Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream

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Bring milk, cup sugar, and vanilla seeds and pod to 175 degrees in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar and break up vanilla seeds. Meanwhile, beat remaining sugar with yolks until mixture turns pale yellow and thickens so that it falls in ribbons, about 2 minutes with an electric mixer or 4 minutes with a whisk. Remove cup hot milk from pan and slowly whisk it into beaten yolks. Then gradually whisk yolk mixture into saucepan and, stirring constantly, heat this mixture over medium-low heat to 180 degrees, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat; strain custard into a plastic or non-reactive metal bowl and stir in cream. Retrieve vanilla pods from strainer and add them to the mixture. Place bowl in a larger bowl of ice water to bring custard to room temperature. Seal container and refrigerate until custard is no more than 40 degrees, 4 to 8 hours.(This is unnecessary with self-contained electric model). Remove vanilla pods (or add extract) and pour custard into an ice cream machine. Churn until frozen.

The very best ice cream is made with egg yolks but, for optimum flavor, cut back on the cream and sugar

The challenge: The ingredients for making vanilla ice cream could not be simpler -- cream, milk, sugar, vanilla, and sometimes eggs. The results, however, vary greatly depending on each ingredient and the techniques used. To find out how to make the very best vanilla ice cream at home, we made dozens of batches, varying each individual ingredient.

The solution: Early in the testing process it became apparent that "French vanilla," made with a custard base relying on egg yolks, far surpasses "Philadelphia-style" vanilla, made without eggs. In texture as well as flavor, the French version simply had far more of the richness and creaminess that we look for in ice cream. While as few as three yolks in a quart recipe makes an excellent ice cream, we found that six yolks made for an optimum silky texture without tasting eggy. As for cream, we liked just one part to two parts milk. Any more and the ice cream took on an undesirable "buttery" quality. Besides adding sweetness, we found sugar gives ice cream a smoother, softer, more "scoopable" end product. This is because the sugar both reduces the number and size of ice crystals and lowers the freezing temperature of the mixture so that you can beat the mixture longer, incorporating more air into the ice cream, before it freezes.

For good measure: Yolks need to be beaten very well with some of the sugar before being combined with the other ingredients. If the yolks are only lightly beaten, the color of the finished ice cream is shockingly yellow.

Be sure to seal your ice cream tightly when storing in the freezer. Plastic wrap is preferable to aluminum foil. The flavor and texture of ice cream is so delicate that any contact with air causes quick deterioration.

If necessary, two teaspoons of vanilla extract may be substituted for the vanilla bean. To maximize the extract's potency, stir it into the chilled custard just before churning.