In the years before air conditioning could be taken for granted, ice cream was not just a tasty treat. In the sultry South, where I grew up, it was a cold tasty treat, and thus could be classified as more a necessity than a luxury.
Small towns in Alabama weren't blessed with many ice-cream trucks - at least our street wasn't. But my brothers and I, along with an abundance of nearby cousins, had something even better: a hand-cranked ice-cream maker and Aunt Billie, who happily chaired the family ice-cream committee.
The cousins kept a careful eye out for any extra trips she might make to the Piggly Wiggly. When one of these outings yielded more eggs, milk and sugar than her family would need for a month, we knew ice cream was on the way.
Word traveled fast and, unlike some chores, there were plenty of volunteers for this one.
Once Aunt Billie had prepared the custard and safely stored it in the refrigerator, one of the men in the family would make a trip to the icehouse, often with a lucky child or two in tow.
Occasionally, the icehouse man would allow us into the freezer room to watch him cut a big icy cube to feed into the crushing machine. That rush of cold air was close to bliss on a sweltering summer day. But not as close as homemade ice cream itself.
Not many things will entice children to work hard in hot weather. But with ice cream, the reward was worth it. And because those old-fashioned, hand-turned ice-cream makers called for a lot of ice, you could always grab a piece or two for heat relief.
Older, stronger children turned the crank, while others kept a watchful eye on the ice level, adding more as it melted and ran out the hole in the wooden bucket.
Occasionally, when the canister needed to be steadied, smaller cousins were called into service to sit on top of the crank mechanism so as to steady the cylinder of precious custard. On hot, humid days, even that cold, bumpy seat was pleasant duty - at least for the first couple of minutes.
The ice cream itself came from what we regarded as a magical recipe, one we knew only as "boiled custard." It consisted of milk - full-flavored whole milk, never skim - eggs, sugar and vanilla, all stirred slowly on the stove top until Aunt Billie deemed it had reached the proper thickness.
When ice cream time came, the custard was poured into the canister, which was then taken to the back yard, inserted into the ice-cream machine's wooden bucket and surrounded by copious amounts of rock salt and crushed ice.
After what seemed an eternity, and usually several turns apiece at cranking, Aunt Billie would emerge from the house to check for that magic moment when custard had become ice cream.
When it had, the children were handed the "dasher" to lick. That kept us happy enough not to notice that the adults were lining up with paper cups and plastic spoons for the first servings.
Aunt Billie's ice cream was usually vanilla, with chocolate syrup always handy. In season, there could be beautiful berries from the strawberry patch or, later in the summer, ripe, juicy peaches.
Those family ice-cream parties were as memorable for the fellowship as for the cold and creamy goodness we ingested. Nowadays, with air-conditioned climates and a wide variety of electric machines, ice cream doesn't quite carry the same urgency on hot summer days, and certainly not the same physical labor.
But there's something just as compelling about gathering the family for a frozen treat. My husband is now the resident ice-cream wizard, having used the gift of an ice cream and sorbet maker a few Christmases ago as the springboard to some memorable batches of frozen ecstasy.
We have tried exotic and wonderful recipes, from an elegant pear ice cream to a wicked zabaglione gelato. But for my money, it's hard to beat vanilla, especially when you take the trouble to use real vanilla beans for maximum flavor. On summer days, that's one luxury that can quickly feel like a necessity.
French Vanilla Ice Cream
Makes about 3 1/4 cups
1 vanilla bean
1 1/4 cups milk
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 egg yolks
1 cup chilled whipping/heavy cream (36 percent fat)
Split the vanilla bean in half and combine with the milk and half the sugar in a medium-sized saucepan. Bring to just below boiling point. Remove the pan from the heat, cover and set aside for a minimum of 15 minutes to allow the vanilla flavor to develop.
Meanwhile, in a medium-sized heat-proof bowl, combine the egg yolks with the remaining sugar and beat, preferably with an electric hand mixer, until the mixture is pale and thick enough to hold the shape when a ribbon of mix is trailed across the surface. Bring the milk to the boiling point, then pour it in a thin stream onto the egg yolks and sugar, whisking steadily as the milk is added.