It’s Hot! Let’s make Ice Cream!

(originally published July/August 2002, in Co-options, the newsletter of Sevanada Natural Foods Cooperative in Atlanta, GA.

When I was a little girl, homemade ice cream was an institution on hot summer Sunday afternoons. My Dad is a famous ice cream eater, and he won many an ice cream eating contest by eating while standing up. He also says that, since it melts and fills in the crevices between the other foods you’ve eaten, there’s always room for ice cream. While I try to be sensible about the amount of this frozen ambrosia I put away these days, I’m still my Daddy’s girl. My mother always came up with an amazing variety of ice cream flavors for us to enjoy, so I’ve tried to take after her as well.

For me, going without homemade ice cream was never really an option. When I went vegan, I knew that I would simply have to work out some decent vegan homemade ice cream recipes. I’ve made several types over the years, but in order to prepare for this article, I’ve made several types over the course of just a few days. Oh, the sacrifices I make for you folks!

You can make ice cream like we always did – with an electric churn that you pack down with cracked ice and rock salt – or you can use one of the gel-filled ice cream makers on the market today that claim to make ice cream with no fuss or muss. Each type of churn has its advantages. The newer ones are neater and cleaner (and probably less noisy). I can’t claim any personal knowledge of them, however, and no one I know who has ever bought one has used it much because the gel-filled sleeve takes up too much valuable freezer real estate. The liner needs to be frozen for at least 24 hours ahead, and I just can’t be bothered to plan that far ahead for most meals. No spur of the moment ice cream with one of those, unless you can devote freezer space to the liner at all times. Most of the newer churns only make one quart at a time. This is probably plenty for small families whose members don’t make pigs of themselves, but not enough for a picnic or potluck.

The old-style freezers come with 4 qt to 6 qt canisters and can be pulled out at a moments notice. Just head down to your nearest convenience store for about 20 lbs of ice, grab that 3-year-old box of rock salt out of the pantry, and you’re in business. Of course, if you planned ahead well enough to make up a cooked ice cream base and cool it ahead, you might have time to pre-freeze the gel-filled canister of one of those new-style churns, too, but I usually make the ice cream base just before I go to bed, then pop the filled canister in the fridge overnight. I get up the next day and make ice cream for lunch, so it doesn’t take much more forethought than pre-soaking beans, and is done in well under 24 hours. Our old churn finally burned out early this year, but I found a new one with a spiffy purple plastic bucket at a discount retailer for just $20. Your taste might run to something a bit more evocative of the past, like an oak bucket or a hand crank, but you’ll pay for the nostalgia factor! These beautiful machines are available through specialty gift catalogs for upwards of $100.

You can make ice cream without a special machine. Just pour the mix into a flat metal or glass pan and place it in the freezer. Every hour or so, stir it. This will break up the large crystals and make a smoother product. Alternately, just let it freeze solid, break it into chunks, and run these quickly through your food processor or through a Champion juicer with the blank in place. Process just long enough to make the ice cream smooth, not long enough to melt it. Either serve it immediately, or put it back in the freezer for a short while (one or two hours at most unless you’ve added alcohol to the mix – see below).

In my family, we never bothered with making frozen custard, that rich French style of ice cream with a cooked egg and cream mixture. The rich stuff was too much trouble, too expensive, and too heavy. We liked an ice cream we could really EAT, not just nibble at. (Ice cream often comprised the whole of our Sunday night suppers when the weather was particularly hot.) We usually made our ice cream in a much lighter fashion, with just regular milk and sugar and fruit. The resulting “cream” was therefore relatively light and airy and easy to replicate using soy milk and unbleached sugar or maple syrup. The tofu-blueberry ice cream below is very similar in texture to that old homemade ice cream. This was very good, but I know that a lot of folks want an ice cream that is a bit smoother, denser, and more like commercial ice cream. I remember that some of the best chocolate ice cream my mother ever made was actually frozen chocolate pudding. Thickening the soymilk with arrowroot powder as in the recipe by Myra Kornfeld produces a smoother, less icy product, much like that frozen pudding of old. The gelato recipe by Bryanna Clark Grogan uses tapioca starch to the same effect, along with either corn syrup or rice syrup to further reduce the formation of ice crystals.

(We also never bothered with “ripening” the ice cream. According to all the ice cream maker manuals, after the motor stops [telling you that the ice cream is as thick as it can churn], you are supposed to take out the dasher, put a cork in the lid, pack the ice cream down into the can and set it in a new bed of ice and rock salt, or into your home freezer, for another two hours or so. We always liked the soft-serve consistency of the freshly churned ice cream, and were just too darned impatient to wait. If you have time [or you need to transport the churned cream to a picnic or something], this is a good way to firm up the entire churn.)

