When we have a big snow, it typically creates the opportunistic combination of having time on your hands and a massive amount of the key ingredient for making snow cream, so why not? Besides being a nostalgic but tasty treat to make with the kids, snow cream is the venerable ancestor of our modern ice cream.
No one knows for sure when or where people began dabbling with snow based desserts. There are records that the Persians made frozen beverages made from snow around 500 BC. Our own Native Americans may have beaten that date by sweetening snow with maple syrup. On that same line the Canadians have an old tradition of pouring hot maple syrup onto snow to make a kind of maple toffee. Around 200 BC the Chinese were making a concoction of rice mixed with milk, which was frozen with snow and eaten as a confection. Nero Claudius Caesar (circa 50 AD) supposedly sent slaves up to the mountains to collect snow, which was flavored with fruit juice, perhaps the precursor of the snow cone.
The Chinese King Tang of Shang (650 AD) supposedly kept servants on hand that were called “Ice Men,” who mixed flour and buffalo milk to make a creamy frozen dessert. The story goes that Marco Polo carried the idea of a cream based frozen dessert from China back to Europe. There may be something to this, because the Italians are credited with making the first European version of ice cream made with milk In the 1400s it became vogue in Europe to serve snow deserts made with heavy cream that included egg whites. In the 1600s, aristocrats living near the Alps sent servants to collect snow high in the mountains, which was flavored with wine and fruit. Finally, the invention of the ice cream churn by Nancy Johnson in 1846 ushered in the form of ice cream we use today.
So enough history, let’s talk about making a really good snow cream, and here are a few rules of thumb. Snow varies in texture and density, so gather plenty (at least a gallon). Collect the snow in a clean area, preferably from off the ground surfaces, such as a picnic table, and I scrap a little snow off the top before collecting. Needless to say, reject any snow that looks dirty, and remember: Don’t eat the yellow snow! Avoid compacting the snow as you gather it, and use immediately.
Making snow cream is simplicity itself. Thoroughly mix the milk, vanilla, and sugar before placing in a large pan. Stir in big spoonful’s of snow until it’s the consistency you want, and enjoy. There are several recipes that I’ve tried that work well. My mom’s version is 2 cups of milk, 1 cup of sugar, and 1 teaspoon of vanilla. A creamier version involves mixing a 14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk, ½ cup of regular milk, and 1 tsp of vanilla. One more includes mixing 1 cup of half and half, ½ cup of sugar, and ½ teaspoon of vanilla. Whatever version you try, you have got to include any kids around in the process. It blows them away to make ice cream that did not come from the store.
Steve Roark is the area forester in Tazewell, Tennessee, for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.