On the last official day of this discombobulated school year, I glanced out the window at my daughter, swinging in the hammock suspended over her treehouse. She was engrossed in a novel and looked utterly peaceful, and yet still I felt a twinge of sadness as I watched her. I wished she could be at school with her friends, having a celebratory lunch outside under the big old apple tree that sits adjacent to the old brick schoolhouse, still enjoying all the other frivolities we'd all been taking for granted.
I remember once, on the last day of school, making ice cream out in the hot parking lot with my class. The teacher gave us each a small zip-close bag containing chilled ice cream base, which we then placed inside our collected coffee tins and packed around with crushed ice and rock salt. We taped our tins shut and went out onto the parking lot to roll and shake them silly. Finally we pried open the lids to reveal a bag containing smooth, soft-serve-like ice cream. My classmates and I sat together outside and ate it with plastic spoons straight out of the bags before heading in to collect our things and ride the bus home one last time. Summer had begun.
Coffee cans can be a little hard to come by these days, but there are other ways to DIY ice cream and other sweet treats. The essential components are movement and very cold temperatures. If you just pour the liquid base into a container and freeze it, ice crystals will form and yield a solid block. The most basic way to make ice cream is to pour the mixture into a shallow pan, preferably metal, and place it in the freezer. Freeze for an hour, then remove the pan and stir it, scraping up the frozen crystals that will have accumulated around the edges. Place it back in the freezer and continue to scrape and stir it every 30 minutes or so, until you have a slushy, icy mixture. The time this takes will depend on your freezer and the temperature outside, but it's usually about four hours. My nana would often make buttermilk and pineapple sherbet this way on hot summer days as a treat after long hours in working in the garden.
Surrounding the mixture with a frozen brine made from rock salt and water and constantly moving it around results in crystal formations that are much smaller, resulting in a smoother finished product. This is how traditional slow-churned ice cream is made, and the same basic principle that was utilized in the coffee can method. Other containers work fine too, as long as you have a tight seal to prevent the salt water from leaking into your ice cream. Even two zip-close freezer bags, one large and one small, work fine and make for a fun and unexpected party trick. Fill the smaller bag two-thirds full with chilled base, seal well (double-bagging isn't a bad idea), and place it inside the smaller bag, then fill it with ice and rock salt. Shake until your arms are sore, then pass to the next guest. It's also easy to make on a camping trip. Just pack the pre-made base in a cooler.
Every birthday growing up we would make ice cream with a simple hand crank ice cream freezer. Thanks to the miracle of modern science, these containers stay cold enough to dispense with the need for ice and rock salt. Motorized versions are available, but I doubt the happy memories making of birthday ice cream would have been as meaningful without the experience of sitting at the kitchen table with my family, taking turns with the crank.
Beyond ice cream, lots of different bases can be turned into frozen treats. Sweetened cold brew coffee, perhaps with a shot of liqueur, can be frozen into a simple and sophisticated granita. Granitas are similar to sorbets, and are sometimes served in savory variations, but are more icy and chunky thanks to being made with the freeze-and-scrape method utilized by my nana. Sorbets are traditionally dairy-free and made with simply fruit and sugar, then slow-churned to a smooth consistency. With the addition of dairy, they are known as sherbet. Ice cream is made from milk and cream and often contains egg yolks, whereas gelato is more milk-based and usually does not contain egg yolks. The bases and freezing methods can be used interchangeably as circumstances allow, but understand that the consistency of the finished product will vary depending on how it was made.
Alderwoman Doris Turner was gracious enough to share an ice cream recipe that has been passed down in her family for seven generations. Find it at https://www.illinoistimes.com/springfield/juneteenth-ice-cream/Content?oid=12274469
Nana's Buttermilk Sherbet
1 egg white (this will be eaten raw so make sure it's fresh and local, or pasteurized)
2/3 cup sugar, divided
2 cups buttermilk (or substitute plain yogurt)
1 cup crushed pineapple, drained (or substitute mashed berries or peaches)
1 teaspoon vanilla
A dash of salt
Whip the egg white with a tablespoon of the sugar. Combine the remaining ingredients and mix well, then gently fold into the egg white. Place into a metal pan and freeze, stirring periodically until icy and scoopable. The mixture can also be frozen in an ice cream maker for smoother results.