Apricot Ice Cream from the 18th Century
When you think about food in the 18th century you probably don’t think about ice cream, do you? You will after reading this post about an 18th-century apricot ice cream!
While ice cream may sound like a modern-age food, a food from the age of refrigeration and freezers, people have been eating ice cream since well before those things came around in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In fact, if we use the term “ice cream” loosely to mean frozen sweets, wealthy ancient Romans were eating it at least since the 1st century CE. They sent men up the mountains to gather ice, which they then shaved or crushed and flavored with fruits. These treats were probably not all that different from today’s shaved ice, or granizados in Spanish.
If we want to adhere to a description of ice cream that we would recognize as such today, then people in the medieval Middle East were consuming the treat. It was similar to what we now call sherbet.
Eventually, these sherbets and flavored ices transformed around the world into frozen treats that contained milk, cream, or both. By 1660, ice cream as we know it was available to the broader population.
It took a while for ice cream to arrive in British North America, with the first mention of it, according to the International Dairy Foods Association, being in 1744.1 The first advertisement for ice cream in what is now the U.S. appeared in the the New-York Gazette in 1777.
But by 1777 colonists, by this time Americans, had long been enjoying ice cream. At least the wealthy elite.
In Europe, however, ice cream had already taken the tables of not just the elite but the middle class too by storm. Part of the reason this was possible was due to the decrease in the prices of sugar. Sugar had been an expensive commodity enjoyed largely by the very wealthy. However, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the resulting sugar colonies in the Caribbean drastically increased the availability of sugar, thus decreasing its price. So, just like other sweets, Europeans in the continent and colonists in the Americas alike were enjoying ice cream through the direct labor of enslaved people.
The history of sweets since the early modern period and the history of slavery are inextricably intertwined. Some scholars and writers have called sugar the “white gold” that fueled slavery. For more on sugar in the modern world, I highly recommend Sidney Mintz’ Sweetness and Power.
If ancient Romans ate the ice itself, ice had been the method of freezing the ice cream for centuries by the time ice cream became popular in Europe.
A device called a sorbetière took the place of the modern ice and salt ice cream machine, but it worked much in the same way. Ice was placed in a container, then the liquid was placed in the sorbetière, the sorbetière was put in the ice bucket, and someone stirred it until it froze.
In the image below, the brown bucket with a white container inside is a sorbetière.
There were no ice cream cones yet in the 18th century so people liked to serve ice cream in all sorts of molds.
The ice cream recipe I’m sharing with you today comes from the 1769 book by Elizabeth Raffald titled The Experienced English House-Keeper, For the Use and Ease of Ladies, House-Keepers, Cooks, etc. Wrote Purely from Practice… . Raffald, too, uses molds. Raffald assures us that, unlike many other similar books of her time, she did not borrow or copy anyone’s recipes. Copying recipes was very common at the time.
I chose this recipe because it seemed simple enough and uses apricots, which are in season right now.
Raffald’s recipe is as follows:
To make Ice Cream.
Pare, stone, and scald twelve ripe Apricots, beat them fine in a Marble Mortar, put to them six Ounces of double refined Sugar, a Pint of scalding Cream, work it through a Hair Sieve, put it into a Tin that has a close Cover, set it in a Tube of Ice broken small, and a large Quantity of Salt put amongst it, when you see your cream grow thick around the Edges of your Tin, stir it, and set it in again ’till it all grows quite thick, when your Cream is all Froze up, take it out of your Tin, and put it in the Mould you intend it to be turned out of, then put on the Lid, and have ready another Tub with Ice and Salt in as before, put your Mould in the Middle, and lay your Ice under and over it, let it stand four or five Hours, dip your Tin in warm Water when you turn it out; if it be Summer, you must not turn it out ’till the Moment you want it; you may use any Sort of Fruit if you have not Apricots, only observe to work it fine.2
One of the first things I had to contend with, and really the only guess work, was the size of the apricots. The grocery store I went to had two different sizes, one of which was uncommonly small. I looked at some images of apricots from the 18th century to see whether I could gauge the size. It seemed to me like there wasn’t much difference between those apricots and the ones we normally see in grocery stores. I decided to go with the “normal” sized fruit.
