Crafting your very own ice creams

New recipes and equipment make homemade a whole lot easier.

With so many local shops selling artisan ice cream, making your own at home may seem like a feat for the why-bother file. But there are reasons to bother, especially with three new books from ice cream talents sharing the recipes that made their reputations.

Panforte ice cream. Cheesecake ice cream. Vietnamese coffee ice cream. Pear-pecorino ice cream. Who knew there was so much more to say on the subject?

The new works by San Francisco pastry chef Emily Luchetti, Burlingame food writer Peggy Fallon, and former Chez Panisse pastry chef David Lebovitz take ice cream in imaginative and sometimes startling new directions. These gelato geniuses still make room for plain vanilla, but they clearly disdain the idea of stopping there when you could mix in buttercrunch toffee, swirl in a salted butter caramel sauce, or sandwich it between giant fudge cookies. Ice cream has been with us for centuries, but it has never been so much fun.

The excitement around homemade ice cream owes a lot to engineering breakthroughs that have replaced the old ice-and-salt freezers with fuss-free models. Many home cooks happily switched years ago to a machine with a refrigerant-filled insert. But the insert has to be frozen a day before churning, forcing 24 hours of down time between batches.

Now Cuisinart has come out with a machine with a built-in coolant that can turn out one batch after another. At about $250, the Cuisinart model is still a splurge for most households, but it signals the start of a race to make an affordable self-refrigerating machine.

Homemade ice cream is much easier and faster today than in the days of the hand-cranked, but that is not the only reasons to tackle it.

At home, you can make 11/2 quarts for the price of three scoops at a fancy shop. You can devise your own creations with mix-ins such as straciatella (Italian-style chocolate chips) or candied nuts. And you can avoid the stabilizers and powdered flavors typical of supermarket ice cream and some scoop shops.

For homemade ice cream, you can use the best of everything, from ripe fruit and farm eggs to high-end vanilla. You can enjoy the lush creaminess of a freshly made batch - a pleasure lost in commercial ice cream - and revel in what Fallon calls "the fun factor," otherwise known as licking the dasher.

Recipes for homemade ice cream fall into two camps: those with a custard base and those without. Making the custard - a cooked mixture of milk or cream, eggs and sugar - takes all of five minutes, but some home cooks fear it because it's easy to curdle the custard due to inattention. All three of the aforementioned authors include recipes for eggless ice creams - often known as Philadelphia style - for the custard-phobic, but all also prefer ice cream with eggs.

"A custard-based ice cream has better flavor, better holding power, and it's not going to be as icy," says Fallon. "It doesn't cause brain freeze."

Eggs make ice cream silkier and more voluptuous, but they also can mask the taste of fresh fruit. "There's really no rule," says Luchetti, about when to leave eggs out, but fruit ice creams are good candidates for the Philadelphia-style method. "You get more of a strawberries-and-cream-type flavor than strawberries and custard," she says.

Despite the name, ice cream is rarely made entirely with cream. Most recipes include some percentage of milk or half-and-half to produce a result that is lighter and less tongue-coating. Buttermilk, creme fraiche and sour cream can also figure into the mix, adding a cultured flavor and altering the fat content. Ice creams made with a high percentage of milk or buttermilk can be icy, while high-fat recipes can yield an overly rich result.

"You can make any ice cream with any ratio," says Luchetti, but a safe bet is half cream, half milk. The good news is that the ice cream will work, whatever ratio you choose, she says. "It's not like baking powder in a cake."

If you want a richer mouthfeel, bump up the cream or sour cream. If you want to let the fruit speak, replace some of the cream with milk. "If ice cream has fruit in it, I take that opportunity to lower the fat content," says Lebovitz. "I don't like the taste of cream with fruit. I think it obliterates the fruit."

Sugar also contributes to ice cream's silky texture and should not be altered much beyond what a recipe recommends. Ice cream without enough sugar freezes too hard. With too much sugar, it's not refreshing.

Once you have grasped the basic techniques and the ballpark ratios, you can release your inner gelataio, as Italians call their expert ice cream makers. Fold in favorite toasted nuts or chopped candy bars. Infuse the milk or cream with scented geranium leaves or citrus blossoms. Sandwich your ice cream between oatmeal cookies.

While few home kitchens can match the equipment of high end ice cream shops - with separate freezers for churning, freezing, hardening and serving - home cooks can borrow some of the tricks. Always harden ice cream in the freezer for a few hours, experts say, then soften it in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes before serving. Then scoop, savor and start plotting your next batch.

Says Lebovitz, "For the last few years, it was artisan chocolate, but I think ice cream is the next frontier."