In the important ways, ice cream — or, more generically, frozen dairy dessert — is essentially the same across cultures and countries. Milk, sugar, flavoring; slurp, drip, repeat. The style made popular in Philadelphia in the 19th century remains among the most prevalent in the U.S. Yet there's a world of nuanced distinction among international confectionery variations like kulfi, semifreddo, and falooda.

"We know that China was the first to make frozen desserts, and that Italy's gelato was the first modern version of ice cream," says Bruce Tharp, principal of Tharp's Food Technology, an ice cream industry consultant in Wayne. "The product has evolved to conform to mass production for the retail market, but we still see really only a narrow range in the general composition of the stuff."

Gelato differs from ice cream in its fat content, with a denser texture and lack of egg. Ice cream is defined by U.S. industrial standards (the reason you see certain products labeled "frozen dessert") as having 10 percent to 16 percent milk fat. Gelato must have 3.5 percent milk fat by Italian law.

"Mostly, though, I think it's a difference of presentation. Gelato is set out in beautiful trays of different colors with decorations to make it attractive," Tharp says.

Ian Moroney, who makes both ice cream and gelato at Pumpkin, says the difference for him is in the flavor.

"Not having yolks in gelato gives you more clarity of flavor. When I want to make flavors like corn or peach or pistachio, I use a gelato base."

Coffee and carmel gelato at Pumpkin.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer CREDIT
Coffee and carmel gelato at Pumpkin.

One of his favorites is a caramel-coffee gelato that is neither strictly caramel nor coffee in taste, but something in between that approaches the mellow bitterness of chocolate, or Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk. One of the ways he accomplishes its subtlety is by steeping the cream with whole coffee beans.

"I serve it with sticky toffee pudding or with blackberries. It ends up being more than the sum of its parts," he says.

If gelato is usually devoid of eggs and cream, Italian semifreddo packs the fat back in. Air is churned not into the whole mix, but just into the cream first, which is gently folded into the custard. The result is sweet and slightly fluffy with less "chew" than ice cream.

On the other hand, Thai rolled ice cream, that still-trendy variation that involves chopping in flavorings and scraping a dense frozen mixture into curls on a cold slab, is made with the same ratio of milk and sugar as American ice cream — it just lacks the air that American-style churning machines whip into the mix.

Indian kulfi, like Italian semifreddo, involves no whipping at all. (The beauty of making it at home is that it doesn't require an ice cream maker.) The milk is cooked down slowly and reduced, increasing its fat, protein, and lactose content. It's then frozen in molds or on sticks.

"I have fond memories of eating kulfi on the street when I was growing up in Delhi. You can get it all over the place. Even now, when I make it in the restaurant I know I don't need to taste every batch, but I always end up keeping one for myself," says Vipul Bhasin, chef of Veda in Center City.

Mango kulfi with dessert noodles and basil seeds at Veda.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Mango kulfi with dessert noodles and basil seeds at Veda.

At Veda, the luxuriant dessert is traditionally flavored with cardamom, mango puree, and crushed pistachios and/or almonds, and served with poached blueberries. Falooda involves kulfi but is served with rose syrup and starchy vermicelli noodles mixed in.

Mexican ice cream is traditionally made with unpasteurized raw milk and churned in a large metal cylinder inside a wooden barrel with a handheld paddle. Short of having the right ingredients and equipment, Stateside cooks can at least replicate the imaginative flavors, like caramelized milk ice cream, which takes vanilla to a buttery-rich new height. Like kulfi, the recipe demands a long, slow reduction on the stove top. Even better (and more instantly gratifying): Visit a neveria, such as Paleteria Bambino or La Guerrerense, both in the Italian Market, with a full panoply of choices like cheese, guava, and avocado.

"The main thing I see when I travel is the incredible range of flavors," Tharp says. "In Japan, you find oyster, octopus, and eel ice cream. In Malaysia, yam ice cream is very popular, and in the Philippines, sweet corn ice cream is mixed with bits of cheddar cheese."

One product that stands out from its global cousins is Turkish ice cream, or dondurma, which is harder to come by in Philadelphia. It's thickened with salep, the dried root of an orchid plant, and made with mastic, a gummy resin that gives it a stretchy quality.

