Making ice cream like it's 1927

By intern Mary Kate Robbett
The cover of a cookbook entitled "cooking with COLD." It is emerald green with an abstract illustration of a woman standing in front of a fridge, holding an ice cream cone, with two more in front of her and a jug.

The Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project explores "everyday things that changed everything." One innovation that definitely fits that bill? Electric refrigeration, introduced to American homes in the late 1920s. In celebration of the first electric refrigerators (and their tiny built-in freezers), intern Mary Kate Robbett tries her hand at an ice cream recipe from 1927. Spoiler alert: Deliciousness ensues!

"Seems like a lot of work for a little ice cream."

I thanked my brother for his astute commentary and began mopping up the sticky mess. My historical experiment had sounded far more appealing before I'd spilled cream and sugar all over the kitchen. On my hands and knees in a puddle of ill-fated vanilla goop, I explained why I'd set out to replicate a 1927 ice cream recipe.

A shot looking down on a rectangular metal pan with vanilla ice cream in it. A hand is in part of the shot holding an ice cream scooper. The pan rests on a beige counter and a blue and white striped towel.

Our trusty fridge and freezer are the unacknowledged heroes of our family's kitchen. They keep our food fresh, our leftovers edible, and the ice cubes flowing. But, this was not always the case. Home electric refrigeration hit the mass market less than 100 years ago. What better way to celebrate the refrigerator than with Americans' favorite frozen treat?

Before the home refrigerator

Americans have loved ice cream right from the start. George Washington ate it at Mount Vernon. First Lady Dolley Madison served the treat at her husband’s inaugural ball. But, in the early days of the republic, making ice cream at home was strictly a luxury for the elite.

The delicacy required a surplus of sugar, salt (both expensive, imported products), cream, and labor—plus an ample supply of ice, which had to be cut out of rivers and ponds during the winter and stored with the hope it'd last until summer.

As the ice industry grew, so too did ice cream's popularity. By the 19th century, folks wanting to make ice cream at home relied on manual freezers designed specifically for the task.

An illustration of three contraptions. Two are cylindrical in form. It is possible they would be made out of metal in real life. The third looks like a rod with two panels attached that are covered in holes. There are cursive letters on different parts of the objects.
A black metal pot which looks scuffed up with a crank attached to the top.

One early example, patented by Nancy Johnson in 1843, combined an inner chamber for churning with an outer pail for holding ice. Replacing the old method of turning a bowl full of ice cream mixture by hand in a bucket of ice, the machine used a hand crank for speedy results.

In her 1871 bestseller Common Sense in the Household: A Manual of Practical Housewifery, author Marion Harland raved about the tool:

"I shall never forget my amazement at seeing a brisk Yankee housewife lay hold of the handle of the ponderous tin cylinder, and whirl it with such will and celerity, back and forth, back and forth, that the desired end came to pass in three-quarters of an hour."

A black and white photograph of a woman in a black dress with a corset, puffy sleeves and a full skirt sitting at a small table on which is a tea set. The woman is holding something in her right hand and looking directly at the camera.

Cooking with cold

And yet, this innovation still required quite a bit of hard work: first, chipping ice off of a large block and crushing it to pieces small enough to fit into the ice cream freezer (Harland recommended chunks "smaller than a pigeon's egg"), and then nearly an hour of tedious cranking.

The electric refrigerator made the whole process exponentially easier: no ice chipping, no hand cranking. By keeping food reliably chilled at a consistent temperature, refrigerators came with a special perk—the novelty of "cooking with cold."

Manufacturers offered their customers cookbooks full of recipes that took advantage of the refrigerator's cooling power. These marketing tools recognized that home fridges and freezers provided not only utility and convenience, but an exciting new way of preparing and serving food in the home.

A color illustration of two couples, presumably in a kitchen, in dinnerware marveling at a refridgerator. One woman in a yellow dress in the style of the 20s holds a martini glass in her hand and reaches into the fridge for another. There are various foodstuffs on other shelves. Another woman in a red dress cuts bread on a table. The two men in the illustration are seated wearing tuxes. At the bottom of the picture there is an illustrated snowflake.

The Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project features a General Electric monitor top from the 1930s, the first commercially successful home refrigerator, as well as cookbooks published to accompany the appliance. The author of General Electric's 1927 cookbook Electric Refrigerator Recipes and Menus, Alice Bradley reflected that "to many people electric refrigeration is still such a novelty that they scarcely realize the range of its possibilities. It is almost like having an Aladdin's lamp and not knowing the right way to rub it."

To assist these new refrigerator owners in discovering the wonders that awaited them, Bradley provided more than 100 chilled recipes. The offerings ranged from Frappéd Clam Juice (an icy delicacy to "tempt the invalid") to ice box cookies. The book even includes a section on "Diabetic Dishes," listing desserts that can accommodate substitutions of saccharin tablets for sugar. With 27 flavors of ice cream to choose from, I stuck with the classics: vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.

An old, gray metal ice cube tray with room for 21 cubes

Bradley kept her promise of "simple recipes, easily prepared." Each batch required about 15 minutes of hands-on time for mixing the ingredients over the stove. The recipe calls for a small amount of gelatin, which congealed quickly when incorporated all at once. I found that adding it in three parts and stirring each addition until dissolved fixed the problem.

Next, a brief interlude in the refrigerator for chilling. Here was where I faltered. Bradley did not include a critical instruction—make sure you clear space in the fridge before you start cooking. If you precariously balance three containers of the precious mixture on top of leftovers and bowls of produce, you may pay the price.

After chilling, I beat in egg whites and whipped cream and then popped the final "ice cream formula" into the freezer for about an hour. At that point, the recipe called for one extra stirring with egg beaters to keep the texture light and fluffy. After that, I left the mixture in the freezer for the afternoon.

Scoops of strawberry ice cream in a teal glass bowl on a white tablecloth.

Scoops of chocolate ice cream in a translucent mauve-colored glass bowl with designs on it. A spoon is stuck in the ice cream and the bowl rests on a white tablecloth.

About five hours later, I recruited my family as taste-testers. The verdict? Delicious! The chocolate was tasty, but had a much milder flavor than we're used to, as the recipe called for only 1 ½ squares of chocolate. After the initial mishap, the vanilla came out creamy, but dense. Perhaps I didn't put enough muscle into beating the mixture? I was admittedly less devoted to proper fluffiness on the second attempt. In the end, we all agreed that the strawberry concoction's sweet and fresh flavor won the gold.

In Electric Refrigerator Recipes and Menus, Alice Bradley asks, "Why go out to the soda fountain when you can have a chocolate or maple nut sundae at an instant's notice by visiting your own refrigerator?" Why indeed! Today, perhaps the better question is, "why devote half a day to making ice cream when you could spend a few bucks at the grocery store for the same thing?" For me, I know I'll at least have a bit more appreciation for how special our freezer once was—and still is—the next time I reach in for a pint of mint chocolate chip.

If you'd like to try it yourself, check out the recipes below.


Vanilla Ice Cream:

Put 1 ½ cups milk in top of double boiler and add 1 teaspoon gelatin. When milk is scalded, stir until gelatin is dissolved. Mix ½ cup sugar or 1/3 cup sugar and 3 tablespoons corn syrup 1 teaspoon flour and a few grains salt. Add to milk and stir until thickened. Cover and cook ten minutes.

Beat 1 egg yolk slightly, add a portion of the hot milk, return to double boiler and stir and cook one minute. Strain into refrigerator pan, chill, then beat until very light. Beat 1 egg white until stiff, then beat ½ cup cream until stiff and beat into the first mixture with 2 teaspoons vanilla and the egg white.

Freeze mixture for about 1 hour, remove from refrigerator pan, and put in large mixing bowl. Beat vigorously with a rotary egg beater. Return to refrigerator pan, place again in chilling unit and leave.

Serve in any way desired.

Heat with the milk 1 ½ squares unsweetened chocolate and ¼ cup sugar. Omit ¼ cup of sugar from the ice cream formula.

Add 1 cup crushed strawberries mixed with ¼ cup sugar and 1 egg white beaten stiff.

From Electric Refrigerator Recipes and Menus: Specially Prepared for the General Electric Refrigerator (1927)

Mary Kate Robbett completed a Taylor Foundation Object Project summer 2016 internship. When she isn't experimenting with vintage recipes, she attends the Museum Studies master's degree program at The George Washington University.