Vanilla Ice Cream: 1949

I love condensed milk. I love it so much that having even one tin of it in the house would constitute a genuine health risk to me; what my husband calls ‘previous incidents’ have shown that in a mere matter of hours I can eat a whole tin on its own. A few years ago I read that some children who were evacuated to the countryside during WW2 were often given small tins of condensed milk to sip on during the train ride to give them a sweet treat to shut them up cheer them up as they were wrenched from their families. Nobody can know how they’d react in a historical situation, but part of me feels that I would have been loudly and enthusiastically volunteering to be evacuated from the second I found out what would be in my lunchbox. To put it another way: if Roald Dahl had written about Charlie and the Condensed Milk Factory I would have replaced the Augustus Gloop character and would have been very happy indeed to drown in a pool of the stuff.

I don’t want anyone to think I’ve got a problem here; I can go months and months, a year maybe, without it. I feel smug when I pass it on the shelf in Sainsbury’s and ignore its saccharine call – “Not today, Satan!” I chuckle to myself to the alarm of other shoppers – but then a well meaning relative will invite me over for coffee and baking and it all goes to pot the second I have a bite of anything made with it. Move over, marijuana, there’s a new gateway drug in town and its name is millionaire’s shortbread.

So imagine my disappointment – nay, my horror – when I got back from the shop and furtively unpacked a tin of it to stash somewhere secret, away from exasperated husbands and perpetually hungry toddlers, and found…I had bought evaporated milk instead. Not my lovely thick, creamy, sweet condensed goodness at all but something altogether different. “Send me back home,” my imaginary evacuated self cried, “this isn’t what I was promised! Make it go away!”

I turned to Twitter for help, hoping someone would swoop in to reassure me that if I added x amount of sugar I could make my own condensed milk and all would be well. How much would I actually need?

“A shed load” came the reply.

Well, bugger.

Luckily I was assured that a bit of evaporated milk worked wonders in rice pudding and was very generously offered a delicious recipe that used up half my tin. But what to do with the other 200ml?

I’d always associated evaporated milk with rationing and frugality – it was the sort of thing I imagined my grandparents continued to eat on top of fruit despite cream being readily available again, just because that’s what they’d had as children. So I turned to WW2 for inspiration. More accurately, I turned to the years immediately following WW2.

In the years immediately after WW2 rationing continued and for some items got worse. Bread, which hadn’t been rationed during the war years, was added to the list of rationed foods in July 1946 – over a year after Victory in Europe Day. It was a bad time for children up until 1953 when sweets were finally de-rationed, and even worse for carnivores who had to wait until 1954 for meat to be de-rationed too. However, imported foods that had disappeared from Britain during the war began to be brought back into the country in small quantities such bananas in 1946 – much the bemusement of children who had never seen one before and tried to eat them with the skin on.

1943 sheet music for that famous chart smash “When can I have a banana again?” I don’t know, blame Hitler.

In 1940 the Ministry of Food issued a report called The National Food Survey to be compiled. The survey was to provide “independent check[s] on the food consumption and expenditure of the population during the war…to assess to effectiveness of the Government’s war time food policy.” It continued to monitor the food consumption of those it termed the “urban working-class” until 1949 and was published in 1951 because the information it had compiled was useful for helping show which foods could be de-rationed.

The data for 1947 and 1948 showed that, thanks to rationing, on average people from the sample were eating 12% and 20% less cheese, 7% and 12% less meat and 30% and 17% fewer eggs (including dried) respectively than compared to 1945 – the year the war ended. Milk consumption – in all its forms – was also down slightly in the two years after the war. But by 1949 consumption of milk, cheese and eggs had begun to rise, with milk being consumed at 107% of 1945 levels (though consumption of cheese and eggs as a percentage was still below 1945 levels and fresh eggs in particular remained conspicuously absent from many post war recipes.)

If you want to get really nerdy about it (and I do) you can even see the breakdown in the percentages of type of milk consumed. The amount of milk produced in 1948 rose by 50% compared to 1945 and by a further 7% in 1949. At these higher levels of production the government could afford to remove the restrictions placed on milk sales for a record fifteen weeks during 1949, which meant more people could drink more of it at much cheaper prices. This is partly shown in the data for 1949; we can see that “liquid milk” retailed at full price (excluding “School milk” and National Scheme milk which was subsidised) was consumed at a rate of 3.26 pints per head per week during this year compared to a rate of 2.93 pints per head per week in 1945. That’s an increase in consumption of 11.26% which doesn’t quite match up to the 57% increase in production – suggesting that less than half of the newly produced milk was being used as drinking milk.

(Hope you’re enjoying my rarely used GCSE maths skills because there’s more to come. Or you could skip ahead to the recipe, I won’t judge.)

