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Recipe: Walnut Ice Cream, Victorian California Style

Photos by Mia Wasilevich


Although frozen treats have been around for millennia, it was not until the Victorian era that ice cream truly became available to the general public. The first ice cream parlor in the United States may have opened at the end of the 18th century and President Washington famously served ice cream at Mt Vernon, but it remained a treat reserved for the wealthy until the mid-19th century when two technological advances came together.

First, there were enormous advances in the development of a cold chain that allowed the middle class ready access to, initially, ice harvested from frozen lakes and rivers and, later, in the 1860s, mechanically produced ice. Ice delivery could still be somewhat inconsistent until the latter part of the 19th century, however, so that many cookbooks assumed that ice cream and flavored ices would be frequently made in the winter, when ice was less expensive, to be served between two warm courses.

Second, there was the invention of the hand-cranked ice cream churn by a Philadelphia dairymaid in 1843. Though it might seem a simple device, it was vastly more efficient than the previous technique of stirring the ice cream in a pot by hand, which required a great deal more labor. In the various histories of ice cream, no one ever seems to mention who spent hours slaving over a salt and ice slurry so that President Washington could serve the delightful and frosty dessert to his guests.

In any case, now that it was possible for the middle class to make and enjoy ice cream, they did so with gusto and Victorian flair. For example, food coloring was all the rage. You might think that a recipe for cranberry ice cream, containing a great deal of cranberry juice, would be sufficiently red to indicate that it was cranberry-flavored. But you would be wrong, because the receipt, as they were wont to call recipes then, also demanded the addition of carmine or cochineal. One can only dream that color photography had been invented earlier if only in order to capture the vibrant displays of the Victorian table.

Another favorite conceit of the Victorians with regard to ice cream was to mold it into fanciful shapes, of fruits, flowers, vegetables (asparagus was a common mold), geometric fantasies, and elaborate bombes. Presentation was all.

And the flavors! If it was available in the kitchen, the Victorians made ice cream with it -- so ... liver, for instance. The experimental cooks of today would be hard pressed to match the creativity of our culinary forebears.

The most common flavors, of course, were those that were most readily to hand. So, if one were to make an ice cream representative of Southern California near the end of the 19th century, what flavor might it be?

Walnut. English walnut to be precise.

The native California Black Walnut predates the presence of humans here and was a common foodstuff of the Kizh (previously called Gabrieleno or Tongva). And it is famous as an ice cream flavor. However, it is the English walnut that was Southern California's first major export crop and dominated local agriculture at the end of the 19th century.


Before the transcontinental railroad and refrigerated box cars, it would have been nearly impossible for Southern California to export significant amounts of produce or meat. Walnuts, once dried, store incredibly well and can easily be shipped via less efficient means. The climate was well-suited for walnut trees (as the native walnut will attest) and, consequently, starting in the late 1860s, the San Gabriel Valley was soon covered with walnut orchards, from Covina to Pico Rivera and from Boyle Heights to La Puente. Before the orange and avocado, the walnut was king.

There are so many streets in Southern California named Walnut, or Nogales (Spanish for walnut). We have the city of Walnut, which features photos of local walnut harvests in their civic center. There is the city of Pico Rivera which has a walnut on the city seal and an entire room of their small city museum dedicated to the walnut industry. On Whittier Boulevard in the city of Whittier is California State Landmark #681, the Paradox Hybrid Walnut Tree, developed by Luther Burbank, and planted in 1907 as part of the an experimental planting by the UC Experimental Station. Walnuts were what Los Angeles featured at their display for the World's Fair in 1904.

We were the walnut capital of the world.

Unfortunately, in the early part of the 20th century, a walnut blight began to destroy many of the trees. Efforts were made to fight it, but with other crops like the orange and avocado for farmers to adopt, the walnut industry in Southern California died. Walnut farming moved north to the Central Valley, where the microclimate was unfavorable for the blight and walnut trees could thrive. California continues to be the walnut capital of the world. Today, California grows 80% of the world's walnuts.

So why not enjoy a California-style, Victorian era ice cream treat?

The following recipe is based on a Victorian-era recipe.

Walnut Cream Ice
Yield: Approximately 1 quart
2 ½ cups shelled English walnuts
2 ½ cups cream
4 egg yolks
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1. Chop walnuts in a food processor until pebbly. Add a little of the cream if necessary.
2. Beat together the sugar and egg yolks until lightened in color and achieving the ribbon stage.
3. Whisk cream and walnuts into egg yolk mixture and heat in a double boiler. Stir constantly until mixture thickens to coat the back of a spoon - approximately 175° - 180°F. Do not boil.
4. Strain custard through a chinois or fine mesh strainer and cool - preferably overnight. Reserve walnuts for making of Walnut Topping (recipe follows).
5. When cooled, add vanilla and freeze according to directions for your ice cream machine.

The actual Victorian era recipe would have you discard the walnuts after they have flavored the ice cream. I consider that wasteful, so I turn the custard coated walnuts into a delightful candied nut topping for the ice cream.

Walnut Topping
Yield: Approximately 2 ½ cups
2 ½ cups walnuts, covered in ice cream base (reserved from Walnut Cream Ice)
¼ cup granulated sugar
1. Preheat oven to 250°F.
2. Mix walnuts and granulated sugar.
3. Spread walnut and sugar mixture 1 layer thick on a sheet tray covered with a Silpat, non-stick aluminum foil, or parchment paper.
4. Bake mixture until crisp (approximately 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes).
5. Crumble and use as a topping for ice cream.