In December of 1989, just after Christmas, my father and step-mother dropped me off at a little pensione in Siena, Italy where I was to meet my study-abroad group. I knew no one. We said our goodbyes, and I watched them fold themselves back into their tiny rented Fiat Uno and drive off. I stood in the middle of the road waving after them - tears streaming down my face and gulping down the calzone-sized sob that was climbing up my chest. What a whimp! Within an hour I met two girls who would become my life-long friends, Nina and Cherie, and discovered a frozen confection so divine its powers instantly washed away any twinge of homesickness: gelato. In Italy, this cultural favorite is not just for summer, it's a year-round treat. Unlike North American ice cream, most (not all) Italian gelati are made with whole milk and egg yolks instead of cream, making them deliciously dense. Whole milk in Italy tends to be richer than in the United States, so many recipes here add a bit of cream to compensate. While our domestic versions of gelato can be quite yummy, nothing compares to eating the true thing in the "Old Country." Before embarking on your gelato adventure, here are a few basic tips:
- Use the freshest ingredients possible: get your eggs, cream and milk at your farmer's market
- If using fruit, buy what's fresh and seasonal
- Opt for vanilla bean instead of extract
- Bring eggs to room temperature: you'll stir less and prevent air from getting incorporated
- Strain your custard: use a fine mesh sieve or a cheesecloth-lined colander
- Eat it fresh from the machine or, if frozen, let it soften before serving
Gelato alla Baccello di Vaniglia (Vanilla Bean Gelato)
The following recipe is adapted from the August 2008 issue of La Cucina Italiana magazine. We changed it a bit and used 1% milk thinking it would make it a bit lighter, but holy cow!, it still resulted in a Mamma-mia-uber-rich gelato! Molto delizioso!
5 large egg yolks, brought to room temperature
¾ cup sugar
2 ¼ cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 vanilla pod, sliced in half lengthwise
Pinch of salt
Whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until thick (about 2-3 minutes).
In a large saucepan, combine the whole milk, heavy cream, vanilla bean and a pinch of salt. Heat over medium heat, stirring over medium heat, until bubbles form and pop around the edges. Remove from heat.
Slowly whisk about ¼ of the warm mixture into the egg mixture; then add it all back into the milk mixture in the saucepan. Stir constantly over low heat until mixture is slightly thickened and begins to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Be sure to not simmer.
Fill a large stainless steel bowl with ice and water. Strain the custard through a fine sieve (or a cheesecloth-lined colander) into a smaller stainless steel bowl, then set into the ice bath. Stir occasionally and let chill until completely cooled.
Transfer mixture to an ice cream machine and follow manufacturer’s instructions.
Best when served immediately, although it will keep in the freezer for up to a month.