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A slice of watermelon sorbet. Making it at home is no picnic, because of the time involved, but it's a most summery dessert. The overall visual effect is stunning, and so is the taste. (Huy Mach/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

A sampling of homemade ice cream that includes, clockwise from top left, Glace au Chocolat, salty caramel, white chocolate. Isnâ t ice cream better when you make it at home? (Huy Mach/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/MCT)

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Ice cream is the ultimate July 4 dessert

Tuesday, July 01, 2014 - Updated: 6:40 AM

By DANIEL NEMAN

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

When he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson used a quill dipped not in ink but in chocolate sauce.

It's a little-known fact.

The summer of 1776 was blisteringly hot, and Jefferson was a young man of 33 (that part's actually true). No wonder he turned to the cooling relief found in a dish of softly frozen, sweetened cream sold out of a Good Humor horse and carriage.

Americans have been eating ice cream on the Fourth of July ever since. It's practically our patriotic duty, and it's delicious, too. That's one of those truths that are self-evident.

To prepare for the Fourth, I made a selection of creamy, wonderfully flavored ice creams. Sure, you can buy it at a store, or from a horse and carriage, but isn't ice cream better when you make it at home?

Yes it is, but only if you have an electric ice cream maker. Working one of those old hand-cranked models may build character, but it makes you too tired to enjoy the ice cream.

The first ice cream I made for the Fourth isn't even ice cream at all, it is a sorbet. And I believe it is the most summery dessert I have ever had.

Called A Watermelon Fantasy, it was served at The Inn at Little Washington, a rural Virginia institution justifiably considered one of the best restaurants in America. Everything they serve is exquisite, every presentation is spectacular.

A Watermelon Fantasy is no exception. I saw a picture of it in the restaurant's cookbook and said: I want to make that.

Making it is no picnic, but only because of the time involved. Fortunately, it can be made a couple of days in advance. To get the full effect, it requires three separate steps. First, you make a honeydew sorbet to represent the rind; once it's made you spread it around the interior of a chilled bowl and freeze that. Next, you make a passion fruit sorbet, spreading a thin amount of it inside the other sorbet to represent the transitional area between the rind and the red part of the watermelon. Finally, you make a watermelon sorbet -- rehydrated currants stand in for the seeds -- to represent the inside of the watermelon.

The overall visual effect is stunning, and so is the taste. It is remarkably refreshing and, because sorbet is made without milk or cream, it has no fat. And because it is made with a simple syrup with more than twice as much water as sugar, it is not overly sweet. The Inn at Little Washington actually serves it as a palate cleanser before dessert.

If you want something richer, you can't go wrong with salted caramel ice cream, which is surely one of the most popular flavors of our time. Jeni Britton Bauer, the genius behind Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream, has a recipe that is utterly amazing.

Salty Caramel Ice Cream, as she calls it, uses two secrets in its production. One is a secret Bauer uses in all her ice creams: She adds an extra layer of richness and tang with a bit of softened cream cheese. And the other is the dry-burn technique of making caramel; it's faster than using water, but it also requires standing over the sugar with a heatproof spatula to make sure it doesn't burn. It's easy, and it takes only a couple of minutes.

The result may be the best ice cream you've ever had.

If it isn't, that's only because you find the White Chocolate Ice Cream (also from the Inn at Little Washington) to be better. Here, the process requires using the best white chocolate you can find. Just mix it in with the cream, the milk, the sugar, egg yolks and vanilla. And don't forget the dark rum. You never want to forget the dark rum.

The White Chocolate Ice Cream is superb, but it is even better when topped with a Dark Chocolate Sauce. Here again, it is the details that matter: good-quality chocolate and heavy cream. It's luscious and luxuriant on your tongue, with unexpected undertones from a bit of Grand Marnier and strong coffee.

And if you like your ice cream rich, you can do it the French way and make a glace au chocolat. It begins with a custard and is so rich you can make it with ordinary whole milk. It isn't the milk that makes it rich, or the vanilla bean or the sugar or even the chocolate. It's the eight egg yolks.