"I have seen some people actually using it to jump rope," says Tharp, who travels around the world to meet with ice cream manufacturers.

When it comes to dessert time, Tharp returns to his own family traditions — he grew up around a family creamery business in Pennsylvania, and although he appreciates global renditions, he prefers American-style ice cream.

"My favorite flavor is very exotic — regular old chocolate."

Caramelized Milk Ice Cream

Makes about 1 quart

INGREDIENTS

4 cups whole milk

1¼ cups sugar

¼ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

pinch of kosher salt

1¾ cups whole milk

1¼ cups heavy cream

½ teaspoon kosher salt

⅛ teaspoon vanilla extract

DIRECTIONS

  1. To make the caramelized milk, in a heavy-bottomed large saucepan, stir together the milk, sugar and baking soda. Bring to a boil over high heat, turn down the heat to maintain a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has thickened and is pale caramel in color, 1¼ to 1½ hours; stir more frequently as the mixture becomes thicker. You should have about 1 cup. Transfer to a heatproof bowl and allow to cool to room temperature. Stir in the vanilla and salt. If not using it right away, cover and refrigerate for up to 5 days.
  2. Partially fill a large bowl with ice and water, place a medium bowl in the ice water and set a fine-mesh strainer across the top.
  3. In a saucepan, bring the milk and cream to a boil over medium heat. Remove from the heat, add the salt, vanilla extract, and caramelized milk, and whisk until smooth and combined. Pour the mixture through the strainer into the prepared bowl. Remove the bowl from the ice bath, cover and refrigerate until the base is cold, at least 4 hours or overnight.
  4. Whisk the base to recombine. Freeze and churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. For a soft consistency serve the ice cream right away; for a firmer consistency, transfer it to a container, cover, and allow to harden in the freezer for 2 to 3 hours.

— From "Mexican Ice Cream" by Fany Gerson (Ten Speed, 2017)

Mango Kulfi

Serves 8

INGREDIENTS

½ gallon whole milk

½ cup heavy cream

½ cup mango puree (preferably Alphonso mangos)

½ cup sugar

¼ teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds

slivered almonds and pistachios, to garnish

DIRECTIONS

  1. Place the milk and the cream in a heavy-bottomed wide pot, such as a large wok or saucepan, and bring to a simmer on medium heat. Let the milk cook, and thicken. Stir the milk every few minutes. When the milk is approximately a third of its original volume, stir in the sugar, bring to a boil and turn off the heat.
  2. Cool the milk and stir in the mango puree and crushed cardamom seeds.
  3. Pour the mixture into kulfi molds or any small cup and freeze for 4-6 hours or until set.
  4. To serve, remove from the molds by dipping the molds in warm water for a few seconds or by removing from the freezer 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Garnish with slivered almonds and pistachios to serve.

— Vipul Bhasin of Veda

Coffee Caramel Gelato

Serves 8

INGREDIENTS

4 cups milk

4 black cardamom pods, cracked

3 cinnamon sticks

2½  cups sugar, divided

2 cups heavy cream

2 cups whole coffee beans

DIRECTIONS

  1. Add milk, cardamom, cinnamon, and 1/2 cup of sugar to a saucepan. Heat mixture to 180 degrees or just before it boils if you don't have a thermometer available. Remove from heat and let the mixture steep for 30 minutes. Strain milk to remove solids.
  2. In a separate pot, scald 2 cups of cream, then keep warm on low heat.
  3. In a separate large pot, add 2 cups sugar and let it caramelize, without stirring, over moderately low heat. When the sugar caramelizes (turning a deep amber color) remove from heat. Slowly add the hot cream to the caramel, stirring carefully (do not add all the cream at once). When all the cream is added, pour in the remaining milk.
  4. Add 2 cups of whole coffee beans to mixture. Pour into a container and refrigerate overnight.
  5. Strain mixture to remove any solids and coffee beans. Freeze in an ice cream maker, according to the manufacturer's instructions.

— Ian Moroney of Pumpkin