It’s difficult not to fall in love with ice cream. It’s so delicious and such a welcome treat on a warm summer day. Ice cream is certainly delicious, but you haven’t lived until you have been treated to frozen custard. The difference may seem subtle on paper, but one taste and you’ll understand the distinction between the two. At our house, vanilla custard almost always takes the place of standard vanilla ice cream. Once we tasted frozen custard made with our hens’ fresh eggs, there was simply no going back.
So, what’s the difference between ice cream and frozen custard? To begin with, ice cream is a frozen concoction that does not necessarily contain eggs. In fact, Philadelphia style ice cream specifically excludes them. During our egg free years due to a food allergy, Philadelphia style ice cream was our go to. Those simple recipes that were intentionally egg free allowed us to make batch after batch of homemade ice cream that tasted delicious and didn’t carry with it the potential of causing an allergic reaction.
According to the USDA, something labeled “ice cream” should contain at least 20 percent milk solids and 10 percent milk fat by weight. Premium brands tend to include a higher percentage of fat, using a combination of milk and cream to deliver a smooth texture. Eggs can be used, but they are not required and often omitted as they add steps to the ice cream making process and increase the cost to produce each batch.
Frozen custard relies on egg yolks to deliver a velvety texture and richer flavor. The lecithin in the yolks naturally emulsifies the custard, creating a creamier texture. The USDA requires food billed as “frozen custard” to contain at least 1.4 percent egg yolk by weight. Some brands include more than required and deliver a richer, fuller flavor thanks to the extra yolks.
It’s hard for me to argue against adding egg yolks to your frozen concoction during this time of year. Our chickens and ducks are leaving us full nests every day and making batches of frozen custard seems like a great way to enjoy our fresh eggs and create a delicious treat for dessert that doesn’t heat up the farmhouse by baking in the oven. On a warm summer’s day, nothing seems quite as decadent as a scoop of creamy, delicious homemade custard made with fresh eggs collected from our own hens.
Over the years, I have made several different types of ice cream and custard. When it came to vanilla bean frozen custard, I had used a few recipes, but we didn’t have a clear favorite. This year, I decided that with a mountain of fresh chicken and duck eggs accumulating in the farmhouse kitchen, it was high time to develop a recipe we would love.
I gathered the four recipes I had tried in the past and then went in search of a few new ones to consider. They were all remarkably similar combinations of cream, egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla. I tried a few of them and set my family to the task of tasting the different variations and registering their opinions about the taste and texture. Each batch was slightly different. They were all yummy, but there wasn’t a clear front runner.
Luckily, I remembered that a book in my cookbook collection had a custard recipe that Thomas Jefferson had written. While it had been years since I had read the book, that recipe stuck with me. It was hard to forget the fact that Thomas Jefferson had the distinction of being the first American to write a recipe for ice cream. In 1780, he detailed the ingredients and the steps required in his day to create vanilla bean ice cream. While he called it ice cream, the recipe is in fact custard due to the high number of egg yolks in the batch. Thanks to Thomas Jefferson, I made a few changes to my own recipe and gathered the ingredients to make the next batch.
Jefferson references using “2 bottles of good cream, 6 yolks of eggs, 1 ½ pounds sugar, and a stick of vanilla” in his recipe. I decided to use 6 yolks which was one more than I had used in any of my recipes. With regard to the sugar, I didn’t need nearly as much. Instead of using all heavy cream, I used a mixture of heavy cream, whipping cream, and half and half. I hoped that the result would be just as decadent and delicious but with a slightly lighter, creamier feel.
We watched as this batch churned away in our ice cream maker. As it began to freeze and come together, we could no longer resist the urge to dip a spoon in to grab a taste. One taste was all it took for us to decide that this version was a showstopper. We had found our perfect vanilla bean frozen custard recipe.
Since then, I have made this recipe countless times. It always comes together beautifully and delivers a delicious, creamy, rich frozen treat that our family just loves. With each batch, I can’t help but marvel at the fact that the recipe I am making in our farmhouse kitchen isn’t much different from the recipe Jefferson wrote down nearly 250 years ago. I guess that this delicious custard recipe proves that sometimes you simply can’t improve upon perfection.
- 6 large egg yolks
- 1 ½ cups half and half
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 vanilla bean, split
- 1 pinch salt
- ¾ cup heavy cream
- ¾ cup whipping cream
- 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
- Separate the eggs, placing the yolks in a medium bowl. Whisk them briskly until they thicken slightly.
- In a medium saucepan, heat the half and half, sugar, vanilla bean, and salt over medium-low heat, stirring frequently to encourage the sugar to fully dissolve into the liquid. Remove the pan from the heat once the liquid is nearly ready to come to a simmer.
- Temper the egg yolks by slowly drizzling the warm half and half mixture into the yolks, whisking constantly to prevent the eggs from scrambling. Whisk briskly to combine before transferring the mixture back to the saucepan.
- Place the saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk as the mixture warms to keep the custard from scorching as it cooks. The custard will thicken as it warms, combing to a pudding like consistency when finished. The properly thickened custard will coat the back of a spoon.
- Remove the pan from the heat. Place a fine mesh strainer or colander lined with cheesecloth over a large bowl. Transfer the warm custard to the strainer and allow it to pass through to the bowl beneath. This will ensure that the custard is completely smooth and does not contain any undissolved grains of sugar or cooked egg. Continue until all of the custard has been strained.
- Add the heavy cream, whipping cream, and vanilla extract to the bowl. Whisk to combine all of the ingredients. Chill the custard base until it is completely cooled. Attempting to churn ice cream or custard before the mixture is completely chilled will result in a custard with a grainy texture. If you can, allow the custard to cool overnight in the refrigerator. You can also place the bowl of custard inside a larger bowl filled with ice water to hasten the cooling by several hours.
- After the base has cooled completely, process it in your ice cream freezer according to the manufacturer’s directions. Remove the frozen custard from the machine and place it in a freezer safe container. Freeze until firm and enjoy every single bite!
- If you don’t have a vanilla bean on hand, don’t let that deter you from making a batch of this frozen custard. You can omit the vanilla bean and still make delicious vanilla custard thanks to the vanilla extract. Sure, the resulting custard will be missing the pretty vanilla bean flecks and have a slightly less pronounced vanilla flavor, but it will still taste amazing.