That's right, eight. If you want ice cream that is unbelievably smooth and soft and rich, make it with eight egg yolks.

It's the way Thomas Jefferson would have wanted it.

GLACE AU CHOCOLAT

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

8 ounces good-quality semisweet chocolate

1/2 cup water

3 cups milk, see note

1 vanilla bean

1 cup granulated sugar

8 egg yolks

Note: This ice cream is rich as it is, but you can replace any or all of the milk with light cream.

Heat the chocolate and water in a small saucepan, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is smooth.

Stir the chocolate sauce into the milk in a large saucepan. Slice the vanilla bean lengthwise down the middle, use the edge of the knife to scrape out the tiny seeds, and add the seeds and the pods to the chocolate milk. Bring to a boil and boil slowly for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Be sure to keep the mixture from boiling out of the pot.

Meanwhile, combine the sugar and yolks in a large bowl and beat with a wooden spoon until the batter is light and slowly forms a ribbon when poured from the spoon.

Very slowly, beat the chocolate milk into this mixture. Begin with just a few drops at a time, then a little more, then a little more. When about half of the milk has been blended into the yolk mixture, pour it all back into the saucepan and heat slowly while stirring. Avoid boiling. Heat until the mixture has thickened to the consistency of a light cream and coats the back of a wooden spoon (if you dunk the spoon into the mixture and draw your finger across the back of it, you will be able to see a clear trail of where your finger had been).

Strain through a fine sieve, allow to cool (stirring will make it cool faster) and freeze in an ice-cream maker according to manufacturer's directions.

Per serving: 280 calories; 14 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 155 milligrams cholesterol; 6 grams protein; 36 grams carbohydrate; 33 grams sugar; 2 grams fiber; 40 milligrams sodium; 100 milligrams calcium.

DARK CHOCOLATE SAUCE

Yield: 1 1/2 cups

8 ounces good-quality semisweet chocolate, broken into small pieces

1/4 cup strong coffee, see note

3 tablespoons Grand Marnier

3 tablespoons heavy cream

Note: If you want your sauce a little less bitter, use 2 to 3 tablespoons coffee.

Place the chocolate in a double boiler or stainless steel bowl set over a pot of simmering water. Add the coffee, Grand Marnier and cream. Heat, whisking occasionally, until the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth.

Hold the sauce over warm water until you're ready to serve it, or refrigerate and gently rewarm it before serving.

Per 2-tablespoon serving: 115 calories; 8 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 5 milligrams cholesterol; 1 gram protein; 11 grams carbohydrate; 8 grams sugar; 1 gram fiber; 0 milligrams sodium; 0 milligrams calcium.

A WATERMELON FANTASY

Yield: 8 servings

1/4 cup dried black currants

1/2 cup Midori liqueur, divided (1/4 cup is optional)

9 cups water

4 cups granulated sugar

1 1/2 cups honeydew puree

1 1/2 cups passion fruit puree or frozen orange juice concentrate, see note

1 1/2 cups watermelon puree (remove seeds before pureeing)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon grenadine

Note: Passion fruit puree can be found frozen at some of the larger grocery stores as well as many international food markets, particularly Latin food markets. I used passion fruit concentrate, sold with other frozen juices at an international food store.

Place currants in 1/4 cup Midori and allow to soak overnight.

Make a simple syrup by combining the water and sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved and the liquid is clear. Cool to room temperature. Can be stored indefinitely in the refrigerator.

Chill a 3-quart stainless steel bowl in the freezer for at least 20 minutes.

To make the honeydew sorbet, combine the honeydew puree, 3 cups of the simple syrup and the optional 1/4 cup of Midori in an ice cream machine, and make according to the manufacturer's directions. Spread the honeydew sorbet 1/2-inch thick over the entire interior of the chilled bowl. If the sorbet slides down the sides of the bowl, place it in the freezer for 30 minutes to make the sorbet more firm; then spread it over the interior of the bowl. Return the bowl to the freezer.

