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RECIPE: Thomas Jefferson’s Vanilla Ice Cream

Happy birthday Thomas Jefferson! Born April 13, 1743, this Founding Father became America’s third president; but he was America’s First Foodie.

According to culinary historian Karen Hess, Jefferson was “our most illustrious epicure, in fact, our only epicurean President.”

He loved his veggies, stating that they “constitute my principal diet.” His favorites: tennis-ball lettuce, Brown Dutch lettuce, prickly-seeded spinach and for fruit, Marseilles figs. He sought out new produce varieties from the foreign consuls in Washington, and is credited with introducing broccoli to mainstream America.

He is credited with popularizing fried eggplant, French fries, johnny-cakes, gumbo, mashed potatoes, peanuts, sesame seed oil and sweet potato pudding, among other dishes, blending colonial cuisine with African (slave), Colonial, Creole, European and Native American traditions.[Source]

At the time Jefferson left to serve as minister to France, in 1784, the mainstays of American colonial cooking were primarily meats—baked, boiled, roasted or stewed—breads, heavily sweetened desserts and [generally] overcooked vegetables. [Source]

The sophistication of French cuisine and his travel to another culinary stronghold, Italy, broadened his perspective. He returned to America with recipes, foodstuffs (French wine, olive oil and vanilla beans) and cooking gear, including a pasta machine.

   
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Long before the invention of the crank ice cream machine, strong-armed kitchen staff would whisk the mix in a vat set in a bowl of ice. Photo courtesy Nielsen Massey.

 
And with a French-trained chef: his slave James Hemings, brother of Sally. As a member of Jefferson’s Paris household, the 19-year-old was trained in French cooking at the direction of his master, with the promise that he would be given his freedom after returning to Monticello and training a successor.

Ultimately taking charge of the kitchen at Jefferson’s Paris home, the gifted young man cooked for some of the most distinguished and discriminating people in France. As a freed man, he continued to work as a chef.

 

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In his own hand, Jefferson’s ice cream recipe. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
  JEFFERSON BRINGS ICE CREAM TO AMERICA

Upon his return from France in 1789, Jefferson brought 200 vanilla beans and an ice cream recipe. [Source: IceCream.com]

There were no ice cream machines—the hand-cranked version had yet to be invented, in 1843—so strong-armed kitchen staff would hand-whisk the mixture in a bowl placed in a vat of ice.

The result had a mousse-like consistency rather than the freezer-hardened ice cream we know today. But chilled and creamy, and flavored with exotic vanilla beans, it was a delight of high society (only the wealthy could afford the vanilla, the labor and the ice).

Jefferson’s original, hand-written recipe is housed in the Library of Congress. Nielsen-Massey, vendor of premium vanilla beans from around the world, adapted the original recipe so you can make it at home.

It calls for 1¼ cups of sugar, a saucepan and an ice cream maker, instead of a half-pound of sugar, an open cooking fire and a very strong person or two to churn it by hand.

 
RECIPE: THOMAS JEFFERSON’S VANILLA ICE CREAM

Ingredients

  • 2 quarts heavy cream
  • 6 yolks of eggs
  • 1¼ cups sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean*
  •  
    Preparation

    1. WHISK together the egg yolks and sugar until creamy and lightened in color. Set aside.

    2. PLACE the cream in a saucepan. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise with the tip of a small knife. Scrape both sides of the bean with the knife’s dull side and add the seeds and bean to the cream. Place the saucepan over medium heat until the mixture is nearly boiling.

    3. REMOVE the cream mixture from the heat, and very slowly add ½ cup of the hot cream to the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly. Pour the now-warmed egg yolk mixture into the hot cream, whisking to combine.

    4. RETURN the saucepan to the stove, stirring constantly over medium heat until the mixture is thick and coats the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and strain through a fine mesh sieve. Allow mixture to chill in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight.

    5. CHURN the ice cream in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions.

     
    *You can use Tahitian or Mexican vanilla beans in place of the conventional Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans to highlight different vanilla flavors. You can also susbstitute vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract: 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste is equivalent to 1 vanilla bean.

      




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