Raffald scalds the apricots, but doesn’t have you peel them, which is a little odd. Today, the reason you’d scald fruit is to make it easier to peel them so that’s what I did. I wasn’t too fastidious about it however, since I strained them anyway.
As for the cream, the reason she would have scalded it was to essentially sanitize it; to make sure to kill any organisms that might be living in the cream. Remember, no refrigeration or pasteurization yet. My theory is that she scalded the apricots for similar reasons. This isn’t a problem in the 21st century. Nevertheless, scalding the cream does give us the opportunity to add the sugar to it to make sure it is fully dissolved in the mixture.
The rest was straightforward as Raffald gives us measurements. One thing to remember is that Raffald’s pints are larger than modern US pints, and the same as Imperial pints. So, one pint in this case is 20 fl oz and not 16 fl oz.
Thankfully, unlike Raffald, I have access to electricity and modern appliances, so I used a blender and an electric ice cream machine.
The recipe as I made it:
18th Century Apricot Ice Cream
- blender or food processor
- 2 qt ice cream machine
- 12 ripe apricots (about 2 ½ pounds)
- 2 ½ cups heavy cream
- ¾ cups white granulated sugar if using caster sugar, simply weigh the 6 oz.
- Set a large pot of water to boil. Take your apricots and score an X at the bottom of each one.
- Prepare a large bowl with ice cubes and water.
- When the water in the pot is boiling, carefully drop the apricots in the boiling water. Allow the water to come back up to a boil and leave the apricots in the boiling water for 60 seconds.
- Remove the apricots from the boiling water and immediately transfer them to the ice bath to stop the cooking. When cool enough to handle, peel the apricots, cut them in half, remove the pit, and cut them into chunks.
- Add the cream and sugar to a small pot. Set it over medium heat, stirring frequently, until bubbles begin to rise at the edges of the cream. If using a thermometer, at this point the milk should register 180°F.
- Place the chopped apricots and the milk and sugar mixture in a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth. You may have to do this in batches, depending on the size of your appliance.
- Set a fine mesh strainer over a large bowl and pour the mixture through it. With the back of a rubber spatula, push the mixture though the strainer, but do not scrape the pulp that accumulates on the outside of the strainer into the bowl.
- Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Allow the mixture to cool down on the counter, then put it in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, or until it is no warmer than 40°F. If you are using an ice cream machine with a compressor, you may be able to skip the refrigeration part.
- Churn the mixture according to your ice cream machine's instructions. Once fully churned, transfer the mixture to a freezer-safe container, or to silicone molds if you are feeling fancy.
- Allow the ice cream to fully freeze, which can take several hours. Take it out of the freezer about 10 minutes before eating.
The flavor of this ice cream is truly fruity. The apricot flavor comes through clearly, and it’s a little tart. It’s perfect for those who don’t like their sweets too sweet.
In terms of texture, it is not smooth, and a bit of the apricot skins remain, but it’s pleasant. If I wasn’t trying to make a historical recipe I would have added a stabilizer like gelatin or maybe glucose. Those ingredients would make the ice cream more scoopable, because it does freeze rock solid.
But rock solid is what you want when you are molding the ice cream, like Raffald and I did.
At first I wasn’t going to mold it, I was just going to put it in containers and then scoop it. But then I thought I’d just do as Raffald said. I did look around for vintage ice cream molds but I’ll be honest, I didn’t feel comfortable using molds from metals I had no idea what they were. So I chose instead to use silicone molds, which worked wonderfully. The molds just peeled right off without any issues or hot water.
July is National Ice Cream Month in the United States, so you still have time to indulge and try this recipe for apricot ice cream.
Actually, you don’t need an occasion, just eat some ice cream!
1. “The History of Ice Cream,” by the International Dairy Foods Association, https://www.idfa.org/the-history-of-ice-cream
2. Elizabeth Raffald, The Experienced English House-Keeper, For the Use and Ease of Ladies, House-Keepers, Cooks, etc. Wrote Purely from Practice…, (Manchester: J. Harrop, 1769), 228.