Friday, May 20, 2011

We all scream for ice-cream!

Aaah, sweet sunshine at last! Spring arrived in Portland a while ago, but although the birds were a-chirping and the buds were a-blooming, it hadn't really felt like winter had released its cold grey hold. Until this week, that is. Finally, we have seen a few days of uninterrupted sunshine, and both I and my garden are grateful for it. With sunshine, of course, comes many things – roses, picnics, trips to the beach, Vitamin D, and best of all, ice-cream. I have a theory that no one can be angry when they're eating ice-cream. It has the power of transporting us to a happy place, at least for the few moments while we relish the creamy, cold, sweetness before it starts to melt all over our hands and clothes. (Hmmm, I hope some of you can relate to this, because otherwise, I may just be a very messy ice-cream eater.)
I've wanted to write a post about ice-cream for a long, long time, especially after a recent trip to Italy which began and ended with cones of freshly-made gelato (and was heavily punctuated with more gelato in between, of course). In retrospect, almost every phase of my life has had a particular ice-cream "experience" associated with it.

Tartufo in Rome

When I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, trips to the Babcock Hall Dairy Store was de rigueur in the summers. The trick to the summer ice-cream jaunts was to get to Babcock Hall before the kindergarteners arrived en masse. Once those little ice-cream eyed kids got in line before you, you knew that it would be well past an agonizing half hour before you got your hands on any "Union Utopia" or "Badger Brownie Blast".

As an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire, we had a similar summer routine of weekly ice-cream trips to the UNH Dairy Bar. Situated at a quaint train station, which at the time was defunct, the Dairy Bar would serve up whopping portions of cool treats, all locally made at the University.

Growing up in Japan, the preferred summer cold treat was shaved ice. Now, I know what you're thinking, shaved ice is not ice-cream. Yes, I agree. But in the humid, 90-degree plus days of summer in Kobe, Japan, melon- and pineapple-flavored shaved ice was in many ways far better than ice-cream. I have countless memories of being saved by shaved ice during the summers of my teen years: lemon-flavored ice after swimming at the local recreation center; strawberry-flavored ice with friends after a window-shopping trip; coconut-flavored ice with my dad at the summer 'matsuri'. In fact, shaved ice is so popular in Japan that even in crowded cities, the shaved ice vendor would wind through the streets with his cart, loudly advertising his goodies. This brings me to my favorite ice-cream memories of all, the ones of my childhood in Bombay.

One of the most important experiences of summer holidays as a child was the utter boredom that inevitably came after the initial frenzy of unbridled joy. As I grow older, I find that I really miss having the time to be bored. Amidst the alternating joy and boredom of summer hols, one man would appear nightly in our neighborhood, giving us kids something to look forward to. No, not Wee Willie Winkie but the "kulfiwallah", or, literally translated, the 'kulfi'-man. (If I were a better artist, I could probably draw a pretty good replica of this man, since his image seems to be etched in my memory. But as it is, my drawing skills leave much to be desired, and I'm left with just my words to paint you a picture of those summer nights, instead.)

Kulfi (recipe follows below) is a type of Indian ice-cream that is made by slow-freezing a concoction of reduced milk and sugar, flavored with pistachios, cardamom, or saffron. The kulfiwallah of our neighborhood was an old man, wrinkled with age, his skin leathery from having walked around under the Bombay sun all day long. His voice was always hoarse, and on the brink of cracking, which, in my naïveté, I imagined was a result of eating too many kulfis. His cry of "kulfi-wallah" was to be heard quite frequently during the balmy summer nights. He would be dressed in loose-fitting pants and shirt that were once white, with a pointed white cap on his head. He carried on his head a huge straw basket covered with a damp red cloth, concealing dozens of sealed metal tubes. If you had been good and your parents decided to buy you some kulfi that day, he would set down his heavy load and pull out a metal tube, open it deftly with a long knife, and coax a perfectly molded kulfi out of it onto a leaf – I don't know what kind of leaf this was, but I'm sure my dad could remind me. He would then use his long knife to quickly cut up the kulfi into bite-sized pieces and hand it over into your eager hands, just as its edges started to melt in the summer heat.

Now, I'm very aware that we generally tend to romanticize memories of our past, but looking back on these memories, I still think that life doesn't really get better than treasured moments of eating ice-cream in the summer's heat! On this note, here's my recipe for making a kulfi-like ice-cream in a home ice-cream maker. You could also freeze this in popsicle-molds for a more authentic kulfi. Enjoy.



  • 1/2 gallon milk, plus 6 T warm milk -- I use skim milk, but you can use 2% or whole fat for a creamier taste
  • 1 can of condensed milk, plus more sugar to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground green cardamom seeds1/4 cup coarsely ground pistachios or almonds (optional)
  • A few strands of saffron


  • Place the saffron in 2T warm milk to extract the saffron flavor.
  • Dissolve corn starch in 4 T warm milk and set aside.Place the remaining milk in heavy wok or double boiler and bring to boil over medium-high heat, stirring continuously.
  • Reduce the heat and continue stirring and boiling until the milk is reduced a bit.
  • Using a method used in making Sicilian gelato, I next add the cornstarch mixture to the boiling milk and continue boiling for ~10 minutes, or until the mixture is thickened. This step cuts down the time needed to make kulfi considerably, and also lets me use skim milk in the recipe. However, the correct way of making kulfi would be to allow the milk to boil down to ~1/4 of its original volume.
  • Add the saffron. Taste the mixture, and add more sugar if you think you need it. Remember that foods taste sweeter when they are warm than when they are cooled.
  • Freeze in ice-cream maker according to instructions, or transfer to popsicle molds (or ice-cube trays) and freeze for at least 4 hours. (If using this latter freezing methods, dip your mold in hot water for about 5 seconds before attempting to free the kulfi.)
To serve, garnish with chopped nuts and a smile.


  1. Awesome post. I was transported to my childhood days!! - Mithun

  2. You have reminded me of the nights when I used to roam the roads shouting kulfiwallah kulfiwaaaallahhhh.
    Yours truly,