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Mix Up a Little Homemade Summertime Magic : Desserts: Homemade ice cream is as American as apple pie. But we still have a long way to go before we can match the Italian flare for flavor and texture.

August 02, 1990|DIANE DARROW and TOM MARESCABD Darrow and Maresca are food and wine writers who travel frequently to Italy. Their most recent book is "La Tavola Italiana," William Morrow, 1987.

With lazy warm days, comes the season for the most American of desserts--homemade ice cream.

Like so many Americans, ice cream came to this country as an immigrant. The first industrial ice cream factory in America opened in Baltimore in 1851. Over a century before that, ice cream had come to us from Italy. The mainland Italians learned it from the Sicilians, who learned it from the Saracens, who learned it from the Hindus, who learned it from the Chinese. With a good mongrel pedigree like that, no wonder Americans love ice cream.

Lots of atrocities are committed around the world under the name of ice cream. The British, for instance, used to make it with lard instead of butter, and Americans pump too much air into it and skimp with skim milk and non-dairy products.

But despite abuses, fresh, homemade ice cream remains one of the best, most enjoyable summer coolers and year-round simple desserts ever invented--and Italians still make the best ice cream in the world.

They make more kinds of it, too. The "record-breaking" numbers of flavors claimed by a Baskin Robbins or a Howard Johnson pale in comparison to the daily variety offered by Rome's Giolitti or Palma. In such palaces of ice cream art, you'll find ice creams flavored with every conceivable nut from pea to cocoa, climaxing in a transcendent hazelnut (nocciola). You'll find ice creams lush with every variety of fruit from grape to grapefruit, and the richest chocolates and coffees anywhere. Italians even make ice cream out of cheese. Unlikely as it may sound, ricotta ice cream is delightful.

What makes Italian ice creams so superior are the basic ingredients and the purity of their preparation. Rich cream, fresh eggs, the season's finest fruits: Those are the ingredients of the best ice creams. You can get similar fabulous results at home by making ice cream out of the best of local products at their peak of ripe perfection.

Italian ice creams have another superiority that you can easily duplicate at home: They are made fresh every day. You might not think so (since ice cream is kept at freezing temperatures) but freshness counts enormously. Even good ice cream gets leaden if you leave it in a freezer for days or weeks, which is what happens with even premium brands here in America. Add to that the fact that Italian ice creams--and those you make at home--are made pure: no emulsifiers, no stabilizers, no chemical preservatives.

The old-fashioned ice cream parlor is alive and well in Italy. Any tourist, no matter how confused by the maze of Rome's ancient streets, can find his way to Giolitti's or its nearby rival, Palma, by tracing back the streams of happy people strolling along licking their cones or spooning from their cups. These crowds usually contain more Romans than tourists and more grown-ups than kids, too. We know several old Roman hands whose first act upon arrival, after dropping their bags, is making a ritual beeline for Giolitti.

We've been trying to reproduce Giolitti's ice cream for years. A particularly charming friend of ours once got onto terms with the staff there and extracted what seems like an authentic recipe for peach ice cream. It's basically nothing but peaches and cream, but put together terrifically.

We ourselves have worked on the flavor Italians call crema , which is a custard cream that beats vanilla hands down. Crema is often used as a base for other flavors. One of our favorite variations is coffee, but with the techniques given you should be able to work out variations of your own.

Ricotta ice cream is also wonderful, and remarkably easy. In addition to tasting fine by itself, it combines beautifully with fresh strawberries to make a sensational warm-weather dessert. It's also a little less caloric than the heavy-cream mixtures.

With modern electric machines, making first-rate ice cream at home is a breeze. You assemble the ingredients and the machine does the rest. They range from little machines you put in the refrigerator's freezing compartment to elaborate, totally self-contained units. Start with good basic ingredients, and any of them will yield an ice cream better than any you'll remember since you were a kid.

GELATO DI RICOTTA

(Ricotta Ice Cream)

1/2 cup powdered sugar

2 tablespoons Marsala

1 pound part-skim milk ricotta cheese

1/2 cup whipping cream, well-chilled

Stir together powdered sugar and Marsala in large bowl until sugar dissolves. Press ricotta cheese through sieve into mixture and stir well. Cover and chill thoroughly.

When ready to proceed, whip cream to soft peaks and fold into ricotta mixture. Transfer to ice cream machine and freeze according to manufacturer's directions. Makes 1 quart.

Note: Madeira or Sherry may be substituted for Marsala.

GELATO DI CAFFE

(Espresso Coffee Ice Cream)

2/3 cup sugar

4 egg yolks

1 cup milk, at room temperature

Dash salt

1/4 cup instant espresso coffee powder

1 cup whipping cream, well chilled

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