On summer Sundays back when I was a kid, my folks would take me and my sister to Jenni’s Ice Cream in Barrington, New Hampshire, if we’d been good that week. I had a crush on one of the scoopers, and I’d take it as a good sign if she remembered my “regular,” a small scoop of strawberry ice cream on a sugar cone.
Nothing ever happened with the ice cream girl, but I still have a soft spot for good ice cream, gelato—and my first favorite, sherbet. Making ice cream at home has always felt like an appliance too far, though, another giant stainless steel block taking up counter space. But a budding trend in home ice cream makers had me wondering if I should reconsider that stance.
The Ninja Creami [sic] looks a bit like a tall, skinny coffee maker. You make what you might call the liquid version of your ice cream, pour it into one of the machine’s specialized pint containers, freeze it for 24 hours, then process it for about 90 seconds in the machine. The magic really happens in that last part, where a spinning blade descends into the ice cream like a little motorized ice auger, turning your solid block into a sweet, scoopable treat. Some food industry folks might say, “Heyyy … wait a second. That sounds just like a Pacojet knockoff.” I would say they’re right.
More on that in a bit. But first, ice cream! I made a bunch, starting with the first of 30-plus offerings in the included recipe booklet: vanilla ice cream with chocolate chips. I combined a tablespoon of cream cheese with sugar, vanilla extract, heavy cream, and whole milk. A day of freezing time later, I pressed the Ice Cream button and watched the blades spin and whirl their way down to the bottom of the container. After that, I made a divot in the ice cream, poured in a quarter-cup of mini chocolate chips (Ninja calls these late-stage Blizzard-style additions “mix-ins”), hit the Mix-In button, and when that was done, I grabbed a spoon. It was good stuff. Pleasingly creamy, not icy, and with a bit of pliability visible on top of the pint in the form of swirly tracks from the spinning blade. The sweetness seemed about right, aligning with grocery-store ice cream.
Strawberry ice cream was a different animal, with mushed bits of chopped strawberries, macerated with sugar, corn syrup, and lemon juice before heavy cream was mixed in and the pint went into the freezer for a day. The finished ice cream came out really well. Not Jenni’s, mind you, but not bad. I also saw something I’d see a few times in future batches where the final product had a bit of what the manual calls a “crumbly” texture. This can usually be solved or, at least solved enough, by following Ninja’s suggestion and running the machine one more time by hitting Re-Spin.
Next, I switched styles and tried Ninja’s recipe for one-ingredient mango sorbet, where the one ingredient was canned mango chunks in their own juice, which went in the special pint container and into the freezer for 24 hours. I then spun it up into sorbet. I’ll defer to my notes here which read: “Nope. More like compacted snow than sorbet.” The texture was wrong and a re-spin didn’t save it.
Ninja’s test kitchen team also seemed to forget about getting the finished product’s sweetness level right. Preserved fruit like that is packaged at the ideal sweetness level for eating it straight out of the can, but freezing it dulls its flavor. In retrospect, it wasn’t much of a surprise that the frozen canned-fruit sorbet needed sugar. Plus, different fruits come in different sweetnesses depending on manufacturers. A little hand-holding (or just more than one ingredient) would have kept disappointment at bay. It puzzled me that Ninja left so much to chance.
This also got me wondering about coming up with my own flavors. Nothing weird, mind you, but maybe take advantage of something seasonal or something not necessarily found at the corner store. Ninja really hedges both in the recipe booklet and the $17 cookbook for beginners that’s sold separately, mentioning that you can’t use your favorite ice cream recipes, because the Creami “works differently than traditional ice-cream makers.” Then it really only makes a vague wave at helping you figure out how to DIY things. If the cookbook, which has a couple dozen recipes, came in the box instead of being a separate purchase, I’d grouse about this less. (For those like me looking for potentially warranty-voiding inspiration, check out the Pacojet entries in Modernist Cuisine, along with Pacojet’s cookbook and website.)
Since I’m already complaining, I’ll note here that the pint jar lids are stupidly hard to get on, even creating thin threads of plastic on the inside of the lid that could fall into your dessert, something I’d seen flagged in online reviews.
I plowed on, making Ninja’s recipe for vanilla-bean gelato using egg yolks, corn syrup, heavy cream, milk, and the ethereal-smelling seeds scraped from a vanilla pod, all heated on the stove to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, then frozen. Out of the machine the next day, it had a professional look, and the real vanilla made it sing. But if I were to go deep nitty-gritty, I’d say it had a bit of a clay-like texture and a chewiness I don’t necessarily look for from my frozen treats. A bit of trial and error would eventually get me where I needed to go.
Next, I tried and failed to freestyle. I had a bee in my bonnet to make something fun with Campari, using the Creami’s orange sherbet recipe as a template. It called for a cup of orange juice, so I used half a cup of OJ and half a cup of Campari. My idea was to bring it to a dinner party, but that didn’t work out at all; the boozy bitterness was overpowering, and the texture was more like a milkshake.