There is good ice cream out there, even in supermarkets, but only ice cream from the best shops and restaurants can compare to ice cream you make yourself. Why? Because the best ice cream is fresh. And although the best shops and restaurants may make really good and fresh ice cream, yours is probably going to be just a little bit better, because you will select and therefore know every ingredient that goes into it.
Luckily, you probably already have most if not all of those ingredients in your refrigerator and pantry, and it's easy to make ice cream, as long as you have an ice cream machine.
That is, all too often, the problem. (For example, my ice cream machine is in storage, where it's been sitting since October.) But though you can make something akin to ice cream without a machine -- whip heavy cream to soft peaks, add sugar and other flavorings, and freeze until firm -- it won't have the same creamy richness as ice cream churned in a machine.
Ice cream machines can be a real investment -- some of the heavy-duty brands cost hundreds of dollars -- but you can sometimes find good-quality countertop units for under $100. (Or -- perhaps an even better idea -- look on Craigslist or eBay, at flea markets and garage sales, and see if you can find a used one.) You want a machine that has at least a one-quart capacity, and, ideally, a built-in refrigeration system, or at least one that sits in the freezer while it churns; those where you pre-freeze the inner bowl are less efficient.
The mixture you'll pour into your ice cream machine is essentially custard (made with milk or cream, sugar, and egg yolks) or pudding (made with milk or cream, sugar, and cornstarch). Both custard-based ice creams (also called French ice creams) and cornstarch ice creams have their benefits. Custard-based ice creams have a rich, luxurious texture -- but the delicious flavor of egg yolks can compete with that of other ingredients. Cornstarch ice creams are lighter, less caloric, and more amenable to add-ins, since cornstarch doesn't have much flavor of its own. Your machine will take care of churning (which lightens the custard by beating air into it) and freezing.
The two recipes here -- one custard-based and flavored with vanilla, the other cornstarch-based and flavored with lemon -- are blueprints for any ice cream you can imagine. In addition to the variations, there are endless possibilities for both infusions (added to the milk or half-and-half as you heat it and then strained out) and last-minute stir-ins. Try adding a teaspoon ground spices -- cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and ginger are good -- to the dairy, or, for a more unusual ice cream, use a sprig of rosemary, thyme, or mint (fish it out before adding the cornstarch or eggs). Or add up to 3/4 cup of your favorite candy (crushed), cookies or brownies (crumbled), or dried fruit (chopped) just before or halfway through freezing. The possibilities are very nearly endless, which is good, because there is a lifetime of ice cream to be eaten.
Vanilla Ice Cream, with variations for Chocolate Ice Cream, Maple Nut Ice Cream, and Coffee Ice Cream
Lemon Ice Cream, with variations for Lemon-Jam Ice Cream, Lemon Yogurt Ice Cream, and Lemon Ice Cream with Berries or Cherries