Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.
In the 1780s, King Ferdinand IV of Naples and his wife arrived at the San Gregorio Convent to find “…a table covered, and every appearance of a most plentiful cold repast, consisting of several joints of meat, hams, fowl, fish and various other dishes.” The King and his entourage were bummed, however, because they had just eaten. But not wanting to seem impolite, they sat down, and Queen Maria Carolina “…choose a slice of cold turkey, which, on being cut up, turned out a large piece of lemon ice. All the other dishes were ices of various kinds, disguised under the forms of joints of meat, fish and fowl.” The King and the nuns alike had a hearty laugh at the joke.
I came across this story in Jeri Quinzio’s Of Sugar and Snow, a fantastic history of ice cream. According to Quinzio, before the 20th century (when gallons of ice cream became available in the grocer’s freezer) fancy ice creams were either made at home, or ordered for special occasions from skilled confectioners. The confectioners would mold the ice cream into fabulous trompe l’oeil displays, and the best were allegedly so true to life that a diner couldn’t tell the difference until they took a bite.
Digging around Etsy reveals examples of similar vintage ice cream molds: simple block molds for making layered confections (better known today as “Neapolitan” ice cream); delicate fruits, vegetables and flowers ready to be realistically rendered in ice; inexplicable items like mandolins and high-heeled shoes, and an unappetizing array of broiled fish and roast chicken molds.
After reading about Queen Maria Carolina’s lemon ice turkey cutlet, I began to wonder what flavor a roast chicken shaped ice cream should be. There’s always the simple solution of chocolate and vanilla, perhaps layered so you could carve a convincing slice of breast meat. But there were many more exotic flavors in ice cream’s past than one can find in even the most progressive ice cream stores today. Food historian Ivan Day discovered what is believed to be the first recipe for ice cream, written in a manuscript by Lady Anne Fanshawe of England. Dating to c. 1665, she flavors her ice cream with mace, orangeflower water, or ambergris. Ambergris is an “intestinal slurry” ejected into the oceans by sperm whales, much like a cat disgorging a hairball. A ball of ambergris floats in the ocean until it washes ashore and is collected. Throughout the 18th century, it was a prized flavoring for sweets. Its smell and flavor can range from “earthy to musky to sweet.”
If whale puke isn’t to your liking, Day gives another fascinating recipe for ice cream dating from 1751, flavored with Parmesan cheese: “…the Parmesan ice cream was molded into the shape of a wedge of cheese, with a rind simulated in caramelized sugar.” Day describes it as “unexpectedly delicious.” Here is the recipe, first published in English in 1789:
Take six eggs, half a pint of syrup and a pint of cream; put them into a stewpan and boil them until it begins to thicken; then rasp three ounces of Parmesan cheese, mix and pass them through a sieve, and freeze it.
I thought a sweet/savory ice cream would pair well with a meat-shaped mold, so I decided to give the Parmesan ice cream a try.
Parmesan Ice Cream (1751)
Adapted for the modern kitchen
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 cup whole milk
6 large egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
3 ounces finely grated Parmesan cheese.
Combine the first four ingredients in a saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until custard thickens slightly and evenly coats the back of the spoon (it should hold a line drawn by your finger). Add Parmesan and stir. Place in refrigerator until chilled — overnight is preferable. Churn in an ice-cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer ice cream to a resealable plastic container and freeze until firm, about 2 hours.
Although I did not find this recipe as delightful at Ivan Day did, I wasn’t totally repulsed by it. The melted cheese gave the ice cream a rich, buttery mouthfeel. But because it tasted sweet, not savory, its aged-cheese-feet flavor was much more pronounced. If you think you’d be into an ice cream that tastes just like Parmesan cheese, then this recipe is for you.
Hungry for more? Read Sarah’s other Kitchen Histories.