If you’re looking for a lighter frozen dessert, I’ve included some recipes for ices (granitas), and sorbets. One of the most popular desserts I’ve ever served was a lemon granita. It was served at the end of a “progressive dinner” some neighbors and I put together. It was a hot night and everyone had eaten and drunk too much, wandering from house to house. The tart icy granita was the perfect light ending to a wonderfully overindulgent evening.

One disadvantage to homemade frozen desserts is that any leftovers will freeze rock hard in the freezer. One solution to this is to eat all of the ice cream right away – no leftovers, no problem. Another is to add a bit of alcohol – a couple of tablespoons of rum, brandy, a flavored liqueur, or a bit more white wine in the granitas, whatever flavor works with your dessert. Alcohol has a lower freezing point than water and will keep the ice cream from freezing solid. Of course, you have to be careful not to add too much or your original freezing will be unsuccessful. The alcohol will not “burn off” in these recipes, of course. The small amounts of rum or vodka will not add much, if any, punch, but a full cup of wine in the sorbets might make them unsuitable for children. If you choose not to add alcohol, you can add a gelling agent (see the recipes), or you will need to take the ice cream out of the freezer and place it in the refrigerator for an hour or so before serving, or you can defrost it for 30 minutes or so on the counter. If it is still too hard and icy for you, you can break it into chunks and run it through your food processor until it is smooth and creamy.

One last thing my mother taught me about making ice cream is that sweetness is less apparent when food is very cold. When making your ice cream mix, keep in mind that it needs to taste too sweet before it is frozen so that the ice cream will taste sweet enough when it is finished. Start with some of these recipes, then adjust them as necessary the next time you make them. I like my ice cream a bit less sweet than most people do, but these recipes are designed for more mainstream tastes.

Of course, the easiest, healthiest, and (I think) tastiest vegan “ice cream” is just a frozen, very ripe banana. I buy organic bananas, wait for them to get really ripe (not fermented – just nice and ripe), peel them and freeze them in freezer bags. They are wonderful eaten as is, wrapped in a napkin to prevent fingertip frostbite, or run through the food processor or a Champion juicer until creamy. The former are more like banana popsicles and the latter is like banana soft-serve ice cream. Either way, there is no added fat, lots of fiber, a nice hit of potassium (important in hot weather), and they are just plain delicious!

For this vanilla version and most of the variations, Bryanna Clark Grogan says that even unbleached cane sugar has too distinct a flavor. She prefers a mixture of corn or brown rice syrup with maple syrup.

Vegan Italian Vanilla Ice Cream (with variations)
(Gelato Vegan Alla Vaniglia)

Recipe By: Bryanna Clark Grogan, Nonna’s Italian Kitchen
Makes 1 quart, serves 8 (1/2 cup servings)

Mixture #1
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup brown rice syrup or white corn syrup
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Mixture #2
1 cup water
3/4 cup soy milk, almond milk, or rice milk
1/2 cup cashews
1/2 cup Grade A maple syrup
1 tablespoon tapioca starch
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Blend Mixture #1 in a blender, then set aside in a measuring cup.

Blend Mixture #2 in a blender until very smooth and frothy. (Make sure it doesn’t feel grainy.) Place this mixture in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan, and stir over medium-high heat until thickened.

Microwave option: Place Mixture #2 in a large, microwave-proof bowl and microwave on high for 2 minutes. Whisk and cook 2 minutes more. Whisk and cook 1 minute more.

Whisk Mixture #1 into cooked Mixture #2. Chill the gelato mixture and then freeze according to the directions for your ice cream maker. Scoop into a plastic container, cover, and freeze for several hours before serving.

Banana: use only 1 teaspoon vanilla. Add 1 cup mashed ripe banana to Mixture #1 when blending.

Coffee (Caffe)
You can use any kind of unbleached cane sugar instead of maple syrup if you wish. Use only 1 teaspoon of vanilla and add 2 tablespoons (4 little packets) espresso powder to Mixture #2. If you like you can also add 1 1/2 tablespoons coffee liqueur to Mixture #1.

Lemon (Limone)
Omit the vanilla and use 1 tablespoon pure lemon extract.

Almond, Hazelnut, Pistachio, or Walnut
Use only 1 teaspoon of vanilla, and add 1/2 cup of chopped, roasted nuts when the mixture is half-frozen (you can also add 1/2 cup of vegan chocolate or carob chips, if you like).. Add 1/2 teaspoon of almond extract and/or 2 tablespoons of amaretto to Mixture #1 for the almond flavor. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of Frangelica (hazelnut liqueur) with the hazelnuts, if you like.

