Cold Hands, Burnt Sugar, and Trying Hard: Making Ice Cream without an Ice Cream Maker

I, like most people, have been watching the Olympics a lot lately.

And let’s be real. I don’t have cable, so “watching the Olympics” translates into:

  1. Watching YouTube videos on my phone the morning after an event in that time before I get out of bed for work, but before I start the negotiation process on just how long I can wait before Iactually going to be late, while also remembering, not going to work means I can’t pay the bills or pay for celebrity memoirs.
  2. Deciphering people’s cryptic Facebook statuses they post while watching the events on the actual television, and I’m watching The Mindy Project dvds. Statuses like: “Woah, France! Crazy twist!” or “What a nail biter!”

But, all in all, it definitely translates into “watching the Olympics.” And, my thoughts usually and quite incorrectly boil down to, “I could probably do that if I tried hard.” And then I decide it’s time to get dressed, so I get up and sit in front of my closet, because the change of location means I’m trying. Not hard, per se.

The truth is, I wore heels today, and they made walking up stairs feel like I was ascending Mount Doom. I didn’t have a ring or a buddy named Sam, but I was trying hard and no one was giving me any gold medals.

I think there might be more to this “Olympian” thing.

And in definitely unrelated news, I really like ice cream.

I don’t eat it all the time because in a twist on the mullet, I’m party in the front, and much less fun party in the “back,”- because of the Crohn’s Disease– but it’s a nice treat every once in awhile.

And when you spot churro ice cream in the grocery store, it gets the cravings up and running, and when you spot the ten dollar price tag for a pint, it also gets the indignation up and running and you walk away determined to make your own.

Now, I live in a studio, and I barely have kitchen space for a second pan. Because of that, it should come as no surprise that I don’t own an ice cream maker. I do, however, own plastic sandwich bags, one ice-tray, and salt.

For those who haven’t heard of the plastic bag method for making ice cream, the idea is you mix the ice cream ingredients in a small bag, and put it into a larger bag with ice and salt. The salt cools the ice and freezes the ice cream. And you, meanwhile- I’m going to use a Kenji word- are agitating the bag to keep ice crystals from forming.

Let’s make science happen.

Based on my last adventures with churros, I decided to go in a different direction in terms of ice cream flavor. The fear is real.


This time I’m going to burn sugar! Nothing will go wrong with that!


I found this recipe on Epicurious.com for burnt sugar ice cream, and two days in advance, started Operation Thrice Cube Ice Cube. (Because you want three times as many ice cubes as you currently have! I’m very good at operation names.) And by Sunday, I had enough ice! Mission accomplished!

The next step is Operation Colonel Custard’s First Scoop. 


There are moments in my life where I think, “you should have seen this coming.” Stirring bubbling custard to try and keep it from bubbling with one hand, shaking a saucepan with the other hand to keep the burnt sugar from…burning? Taking quick ten second breaks to quickly shove spoonfuls of dinner into my mouth, and jumping back to pan juggling immediately after, while gazing over my shoulder at the recipe to see how much longer I had to keep it moving was one of them.

This recipe requires 4 arms, and I do not have 4 arms. I have 2 arms. The custard seemed fine anyway? And then I turn around and I see an unopened bottle of whole milk on my counter.

I finish the custard only to realize I absolutely did not finish the custard.

Everyone says “baking is a science,” when telling you how you need to be exact and do things in a certain order. Follow the recipe! They probably don’t tell you, “dump in the milk and see what happens.”

Well, I dumped in the milk, and saw what happened. Seemed fine? Works for me! Mission accomplished!

Meanwhile in Operation Sugar-Burning, not burning anything down!

So, as you’re swirling the water and sugar together, you’re supposed to look for a deep mahogany color.

pre-burnt burnt sugar.

Suddenly, with one arm stirring custard, one arm swirling hot sugar water, I have no recollection of what mahogany looks like.

Brown? Dark brown? Red-y brown? More hogany as opposed to less hogany?

Google images has a hard time with it too.

When the sugar turns a shade that I like to call “Dark Brown Adjacent”, I removed it from heat.

Now that the sugar is good and probably-burnt, we can combine them. Mission accomplished!

Once combined, you let the custard cool. And once cooled, you put it in a ziplock bag. At this point I was starting to grow dubious of ziplock-bag-method. Most websites that explain how to do it are pretty specific about the ice cream base. Most websites that explain how to do it do not include burnt sugar. Mostly, they just talk about vanilla.

That’s when I track down method #2. David Lebovitz instructs you in the best method of avoiding ice crystals while not having to keep your ice cream in constant motion. You basically stir it every half hour.

Not sure which one to carry out, I decide to do both. One was astoundingly more successful than the other.


Method #1: I bagged the ice and the salt. I bagged the half the custard. I bagged the custard inside the bag with the ice and the salt and got to shaking.


The website informed me that I would have ice cream in 5 to 8 minutes. 5 to 8 minutes later, I did not have ice cream. 15 to 18 minutes later, I still did not have ice cream. My hands, however, have never been colder.

I was shaking for so long, unable to do the other chores I usually reserve for Sundays, that I put my ice cream bag in my hot pink Jansport backpack and danced and shook as I folded laundry, prepped my dinners for the week, and scrubbed the dishes. You know, like adults do.

An hour after the process started, I check on the bag and I start to see progress. At this point I was looking at a milkshake more than soup, but still not ice cream.

Method #2: I put the other half of the custard in a container. Plopped it in the freezer, and set the timer for 30 minutes. At 30 minutes, stir it around to break up any ice crystals, and set the timer again. Repeat as needed! I went through two cycles of stirring before I decided that ice crystals aren’t so bad.

I was tired from the shaking, guys. It was my bed time. As a matter of fact, I took the method #1 milkshake, and stuck it in the freezer too. I can’t help but think Michael Phelps would have done the same. I bet he gets sleepy too.

The next day, I finally got to try it.


The recipe itself was very rich, and you couldn’t quite taste the burnt sugar. The texture was smooth though, and paired with strawberries, was pretty good.

If you all ever feel like trying to make your own, I would definitely go with the David Lebovitz method, method #2.

If you’re in the mood for science and cold hands and trying hard, get yourself some ziplock bags and go with method #1. As a warning, no one will give you a gold medal for it.

They might give you a towel, though. Ice melts.

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