To make the passion fruit sorbet, combine the passion fruit puree or orange juice concentrate with 3 cups of the simple syrup in an ice cream machine and make according to the manufacturer's directions. Spread the passion fruit puree 1/8 to 1/4-inch thick over the honeydew sorbet. Return the bowl to the freezer. (Leftover sorbet can be frozen separately.)

To make the watermelon sorbet, combine the watermelon puree with 3 cups of the simple syrup (you will have some syrup left over), lemon juice and grenadine in an ice cream machine and make according to the manufacturer's directions. Stir in the Midori-soaked currants. Spoon the watermelon sorbet into the bowl and return to the freezer for at least 3 hours.

Can be made a day or two in advance.

Per serving: 470 calories; no fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; 1 gram protein; 118 grams carbohydrate; 113 grams sugar; 3 grams fiber; 20 milligrams sodium; 20 milligrams calcium.

SALTY CARAMEL ICE CREAM

Yield: 1 quart (or a little less)

2 cups whole milk, divided

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) cream cheese, softened

1/2 teaspoon fine salt

1 1/4 cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

2/3 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Mix 2 tablespoons of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl to make a smooth slurry. Whisk the cream cheese and salt in a medium bowl until smooth. Mix the cream with the corn syrup in a measuring cup with a spout. Fill a large bowl with ice and water.

Heat the sugar in a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. Stand over the pan with a heatproof spatula ready, but do not touch the sugar until there is a thin ring of melted and browning liquid sugar around the edge of the sugar. When the edges of the melted sugar begin to darken, use the spatula to bring them into the center to help melt the unmelted sugar. Continue stirring and pushing the sugar around until it is all melted and evenly amber in color, like an old penny.

When little bubbles begin to explode with dark smoke, give the sugar another moment and then remove from the heat. Immediately, but slowly, pour about 1/4 cup of the cream and corn syrup mixture into the burning hot sugar. Be careful -- it will pop and spit. Stir until it is incorporated, then add a bit more cream and stir, then continue until it is all in. Do not worry if the melted sugar seizes and solidifies.

Return the pan to medium-high heat and add the rest of the milk and vanilla. Bring to a rolling boil and boil for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat, give the cornstarch slurry a quick stir, and gradually whisk in the slurry.

Bring back to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring with a heatproof spatula, until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat. If any caramel flecks remain, pour the mixture through a sieve.

Gradually whisk the hot milk mixture into the cream cheese until smooth. Pour the mixture into a 1-gallon resealable plastic bag and submerge the sealed bag in the ice bath. Let stand, adding more ice as necessary, until cold, about 30 minutes.

Pour into ice cream-maker canister and freeze according to product instructions. Pack the ice cream into a storage container, press a sheet of parchment directly against the surface, and seal with an airtight lid. Freeze in the coldest part of your freezer until firm, at least 4 hours.

Per serving: 275 calories; 18 grams fat; 11 grams saturated fat; 65 milligrams cholesterol; 3 grams protein; 27 grams carbohydrate; 24 grams sugar; 0 grams fiber; 205 milligrams sodium; 100 milligrams calcium.

WHITE CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM

Yield: 1 quart

9 ounces finest-quality imported white chocolate, broken into small pieces

3 egg yolks

2/3 cup granulated sugar

2 cups milk

2 tablespoons dark rum

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 cup heavy cream

Melt the chocolate in a stainless steel bowl set over a pan of simmering water.

In the top of a double boiler set over medium heat, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar. Cook until slightly thickened and foamy. Meanwhile, in another saucepan, scald the milk.

Stirring constantly, slowly pour the hot milk into the yolk mixture -- just a few drops at a time, at first. Still stirring, cook over medium heat until the custard coats the back of a spoon. Add the melted chocolate. Strain and cool.

Add the rum, vanilla and cream. Freeze in an ice-cream machine according to the manufacturer's instructions.

For true decadence, serve with Dark Chocolate Sauce.

Per serving: 420 calories; 25 grams fat; 16 grams saturated fat; 130 milligrams cholesterol; 6 grams protein; 39 grams carbohydrate; 38 grams sugar; 0 grams fiber; 75 milligrams sodium; 145 milligrams calcium.

     

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