Fruit (Frutta)
Use only 1-2 teaspoons of vanilla. Omit the one cup of water from Mixture #2. Blend the rest of the ingredients very smooth, then add 3-3 1/2 cups (3/4 to 1 pound) berries or pitted, peeled, chopped fresh fruit, which have previously been blended smooth in a food processor or blender. To tangy fruits, add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. To more bland fruits, such as cultivated blueberries, use 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Blend together well, then proceed with the recipe. Yield: About 5 cups.

If you like, add a bit of citrus rind or citrus extract, or an appropriate liqueur (up to 2 tablespoons).

You can also use frozen fruit but measure it while it is frozen, and then let it soften before blending.

Butter Pecan (Lisa’s variation)
Use brown rice syrup instead of the corn and maple syrup in both Mixtures #1 and #2. Add 1/2 cup of chopped, toasted pecans when the mixture is half-frozen. The brown rice syrup imparts a buttery flavor.

Mint Chocolate Chip (Lisa’s variation)
Omit vanilla extract. Use 1 teaspoon of peppermint extract in Mixture #1. Add 1/2 cup of broken up vegan chocolate chips (or bits of a vegan candy bar) when mixture is half-frozen.

Peanut Butter and Banana Ice Cream (“Memphis Mud”)
If Elvis had a favorite “nice cream”, I’m sure this would be it. It is truly fit for a King! The texture is that of a “real” ice cream, thanks to the banana and peanut butter.

Recipe By: Myra Kornfeld, The Voluptuous Vegan

Makes 1 quart – serves 8 (1/2 cup servings)
2 cups soy milk original flavor
2 tablespoons arrowroot powder
1/2 cup natural peanut butter
2 ripe, peeled bananas
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup maple syrup
pinch sea salt
1/2 cup roasted, chopped peanuts

In a small bowl, mix 1/4 cups of the soy milk with the arrowroot. Add the remaining 1 3/4 cup of the soy milk to a small pot or saucepan. Bring the soy milk to a boil. Stir in the arrowroot slurry. Stir continuously, until the soy milk thickens and just starts to bubble.

Remove the soy milk from the heat and add to a blender with the peanut butter, banana, vanilla, maple syrup, and salt. Blend until smooth. Cool thoroughly in the refrigerator.

Make into ice cream according to the directions for your ice cream maker. Add the chopped peanuts in the last few minutes of churning. Freeze for a couple of hours before serving (if you can wait that long).
Notes: For an even more decadent treat, throw in a 1/2 cup of chopped vegan chocolate or carob chips along with the chopped peanuts during the last few minutes of churning.


Most sorbets are light and relatively low in fat. This one is an exception, since it is made with coconut milk. It is a lovely white color, and so rich that a small serving is very satisfying.

Coconut Sorbet

Recipe By: Myra Kornfeld, The Voluptuous Vegan
Makes 1 quart – serves 8 (1/2 cup servings).

3 cups coconut milk (2 14 oz cans)
2 tablespoons arrowroot powder
6 tablespoons unbleached sugar or maple syrup
1/2 cup coconut flakes

In a small bowl, mix 1/4 cup of the coconut milk with the arrowroot to make a slurry. In a medium saucepan, heat the rest of the coconut milk with the sweetener, stirring to dissolve the sugar thoroughly.

When the coconut milk comes to a boil, stir in the arrowroot slurry. Stir constantly until the coconut milk thickens and just starts to bubble.

Cool thoroughly in the refrigerator. Make into ice cream according to the directions for your ice-cream maker. Add the coconut flakes in the last few minutes of churning.

Notes: I made this with the dried organic coconut flakes available in the cooler section at most natural food stores. The flakes added a nice crunchy texture to the very rich, smooth ice cream.

Variation: Add one can of crushed pineapple or two cups of very ripe chopped fresh pineapple to the mixture before freezing for a pina colada ice cream. 2 teaspoons of rum extract is also a nice touch, or you can add 2 tablespoons of dark rum to both flavor the ice and keep it from freezing too hard.

*********** Sidebar*****************

If you want to know why the salt is necessary when making ice cream “the old fashioned way”, here is a quote from a (now defunct) chemistry FAQ (frequently asked questions) on the Web:

Does adding salt to ice and water cause a temperature drop?
Yes. This is how old-fashioned ice cream makers lowered the temperature of the ice cream below water’s ordinary freezing point. A mixture of rock salt, ice, and water packed in the bucket around the ice cream mix can bring the temperature down as low as -21°C.

Why does the temperature drop?
Energy is required to snap the hydrogen bonds that hold the ice together. The melting ice draws that energy from the surrounding solution as heat.