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(Not So) Plain Vanilla

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The first time I heard the expression "plain vanilla" I had to ask for an explanation of its actual meaning. Taken literally, "plain vanilla" sounded like a combination of two contradictory terms. Vanilla is one of the most intense flavors in nature, and it is all but plain. I learned that the expression comes from the fact that vanilla is the most common flavor of ice cream in this country, a sort of default flavor. By analogy, "plain vanilla" became a synonym for basic, ordinary, "lacking special features or qualities" (as the Webster dictionary specifies). Still, the fact is that "plain vanilla" ice cream is far from plain.

I had not contemplated adding ice cream to my culinary repertoire until 1999, when my husband and I spent two months in Italy. During our stay, he adopted a diet that included at least one daily dose of gelato from a gelaterie , one of my home country's establishments of pure sensory delight . Complete deprivation was a prospect my husband was not willing to contemplate, so I promised him I would get an ice cream maker and see whether I could stave off the severe withdrawal symptoms he was dreading.

First I purchased an electric ice cream maker, an automated version of the cranker (a familiar kitchen item for Americans, though not for Italians). Then I chose to start my experiments with "plain vanilla" ice cream. This decision led to the discovery of the vanilla bean. The long, skinny bean derives from orchids in the genus Vanilla, native to tropical America. The name comes from the Spanish word "vainilla", diminutive of "vaina," meaning "sheath" and also "pod." In the bulk section of the Co-op and Wildberries vanilla beans are stored in a jar -- when you open it to select a bean, the fragrance is heavenly.

From reading a few recipes I drafted my own version, which I follow to this day and which makes four moderate portions. I fold the flexible vanilla bean and cut it along the half-way line, then store one piece in an airtight container. With the tip of a knife I cut the other piece in half lengthwise to reveal the myriad tiny black seeds crowded inside. The dots (as I call them) carry the unmistakable flavor. Manipulating the bean for a few seconds transfers some vanilla essence to my fingers and I can smell it long afterwards, a pleasant side effect. I put the split half bean in a small saucepan with a cup and a quarter of non-fat milk and a scant quarter cup of sugar. I bring the milk to just below boiling point over low heat, stir briefly, turn off the heat and cover the pan. Dots break loose from the bean and float around; it is the beginning of the process whereby the flavor of the bean is transferred to the milk. I do this first step in the evening and then let the milk rest overnight (in the fridge, once it has reached room temperature).

The following morning I prepare the custard. I beat one whole extra-large organic egg plus one yolk with a quarter cup of sugar until the mixture is white and bubbly. While I am beating the eggs, I warm up the vanilla-infused milk (without bringing it to a boil!), then slowly pour it over the eggs, while whisking. I pour the uncooked custard into the saucepan and set it on very low heat. Using a wooden spoon, I stir almost constantly and soon the custard starts to feel thicker. The layer of froth on the surface disappears as the temperature increases. I do not leave the pan unattended, because if the custard reaches boiling point it will curdle. At regular intervals I take the spoon out. When a film forms over its back side, I draw my finger across. If the line stays clear, the custard is ready. I turn off the heat, put the bottom of the saucepan in cold water and keep stirring to quickly bring down the temperature. I set aside the saucepan and when the custard reaches room temperature I cover and refrigerate it until ready to churn.

I always keep the bowl that makes up the body of the ice cream maker in the freezer, ready to use. It takes up some space, but it is worth it. It is important that the custard be cold before it is poured into the ice cream maker, otherwise the liquid located between the walls of the bowl will partially melt and the churning process may fail. Failure can occur also if the freezer is not cold enough to thoroughly freeze the liquid.

I take the custard out of the fridge and stir into it a cup of cold organic heavy whipping cream. Then it is time to retire the flavoring agent. I fish out the split vanilla bean, and with the edge of a spatula, I scrape off the black dots still attached to the two halves of the bean. I stir them into the custard, then set aside the husk. The used vanilla bean still has plenty of flavor to give away. I wash it carefully and let it dry, then add it to my vanilla sugar jar. The sugar soaks up the remaining flavor resulting in vanilla-flavored sugar, which I use in baked goods and other ice cream flavors instead of vanilla extract.

I assemble the ice cream maker and start it, then pour the custard into the bowl. The role of the machine is to chill the custard while adding air. This is achieved via a rotating paddle that stirs the custard and ensures uniform creamy texture, free from ice crystals. I let the machine churn for about 15 minutes, until the mixture has the creamy consistency of, well, gelato . I stop the machine and offer a taste of the end product to my husband, who is manager of the quality assurance department. I distribute the ice cream in small bowls and serve immediately. The silence that follows soon segues into spoons scraping empty bowls.

I think ice cream is at its best right out of the ice cream maker. Recipes instruct to harden it in the freezer before eating, but I only freeze leftovers. I spoon the ice cream in a container and cover the surface with wax paper to prevent the formation of ice crystals, then cover and freeze. Later, I move the container to the fridge well before serving time, so the ice cream softens.

With in-house availability of freshly-made ice cream, my husband quickly recovered from his profound dejection post-return from Italy. People ask me how my ice cream compares to Italian gelato . I don't know the recipe that gelateries use for their product so I am not sure. I do know that commercial outfits use more sophisticated equipment that chills the custard at a constant temperature (with a compressor like a fridge). In any case, why should I let all these technical details spoil the joy of making ice cream at home for my husband and our friends?

In time I have discovered that vanilla, besides being the most common flavor of ice cream, is most people's favorite. I experience a sweet pleasure when I see people's face light up as the creamy delight starts to diffuse in their mouth. I feel like I am contributing a few spoonfuls to the world's happiness.

Simona Carini is a native of Italy who splits her time between Trinidad and Berkeley.

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