I heard the mixer running at full speed when I entered the kitchen. Mother was watching closely as the beaters whipped the cream into a smooth cloud that filled the mixing bowl. It was mid-afternoon on the Fourth of July, 1962, a hot, humid day in northeast Louisiana. A small crowd of family members was anxiously awaiting the traditional dessert of homemade ice cream. "Why are you making whipped cream?" I asked. Mom looked over her shoulder and gave me a conspiratorial wink (you know, the exaggerated kind with the distorted smile) and replied, "It's our secret ingredient!" On the stove, she was making the soon-to-be-frozen liquid that she called "the custard."
Although cooking has never been one of my talents, I've always been particular about what I like. Baskin Robbins makes very few flavors that I would reject on a hot summer's day, but when it comes to homemade ice cream, I prefer unadulterated vanilla. Please don't add peaches, bananas, strawberries, nuts, or any other flavors. Somewhere in my small collection of recipes is a worn and tattered slip of faded paper with mother's handwritten list of ingredients and instructions. I never knew that salt was included, nor expected that the last item to be added before freezing would be whipped cream. She poured the still-warm custard into the tall silver cylinder. Just before the paddle was inserted, she added the whipped cream.
Outside, in the hot shade of the carport, we carefully covered the container with its lid and eased it down into the wooden hand-cranked churn. Cranking the handle began with the first layer of ice. Each batch of ice was followed with a liberal dose of rock salt until the cylinder was covered. My father covered the entire top of the churn and crank with a towel. Extra care was taken to keep salt from contaminating the precious revolving cargo. It wasn't long before the ice had melted enough to begin a steady stream from the overflow hole in the churn. "Don't let that salt water get near the roots to the pecan tree, it'll kill it," my father warned, as he did every time we made ice cream. We took turns with the crank and continued until the ice cream was frozen so hard that the crank would not move. Our shirts were drenched with sweat. I thought my shirt had been the victim of the salty water from the churn.
The combination of the old family recipe, the secret ingredient, and what seemed like hours of cranking made the product all the more special — and memorable. How could such a delicacy be spoiled with another flavor or some fruit? We sat in the shade of the pecan tree and tried to eat faster than it melted. Condensed milk, eggs, and whipped cream made it so rich that one serving often made this kid too full for seconds.
As I write this, it is cold. The temperature outside is 28 degrees here in the mountains of western North Carolina. Back in Louisiana, my mother is slowly melting into that state of failing memory. The heat of this long-ago holiday has been gone for years, but the warmth of my mother's kitchen will never cool.
Here's the recipe:
Ingredients (makes 2 quarts)
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
4 eggs, slightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 dash nutmeg
2 cups (1 pint) heavy cream
1 (14 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
Combine ingredients (except for the whipping cream) into a boiler and warm on stove top.
Pour into 2-quart churn container.
Whip 2 cups heavy cream (DO NOT use non-dairy whipped topping).
Fold in whipped cream.
Add paddles and start cranking!