We Dream, Scheme and Scream for Ice Cream

If there’s one thing in this world that makes life worth living, it’s ice cream.

Americans eat more ice cream than anyone else, about 35 pints a year. I’m sure I eat more than that. Now that it’s summer, ice cream is perfect on a hot day with the addition of fresh fruit (nectarines, bananas, peaches or berries of all sorts). 

How can anything else compare? What better dessert or treat can usurp ice cream from its throne of coolness? Candy bars, cakes, cookies and bars are fine and don’t need to be kept frozen. But they are nothing like ice cream. We did have frozen candy bars, cookies and bars at home when I was a kid, but that’s a separate story that involves dentistry.

Most of us don’t remember when we first tried ice cream but you’ve probably seen the look of astonishment on an infant’s face after a first taste of it and their wailing when they can’t have all they want. So, what’s the secret that makes ice cream so popular?

The Basics

First, let’s review what ice cream is. The main ingredients are cream (or milk for ice milk), sweetener (usually sugar) and some flavoring such as vanilla or cocoa. The key seems to be cooling the heated mixture to below freezing while stirring (churning) it. This process introduces tiny air spaces that prevent small ice crystals from clumping into large crystals that would diminish the rich, luxurious feel we expect from ice cream as we savor it.

But air adds volume. Cheap ice cream can have as much as 50 percent air. Half of that carton of ice cream is air and you’re paying for it! Didn’t you ever wonder why a full carton of ice cream doesn’t feel heavy?

High quality ice cream has around 25 percent air. If you compare a high-quality ice cream to a low-quality brand, you’ll see and taste the difference. That doesn’t mean the cheap ice cream is bad. Kids don’t care, especially when they can have chocolate sauce on it.

Ice cream, especially the cheap stuff, doesn’t refreeze well if it’s left out too long, even though additives like gar gum and lecithin help. You’ve seen and tasted ice cream that has been refrozen. It’s likely to have a gummy, sort of chewy feel in your mouth. This often happens when the carton is not entirely finished off and sits in the freezer for a long time. No one wants to be blamed for finishing it, so it’s put back with maybe a one-inch layer on the bottom, soon to be covered with ice crystals. Catherine’s brothers refer to it as “that protective ice coating.”

We didn’t get much ice cream as kids. That is until the cheap five-quart pails came out. Then we seemed to have it all the time, usually topped with Hershey’s chocolate sauce from a can opened with a punch opener. And, once opened, it couldn’t be resealed, so you had to consume it quickly. Bonus.

Sometimes you might not even be eating real ice cream. It may taste like ice cream but it might be a frozen yogurt or soft serve or even vegan ice cream. I remember when I first found out that Dairy Queen’s ice cream wasn’t ice cream at all but ice milk. I felt robbed. But, hey, it tasted good, so I got over it. Now the term “ice milk” isn’t even used anymore. It was replaced by “reduced-fat,” “light,” and “low-fat” ice cream. Really.


Remember the Whirl-a-Whips we got at the Marigold store? That ice cream was the precursor to soft serve in that the final product was a swirl of easy-to-eat smooth ice cream. But where soft serve involves a special recipe and process, Whirl-a-Whip machines created a soft-serve-like product out of brute force with hard ice cream and added flavorings. My favorite was a chocolate malted Whirl-a-Whip cone.

Marketing ice cream is really an art. The fancier (pricier) ice creams like Ben and Jerry’s, Häagen-Dazs, and Baskin Robbins are mostly sold in pints. That way they can sell numerous flavors in a convenient size. And who doesn’t finish a whole pint at one sitting?

No matter what else we had for dessert, ice cream was an option. And what’s a celebration without ice cream? Birthday parties always include a cake and ice cream, usually in a dish way too small. Heck, we have ice cream at Thanksgiving (ice cream turkeys) and Christmas (ice cream Christmas trees).

We made our own ice cream a few times. It was really good because it had fresh ingredients including real cream. But manually cranking the ice cream maker to churn the mix was a lot of work for the small yield. Now you can make your own with ice cream makers that practically do it all for you.

To probably no one’s surprise, vanilla ice cream is by far the most popular, probably because it mixes well with so many flavorings and tastes great alongside other desserts like pie, cake, bars – you name it. A well-organized party will serve vanilla ice cream with multiple topping choices. Chocolate ice cream comes in second place, followed by everything else. 

I think I’ll stop now and see what’s left of the carton of Moose Tracks we bought yesterday.