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The past few weekends we’ve been serving hazelnut gelato at the restaurant. It’s been a long time coming. Although we’ve been making and serving sorbet since the beginning, gelato is much harder to make without large-scale equipment, and this is the first time we’ve been pleased enough with the result to serve gelato at the restaurant.

Gelato is one of the great culinary treasures of Italy. The way gelato differs from ice cream speaks volumes about how Italians think about food. For starters, in Italy gelato is made every day. It doesn’t sit in a freezer somewhere for days or weeks but is made and consumed fresh. Although it is sometimes perceived as being more rich than ice cream, it is actually less so, being made with more milk and less cream than American ice cream. Finally, gelato is kept frozen at a higher temperature than American ice cream, keeping it softer and spreadable. In Italy, the tool one uses is not an ice cream scoop, but a sort of spatula.

The problem with making gelato at home or on a small restaurant scale is that the machines made for that purpose take a long time to freeze the mixture, about 20 to 25 minutes, more than twice as long as professional machines. This longer freeze time creates the potential for the fatal flaw of homemade ice cream, ice crystals, ruining the silky and luscious texture of properly made gelato. All of our earliest attempts to make gelato were doomed for this reason. We also noticed that the high cream content of our mixture (usually 50/50 milk/cream), left a greasy film on the dasher and in our mouths.

And so we consoled ourselves with making water-based sorbets, which aren’t ruined by an icy texture and don’t get greasy from fat. And thank god we could always make a trip if we were really desperate to Capogiro in Philadelphia (the only gelateria in the US we know of that makes and serves it right).

But a few months ago we acquired two new books which we desperately hoped (rather than expected) might help us in our pursuit of the elusive goal of small batch gelato: The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz, and Making Artisan Gelato by Torrance Kopfer. Although neither book is perfect and both flawed by outrageous flavors we have no interest in (parsley gelato, anyone?), both have helped us unlock the keys to making gelato at home. Here are some things we’ve learned:

1) At home, custard-based gelato is more successful. Ice cream without eggs (aka Philadelphia style) has never come out without an icy texture. Because of our pursuit of simplicity, our favorite gelato flavor is fior di latte (made with sugar and milk only), and we spent a lot of time trying to make egg-free gelato, but we’ve finally concluded it’s just not possible.

2) All instructions call for heating and then cooling the mixture, but we’ve found that chilling for a few hours is not enough. An overnight rest in the fridge does wonders for the texture of gelato and for reducing iciness. The longer it ages the more stable it becomes, which improves texture.

3) In Kopfer’s book, he recommends putting the custard mixture through the blender before mixing in the cream, and we’ve found this to make a big difference. Somehow the fats become more evenly distributed, which helps overall texture.

4) We settled on Kopfer’s suggestion of 2 parts milk to 1 part cream. This has eliminated the greasy phenomenon.

With these principles in mind, we started with one of our favorite gelato flavors and one of the most important in Italy: nocciola (hazelnut). Although ideally one would purchase hazelnuts imported from Piedmont, we actually made do with store-bought, pre-chopped hazelnuts. Can’t wait to take it to the next level with proper, imported nuts, but it’s good to know that store-bought nuts will still produce very good results. Our recipe is only mildly adapted from Kopfer’s book, and it is with immense gratitude and excitement that we share it here:

Hazelnut gelato (adapted from Making Artisan Gelato by Torrance Kopfer)

1) Roast 225 grams (1.5 cups) hazelnuts in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes, and then grind into fairly fine meal in a food processor. This can be overdone, so experiment. On our machine, we run it for 20 seconds.
2) Heat 3 cups milk to 170 degrees, stirring constantly once it’s above 140 degrees.
3) Remove from heat and stir in the ground nuts, return to low heat and stir constantly for about 10 minutes, making sure the temperature doesn’t go much above 170 degrees.
4) Remove from heat, cover, and allow to steep for one hour or a little more.
5) Strain out the nuts, add 100 grams (1 cup) sugar, and reheat the milk mixture to 170 degrees. Remove from heat.
6) With an electric mixer, beat 4 egg yolks with another 50 grams sugar until pale yellow and thickened, just a minute or two.
7) Temper the egg mixture by slowly drizzling in a little hot milk and mix thoroughly. Once a fair bit of milk has been added, you can add the rest more quickly, and then return the whole mixture to medium heat, and stir constantly until the mixture reaches 185 degrees. Remove from heat and add ½ teaspoon vanilla extract.
8) Process in a blender for just 30 seconds or less, and then pour into a bowl or pot and add 1 cup cold cream. Stir well and place in a sink of cold water to chill the mixture quickly. After 15 minutes or so, cover and place in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours or preferably overnight.
9) Freeze in your ice cream machine (I chill the dasher in the freezer beforehand and cover the open lid with an ice pack to keep everything cold).
10) Place the gelato in a pre-frozen container and let it slightly harden in the freezer for two or three hours.
11) The next day the gelato will be much harder, but still tasty.