Has this ever happened to you? A friend of yours—maybe someone you look forward to having a conversation with now and again—goes out and gets an ice cream machine, and suddenly all they ever want to talk about is the ice cream they’re making. It’s okay at first—they do a vanilla, maybe a chocolate, and you’re thinking you’d like to try some of it. But then it’s like three weeks later and you can’t even talk to them anymore because every time they open their mouth, they just blurt out things like, “Kumquat!”
I’m that guy, solitarily whipping up in kitchen cups concupiscent curds, pouring them into the spinner and listening to the motor grind. The problem is not just that ice cream is universally loved and I am pathologically conditioned to seek approval. It’s not even that it’s so easy to make. It’s that, once you learn a base for ice cream, you realize that there’s almost no limit to the flavors you can create. And that enormous horizon is a lure for obsessives. Ice cream is inherently fun. Adding more fun to it only makes it funner. Four weeks into my madness, I find myself looking at everything and wondering how it might taste cold and creamy—herbs, spices, crawfish, the pudgy baby in the grocery store, whatever.
The easiest way to flavor your ice cream is to simply steep things in the hot milk for a while. Grab whatever and throw it in: vanilla beans, cinnamon, saffron, coffee, tea, citrus zest, basil, nuts—you get the idea. The first ice cream I ever made was masala chai, which sounds complicated until you realize that all I did was put the spices and tea into the milk, strain it, and go from there.
I’m a total sucker for things like sour cream or buttermilk ice cream, so another thing you can do is sub in other forms of dairy. Inspired at an Asian market, I went into the kitchen at 9 A.M. and made Vietnamese coffee flavor, steeping Café du Monde in the dairy and subbing in sweetened condensed milk for the sugar.
It’s not always so easy. Tart fruits can be tricky, because the acid can curdle the milk. I fussed and cussed my way through my first and second batches of candied kumquat. I still haven’t figured out the best way to do it yet, but both those ice creams disappeared instantly anyway, so no one seemed to mind the curdling too terribly much. And then there’s the quart of black sesame from the other day. Something about the ground seeds made it freeze up like concrete, which was especially unfortunate because of its flinty color. I winced as I watched my friends crack off chunks of it into their bowls, but then we all started hollerin’ about how good it tasted. Ice cream has a wide margin of error, even for an obsessive.
And it turns out that people really don’t mind meeting you halfway, so you can really let your whimsy go. After a conversation with my friend JoJo about dipping French fries in milk shakes, I cracked some black pepper into my next base, folding in a fistful of canned potato stix as it came out of the spinner. She came over to try some and left with a take-home container tucked into her bag. Another time, I folded in peanut butter and jelly into a plain base, and served it with buttered toast. JoJo was there, eating silently. Later, she said, “That was so good you can’t even think about anything else while you’re eating it.” I’m flattered she thought that, but it wasn’t entirely true. I had some and wondered how I might make my next ice cream taste like toast and butter.