Ice-cream is seldom far away from the dessert menu of any restaurant. Buying in ice-cream is an easy option and, while there are some cheap and not very cheerful commercially-churned ice-creams, there are some good-quality ones for chefs prepared to pay. Yet few would argue against making it yourself with an ice-cream maker, if quality is the first and last benchmark for the ice-cream that goes out into the restaurant.
Professional models are not cheap and there are not a lot to choose from. A starting price will be £600, which can be daunting for what might seem a luxury piece of kitchen equipment rather than a necessity.
Looking at domestic ice-cream makers with their price tags of less than £40 is tempting. Domestic food processors, or mixing sticks, will perform adequately and they are so cheap that they can make financial sense for a small to medium-sized kitchen even if they are thrown away after two years.
But ice-cream produced in domestic ice-cream machines does not match that made in industrial ones. The ice-cream these produce is neither the quality nor the volume a restaurant would want. They do not have a built-in freezer, so they need putting in a deep freeze with the power line protruding from the freezer door, giving rise to the alarming food-safety hazard of having to keep the freezer door slightly ajar. The ice-cream produced is likely to be coarse in texture with a noticeable crunch from ice crystals, which might be fun domestically but is unacceptable for a restaurant dessert.
Ice-cream is, in simple terms, frozen and churned egg custard. To produce high-quality ice-cream the starting point is something chefs work with on a regular basis - milk, cream, eggs, sugar and a flavouring such as vanilla. The base ice-cream mix is made in a similar way to a basic custard, then chilled rapidly. The more expensive machines can take hot custard and chill it before churning and freezing it into ice-cream.
The fact that good-quality ice-cream contains fresh eggs might be a positive factor for chefs and restaurant customers, but it is an area of concern for environmental health officers. They view anything made with fresh eggs as a potential public health risk, in the same way that they worry about fresh mayonnaise. Martin Bates, managing director for Robot Coupe in the UK (which sells the Muso brand of ice-cream makers ranging in price from £575 to £2,449), has this advice for chefs before they sign any purchase order for an ice-cream machine: "Check with your local EHO on their interpretation of the law regarding production of your own ice-cream. They all interpret it differently. Because you are using raw eggs, some will want a completely separate production area."
Suppliers of ice-cream machines are not alone in believing that the heavy hand of legislation is working against chefs making their own ice-cream. Steve Caputa, head chef at Eurasia, the 150-seat Glasgow restaurant, fears that one day chefs may be forced to use pasteurised eggs rather than fresh eggs in ice-cream production.
Caputa believes it would be a retrograde step for those kitchens that want to produce their own ice-cream, but he emphasises the need to be scrupulous in the production and chilling of ice-cream custard. "The best way would be to have a blast chiller to bring it down, but we put the custard in a bath of ice-water and that brings it down to room temperature in 20 minutes. Then we put it in the machine and start churning."
At Eurasia ice-cream features on the dessert menu every night, on more than half of the desserts on offer. Although variety of flavour is always interesting for both the chef and the customer, Caputa believes that a rich, quality vanilla takes some beating. The vanilla flavour he uses comes mostly from fresh vanilla pods rather than manufactured vanilla essence, but he does make his own unusual vanilla essence by taking a bottle of quality vodka, reducing it by half, allowing it to cool, then returning it to the bottle with 30 vanilla pods. It is then allowed to mature for at least nine months, after which it is not only a superb essence for ice-cream, but a heady dressing for desserts in general.
Two kinds of sorbet
While ice-cream may be the prime reason for buying a professional machine, making sorbets is another good use of the equipment. John James, a director at RSS, which distributes Italian-built Frigomat ice-cream makers, says that although most chefs think a sorbet is a sorbet, there are two different types: standard sorbets are granulated, with a characteristic crunch; but similar to a sorbet is Italian fruit-ice, which is produced in an ice-cream machine, but is a much creamier, smoother product. It tastes and feels in the mouth like there is a high fat content, but there isn't. It is, explains Jones, the recipe balance of fruit and sugar that makes the difference between a sorbet and an Italian fruit-ice.
Ice-cream and sorbet making is not a free-thinking form of cookery. To produce a smooth, rich product requires exact recipes. A common mistake is to think that adding lots of pulped fruit will give a better product, but too much fruit will upset the sugar balance and inhibit smooth freezing of the ice crystals. Equally, introducing too much fat in the form of eggs or cream will also cause the ice-cream to fail. All suppliers of ice-cream machines offer recipe and ingredient support. Many will also give training to chefs.