The Fastest, Freshest, Fluffiest Ice Cream Ever: 30-Minute Philadephia-Style Ice Cream

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The fastest, freshest ice cream you can make. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

So: You have 30 minutes to make dessert. You want something good. And impressive. And easy. And you don't want brownies.

Enter ice cream. Yup, really.

Most of the time when you make ice cream, you have to fuss with separating eggs and carefully cooking custard. You need to strain and chill your base before you can spin it. Basically, if you start making ice cream in the morning, it might be ready by dinner.

But that's not always the case. Take those labor-intensive egg yolks out of the recipe and you have an ice cream that doesn't need to be cooked first. And if your milk and cream are fridge-cold, you won't even need to chill your base. That means fresh ice cream whenever you want it, with ingredients you probably already have at home, and a method that couldn't be easier.

This eggless ice cream has a name: Philadelphia-style. That's news to most Philadelphians these days, as most of the city's ice cream shops use "French-style" egg custard bases, just like everywhere else. But the name "Philadelphia-style" has less to do with a specific way of making ice cream and more with cashing in on the former American capital's gourmet past, to emphasize the ice cream's purity and focus on fresh dairy flavors.

James Beard put it this way for the Los Angeles Times in an article called "Philly the Ice Cream Capital":

Everyone knows Philadelphia as the city of brotherly love where our independence was declared in 1776, but how may of you are aware that it is the ice cream capital of the country, maybe of the world? When Philadelphia became the seat of government and George Washington the first President, "iced creams" as they were then called were often served at the presidential Thursday dinners. We believe they were not quite the same as our luscious delights made commercially or at home in an ice cream freezer, but were mixtures of cream, sugar and eggs beaten in metal bowls over ice so that they had more the texture of the soft ice cream sold in certain places today. After the great exposition of 1876 Philadelphia became known across the country for the excellence of its ice cream, by then a popular American delicacy, and to this day the words "Philadelphia ice cream" connote the highest quality. Philadelphia confectioners were famed for their ice cream.

So the Philadelphia ice cream that gave Philly-style ice cream its name may not have been ice cream in our modern sense of the word, and it may even have had eggs, the key ingredient Philly-style ice cream lacks. (Have I mentioned Philly-style ice cream is also called New York-style, a term I've never once heard in New York?)

Perhaps it's best we leave the mislaid history behind us and get to the nuts and bolts...or in this case, the cream and sugar.

Why Go Eggless?

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Eggs add flavor, richness, body, and stability to ice cream. So besides shorter cooking time, is there any reason to drop them?

I'm the first person to knock most eggless ice cream as icy, watery, and bland. Made wrong, Philly ice cream tastes thin and lifeless, and melts faster than you can eat it. And it ages terribly. Keep it around for more than a few days in the freezer and it turns crunchy.

The key here is most eggless ice cream. Good Philly ice cream tastes profoundly of dairy, more than any custard ice cream. It's fresh, clean, fluffy, and if you can excuse the overly poetic adjective, ephemeral. Without all the fat and protein from those eggs, your cream, milk, and flavorings shine through loud and clear.

The key, then, is to eat your ice cream fast, within a day or so before it loses its delicate fluffy quality.

Whipping it Up

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My vanilla Philly ice cream is nearly identical to my vanilla custard ice cream, minus the eggs. Use more cream and the ice cream tastes greasy; use less and it doesn't have enough fat to freeze properly.

By using vanilla extract instead of vanilla beans, you can skip heating up the base altogether. All there is to do then is whisk cold cream and milk with sugar until the latter fully dissolves, then add salt, vanilla, and my favorite "secret" to vanilla ice cream: a wee drop of Scotch whisky. Its heather, honey, and malt flavors are the best vanilla boosters I know,* and while smoky, peaty Scotches are rather distinctive, an unpeated Scotch blends right in. (Smoky Scotch is amazing if you're prepared for it, and I've used bourbon, rye, and Irish whiskey to good effect as well.)

* This makes sense on a chemical level, too. The oak casks whisky is aged in are rich in vanillin, the main flavor in vanilla.

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The ice cream churns up light and fluffy, almost like frozen whipped cream—which is essentially what it is. Churn it long enough and it'll form light, cloudy soft serve that you can plop directly onto warm cake or pie. Or transfer it to the freezer for a few hours and it'll firm up enough to scoop. Or, a third option: do as I do and eat it directly from the machine.

It'll taste like the freshest, creamiest, most vanilla ice cream you've ever had. But it won't stay that way for long. After the first day its texture degrades considerably. After a weekend, it's certainly still good to eat, but a shadow of its former self.

Why does this happen? Because home freezers are terrible for keeping cold things really, really cold. Freezers regulate their temperature by switching on and off, just like ovens and air conditioners—every time they shut off, they warm up, and a bit of that ice cream melts; then that melted ice cream refreezes when the freezer kicks into cooling mode again. Soon your fluffy-as-clouds ice cream turns crunchy, icy, and freezer-burned.

Now, I don't mind an ice cream that forces me to dish it out on day one. But what if you want to keep your Philly ice cream around for a few days? How can we improve its texture and stability?

Adventures in Resilience

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Besides eggs, there are plenty of other tools to improve and stabilize an ice cream's texture. Among them:

  • Starch (cornstarch, tapioca starch, etc.)
  • Sugars (corn syrup, glucose, etc.)
  • Powdered protein (milk powder)
  • Gelatin
  • Alcohol*
  • Hydrocolloids (xanthan and guar gum, etc.)

* Contrary to lay belief, alcohol is more of a de-stabilizer, as it raises ice cream's melting point, increasing risk of melting and refreezing. But it does make ice cream softer and easier to scoop.

For quick-and-easy Philly ice cream, I want one that doesn't require heat and is readily available in grocery stores. So nix out most specialized hydrocolloids. Gelatin and cornstarch need heat to activate, and they can easily turn delicate Philly ice cream into something that tastes like frozen pudding, so I've banned them too. In my tests, corn syrup, my favorite commonly available sorbet stabilizer, left a subtle but noticeable metallic taste in my mouth, and the overt chewiness it added to the ice cream felt wrong for something that's supposed to be light and fluffy.

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That leaves non-fat milk powder, a handy way to add protein, and thus creaminess and a pleasant chew, to ice cream with little more than a whisk. Powdered milk soaks up water, which means there's less water to freeze into ice as the ice cream churns.

Use too much and your ice cream will pick up a chemical aftertaste (pro ice cream makers have access to better powdered milk than what's on sale at most supermarkets). But a couple tablespoons adds some anti-freeze resilience to Philly ice cream even after a couple of days in the freezer. It won't be as ice-free as custard ice cream, but it helps.

Now do you really need the milk powder? That's up to you. Even small amounts impact the ice cream's flavor—a little more creamy and rich, a little less fresh, clean, and vanilla-forward. (My tasters were evenly split on their preferences.) If you're eating your ice cream day-of, the textural difference is negligible. But if you want something that stores a little better for a few days, go and sprinkle in that dry milk.

As for me, I'd just as well go without. Philly-style ice cream is best for what it lacks, not for what you can add. I'll make it when I want something fast and unbelievably fresh-tasting. If I need a more durable ice cream, I'll crack open some eggs.

Besides, the only thing this ice cream really truly needs isn't a stabilizer.

It's caramel sauce.

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Because you just made ice cream in 30 minutes and deserve some.

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