Lessons from Historical Agriculture: #2 – Ice Cream

While spending mornings gardening in the direct sun we often joke about heading in for a bowl of refreshing ice cream. Many days we do just that, and I realize that those of us wishing to have lived in a bygone era could only do so if our memory of ice cream was erased!

The history of ice cream is a relatively short story – one that mirrors the availability of ice throughout the seasons.

  • Vague historical documents indicate “Ice Cream”, in some form, may have been around for centuries. Due to the expense in creating the product, ice cream was limited to those with a cow and extra cream or the monetarily wealthy. (I’d rather have the Jersey cow with cream!)
  • Early 1600’s & 1700’s references and recipes speak of “cold pudding” & “water ices” & “cream ices.”
  • Europeans (primarily France and England) brought the concept of ice cream to America.
  • In 1784, George Washington acquired a “Cream Machine for Ice” (and while he may have gotten some use out of the machine, likely not as much as he hoped, since his dairy operation ended in disappointment.) Many presidents recorded a fondness for this specific dessert.
  • In 1843, Nancy Johnson patented an ice cream freezer design. Quite the clever 1840’s housewife!Patent Diagram 3,254
  • In the early years of Washington statehood, citizens enjoyed ice cream for holidays and special occasions as long as the ice held”:

Women came in the afternoon bringing cream, eggs, whole milk, sugar, flavorings and cakes. Ice was bought from the butchering shop in gunny sacks…” (Williams, The Way We Ate)

  • By the late 1800’s, electricity and commercial production of ice allowed for large scale production and transportation of iced desserts.
  • In 1906, the increase of ice cream products for sale led to USDA regulations stipulating that products labeled ice cream must contain not less than 14 per cent of milk fat.”
  • Alas, ice cream of the 21st century has gone the way of Margarine. A cheap imitation of what once was an amazing natural product.

For home production of ice cream, many historical references speak of frozen custardessentially ice cream with egg yolk added to provide smoothness and soften the ice cream.

It is …advisable in making ice cream in the home to use a recipe which includes eggs, and to prepare a custard.” (Eckles, Milk and Milk Products)

Below is a recipe adapted from a book on the history of English dairies & ice houses.

Custard ice cream, with the addition of mint leaves, mint essential oil, and chiseled mint dark chocolate chips.

Rich Custard-Based Ice-Cream

  • 1 ½ cups whole milk
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 5 egg yolks
  • ¾ cup heavy cream
  • Flavoring:
    • 1/4 cup freshly picked mint leaves, muddled
    • 5 to 10 drops food grade Peppermint EO (mine came from a farm in Oregon)
    • 1/2 bar Mint Dark Chocolate, finely shaved or chopped

Makes about 3 ¼ cup. Tip: Use leftover egg whites for macaroons.

Caution: Do not fill ice cream maker more than half full. Custard ice cream expands greatly – more so than regular ice cream.


Combine milk, half the sugar, and mint leaves in a medium sized sauce pan. Bring to just below boiling point. Remove from heat, cover, steep 15 minutes or more, then strain out leaves.


Meanwhile, in a double boiler, combine the egg yolks with the remaining sugar and beat until mixture is pale and thick enough to hold shape when trailed. Warm up milk mixture, then slowly pour the milk over the egg mixture while whisking. Heat mix to 185 degrees while stirring often.

Once temperature and thickness is achieved, remove pan from heat and place into an ice water bath to cool (mixture will thicken more once cool). Stir occasionally. Cover and refrigerate until ready for use.

When ready to freeze, fold custard and cream together with essential oil, then pour into ice cream freezer. When almost done, pour in chocolate shavings.

~Just looking at this makes me want to run to the freezer and eat more~

If you’ve made ice cream at home before, you have likely learned that most ice cream becomes rock hard when frozen for more than a few hours. Not so with custard!

  • I made a batch of custard ice cream and froze the contents in 8 oz. glass containers.
  • 24 hours later I sampled the product – scoopable!
  • A few days later, I sampled another jar – still just as scoopable! I also noticed that the product did not immediately melt (if eaten fresh, custard ice cream will melt fairly fast like regular home made ice cream, but once frozen longer will hold its shape reliably well and scoops into a nice round curl).

For more detailed instructions, reference “Recipes from the Dairy” – a worthwhile addition to your dairy library!

In the comments section, feel free to write in what your favorite ice cream flavors are – Some of my favorites are Huckleberry Buttermilk, Pistachio, and Lemon Custard.


Eckles, Clarence, Willes Combs, & Harold Macy. Milk and Milk Products. 2nd edt. New York and London:McGraw-Hill, 1936.

Thompson, Mary V. Ice cream. Mount Vernon Estate. http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/ice-cream/

U.S. Patent: Artificial Freezer. http://todayinsci.com/Events/Patent/IceCreamFreezer3254.htm

Thomas Jefferson’s Ice Cream Recipe: https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/ice-cream

Williams, Jacqueline B. The Way We Ate: Pacific Northwest Cooking, 1843-1900. Pullman: WSU Press, 1996.

Weir, Robin, Caroline Liddell and Peter Brears. Recipes from the Dairy. London: National Trust, 1998.


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