Rich custard ice cream base

Rich custard ice cream base

Gelato alla crema

700 ml
Helen Cathcart

T his recipe is inspired by the gelaterie of Rome, particularly the inventive flavours found in the artisan gelaterie, such as Fatamorgana which had combinations like pear and gorgonzola, and banana with black sesame. This base makes the kind of really smooth and heavenly ice cream that they serve in Italian gelaterie. Proper gelato is lower in fat than the ice cream we’re used to, and this is achieved by using more milk than cream and less eggs than a standard ice cream recipe. Once you have mastered making a custard base like this you can add the flavourings suggested below or have fun experimenting with your own. You will need an ice-cream maker or use the method for churning by hand.


Quantity Ingredient
400ml whole milk
250ml double cream
100g caster sugar
4 egg yolks


  1. In a large saucepan, heat the milk and cream with half the sugar over a medium heat until just bubbling. Meanwhile, in a large bowl beat together the egg yolks and remaining sugar until smooth. Add 2 ladlefuls of hot milk to the egg mixture and immediately whisk together. Pour this back into the pan and whisk everything together until thickened.
  2. To sterilise the ice cream, turn up the heat and increase the temperature of the mixture to 85°C. This is the point when the ice cream coats the back of a spoon if you don’t have a thermometer. Take off the heat immediately and pour into a large heatproof bowl. To cool quickly, set this bowl over another bowl full of iced water, and then cover the surface of the custard with cling film (plastic wrap) to stop a skin from forming. Stir every so often to help it cool evenly. As soon as the custard is at room temperature, churn in an ice-cream machine or by hand using the method below.

Flavour suggestions

  • Vanilla ice cream

    Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract or the seeds scraped from 1 vanilla pod to the egg and sugar mixture before mixing with the hot milk. Cool and churn as before.

    Toasted hazelnut ice cream

    Add 100 g toasted hazelnuts that have been blitzed to a rough sandy texture in a food processor to the custard before churning. Any nuts are good, but do toast them first to bring out the flavour in the natural oils.

    Chocolate and grand marnier ice cream

    Add 100 g dark (bittersweet) chocolate (min. 70% cocoa solids), broken into small pieces, into the hot custard, off the heat, as soon as it thickens. Stir in 135 ml of Grand Marnier, then cool and churn as before.

    Herb ice cream

    Aromatic herbs such as mint, rosemary, lemon balm and basil make wonderful delicately flavoured ice creams that are perfectly acceptable on their own but will also make the perfect partner to other desserts. Try combinations such as the Roman Apple Cake with rosemary flavoured ice cream, or try basil ice cream with fresh strawberries, and mint ice cream with any chocolate tart.

    To make herb ice cream, infuse 10 g of herbs (leave them whole; you don’t need to chop them up) in the milk and cream overnight to make the ice cream the next day. Strain the infused mixture through a sieve and use this instead of the plain milk and cream when you make the custard for the ice cream. If you are in a hurry and can’t leave the herbs to infuse overnight, double the quantity of herbs and put them into the milk and cream. Bring to the boil as before and then allow to cool and infuse the milk for 1 hour before straining and making the custard as before.

    Making ice cream and sorbets without an ice-cream machine

    If you don’t have an ice-cream machine, when the custard or sorbet base is cool, pour it into a freezer-proof shallow container and put it into the freezer. Whisk the mixture every hour for 4 hours to break down the ice crystals as they form. When it has all frozen it is ready to eat, or cover and leave for another day. Another way is to freeze the mixture in ice cube trays or small yoghurt pots and, when frozen, tip the contents into a food processor and blend to break up the ice crystals. Cover and freeze again straight away before it has a chance to melt. This is the quickest and easiest way to do it, and it results in a smooth gelato, but you do need space in your freezer and a good food processor to do it.
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