rarely get it home made these days, I have found the next best thing to homemade ice cream. It is called Gelato. Smooth and soft, the rich flavor and texture are reminiscent of that hand-churned ice cream I remember from my childhood.
When it gets hot outside I try to go out for gelato as often as I can. Several of my favorite coffee shops offer gelato in the summer. It comes in a number of exotic sounding flavors: stracciatella, tiramisu, lemoncello, and amaretto. At one time there was even a baklava flavored gelato with baklava bits. That was my favorite.
Until recently I didn't know of any other way to get a delicious dish of gelato than to stop by the coffee shop. Then one day, cruising the frozen food section of my local Safeway for some ice cream bars my son had asked for, I saw something new: Villa Dolce Vanilla Gelato. I bought some and took it home. There I had several pieces of Pop-a-Bak Baklava fresh from the Farmer's Market. I crumbled the baklava over a scoop of the vanilla gelato and, hopefully, drizzled it with a little bit of honey. I thought it was worth a try to recreate one of my favorite gelato flavors. What I got was even more than I had hoped for.
No doubt about it, my dish of gelato was grand! It did turn out to taste much like the baklava gelato I enjoyed so much a few summer's ago. The crispy flakes of the pastry and the sticky sweet honeyed nuts were a delicious contrast to the smooth vanilla cream.
Even better, there was something special about the flavor of the vanilla gelato itself. Imagine my delight when I took my first taste and was immediately transported back to that old cistern beside my aunt's house under the shade of that big old tree. The taste was the closest I have ever had to what I indelibly remember as the flavor of my aunt's homemade vanilla ice cream. Ahhh. The simple pleasures. This vanilla gelato is summer bliss!