Though milk and milk products might have been more readily available (although drinking milk was still rationed to 3 pints) tins of condensed and evaporated milk were still needed and could be bought on the points based system – with a can of condensed milk taking a whopping 10 of the 20 allocated points a person received in a month. But the beauty of canned milk was that a tin of condensed – or evaporated – could replace cream and sugar (and in some cases the binding qualities of egg) in one go, meaning that households could preserve their precious weekly rations of sugar and eggs (1 egg per person, about 200g sugar per person.) And as for cream? Ha! A luxury most had to give up – emphasied by the rise of numerous recipes for ‘mock cream’ from the time period.

We get it – you like data. But we’re really only here for the ice cream…

I actually hate data but I hear what you’re saying.

The best ice cream is made with sugar, egg yolks and cream – but all those things were still rationed in 1949 and a woman would really have to love her kids to use up her own weekly rations to make frozen dairy goodness for them. I’m not saying some women didn’t choose to forgo sugar and cream for themselves so their children could have a little treat, I’m just saying I wouldn’t. My daughter knows where she stands when it comes to my love of sweet food.

What mothers could do, however, was make fake ice cream using a tin of evaporated milk like the one I had shoved to the back of the fridge to wait forlornly before mould or cooking inspiration struck – whichever came first.

I used Marguerite Patten’s Post-War Kitchen for my ice cream recipe. Patten was a employee of the Ministry of Food during WW2 and was in charge of the Ministry of Food Bureau at Harrods demonstrating to customers the wild and wonderful recipe ideas that could be achieved on rations. This included recipes that some might call resourceful (others might call them abhorrent), as the government’s 1947 recipe for whale mince meat proves. Remember – any unexpected meat was a bonus and nothing was off limits, even whale carcasses that floated up the Thames were fair game.

Ice cream was a luxury whichever way it was served – fake or not. I halved Patten’s recipe to match the quantities of evaporated milk I had left over and found that half of the recipe was still plenty for a family of three. The recipe below shows the full quantities.

First I had to make the ‘cream’. That’s not me putting quotation marks around the word cream, that’s genuinely how it appeared in the book. I never really realised it before but my doubts for how well a recipe is going to turn out directly correlate to how many times quotation marks are used around seemingly normal ingredients.

For this I melted 25g of butter in a pan with 75ml of whole milk. I then spent quite some time whizzing it together in a blender to try and emulsify it. I think it worked, though it wouldn’t have passed for cream next to a jug of the real stuff; by the end of whizzing it was frothy and slightly thicker and there were no globs of butter floating on the surface, but it was still thinner than cream. Patten would have used a manual cream-maker to make her cream, but since the price of one of those today is around £20 on ebay and the price of actual cream is under £1 I didn’t think it was worth investing in one this time round.

While my ‘cream’ bubbled quietly in the background I whipped the remaining 200ml of evaporated milk with 25g of caster sugar (12.5% of my weekly sugar ration, that) and a teaspoon of, er, vanilla essence. I did have a quick Google as to the availability of vanilla essence in 1949 and as far as I could see it seems the jury’s out on whether it would have been present in many households. Certainly it wasn’t as commonplace as it is today. Let’s assume I got it on the black market, but don’t tell anyone.

Once the evaporated milk was whipped and foamy I folded in the ‘cream’ (still suspicious), poured it into a container and froze it – the recipe assured me it would not need mixing during freezing, so I was free to get on with some other post war things, like listening to the wireless. My husband and daughter – somewhat pointedly, I felt – instead chose these spare hours to make numerous trips to the freezer for Magnums and Fruit Pastille lollies.

After half a day the ice cream was done. And it looked good! It was pretty soft to scoop and I noticed that it seemed to have separated into two layers – a fluffy white layer on top that was soft and a yellowish harder layer underneath that was more icy.

I also bought some hazelnuts on the black market.

In terms of taste we were all really surprised. It was delicious! I wouldn’t say it felt like a traditional ice cream – the frothy white layer ended up turning to a mousse after only a few minutes out of the freezer and it wasn’t as sweet as modern day ice cream (which isn’t a bad thing necessarily.) Although it was less silky and had some ice crystals in it, it was somehow still very creamy and rich. I was also surprised at how strong the vanilla taste actually was given the small quantities of it, but it was unmistakable.

On a warm day in the garden my daughter had no complaints and finished a bowlful before demanding more.

“Hush sweetie,” I told her kindly. “I don’t love you enough to share my food or rations with you. You’ll just have to wait until next week.”

E x

Vanilla Ice Cream

For the ‘cream’:
50g butter
150ml whole milk

For the ice cream:
‘Cream’ as above
400g evaporated milk
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
50g caster sugar

  1. Melt the butter and milk for the ‘cream’ in a saucepan until just warm but not simmering.
  2. Pour ‘cream’ mixture into a blender and combine for several minutes until there are no bits of butter floating on the surface and the mixture is a creamy colour, slightly thicker and fully combined.
  3. Whip the evaporated milk with the caster sugar in a bowl until foamy. It should be like soft peak meringue.
  4. Add the vanilla.
  5. Pour the mixture into a freezable container and freeze for several hours until set.