Not to be dramatic, but this is kind of the culmination of my life’s work.
A few years ago my mother found the Friendly’s Wattamelon Roll (obnoxious misspelling and all) at a Super Walmart. This was a big deal. We hadn’t seen the likes of this elusive roll since we lived in New York in the early 90’s. The fact that even I have a fuzzy memory of this roll–I, the youngest of the family, who was three when we made the move from New York to California–is a testament to how deep this dessert runs in our family history.
While eating the newly discovered roll, I wondered why I never came across watermelon-flavored sherbet. Why was Friendly’s the lone pioneer?
That set me on a quest to one day recreate the watermelon sherbet in this roll.
First I took to Google, where I learned there was an annoying trend of making a “watermelon” bombe using raspberry and lime sherbet that bears a resemblance to watermelon but has none of the flavor. Which just seems pointless. That’s not watermelon sherbet, world. Stop that.
I did come across a few recipes as I wandered farther and farther down the search results (getting so desperate as to click beyond the first page of results), but it would be overly icy, or I wouldn’t trust it, or it would involve gelatin. Gelatin is perfectly fine, but I suppose a near-decade of vegetarianism has turned me against it.
So it seemed the only solution was to make a sherbet recipe myself.
The summer of 2014 was the summer of watermelon sherbet attempts. My initial plan was to reduce pureed watermelon to concentrate its flavor, at which point I added some cream, sugar, and a touch of vanilla. But the final result had too much cream, judging by the greasy feel it left on my tongue, and reducing the puree, oddly enough, seemed to eliminate the watermelon flavor; I was left with just a one-note sweetness. For batch two, I used milk as my only source of dairy, reduced the puree even further (clearly I didn’t learn my lesson the first time), and used a touch of watermelon extract, thinking some artificial flavor would match the Friendly’s flavor profile. But that batch ended up icy and too artificial-tasting–more Jolly Rancher than sherbet. And cream was definitely missed.
And then I made the perfect batch. No reducing the puree whatsoever, just a touch of cream, sugar, some lime juice to cut the watermelon sweetness, a few drops of vanilla, a little vodka to combat iciness, and–the secret ingredient–xanthan gum to help it retain a smooth texture. (Sugar also helps ice creams, sherbets, and sorbets retain a smooth texture, but with the watermelon so sweet already, I wanted to get that texture without making the sherbet any sweeter than it already was.) The final product was fruity and creamy, scoopable and smooth, with an undeniable watermelon flavor.
(It was also, not technically, sherbet. Sherbet typically has a butterfat content between 1% and 2%. I did the math for my recipe and it turned out to be 2.5% butterfat. And as the ice cream threshold starts at 10% butterfat or above, that leaves my darling recipe in the strange, scary world of frozen dairy dessert. But… can we just let me have this? Can we cast technicalities aside, enjoy the extra 0.5% butterfat, and let my recipe be sherbet? Thank you.)
Of course, I saved my fabulous new recipe as an electronic Post-It on my desktop, which was lost forever when my water bottle exploded all over my laptop a few weeks later. So. Oops.
This meant that this summer was the summer of watermelon sherbet recreation. I knew the ingredients but only some of the correct proportions, which meant that I once again ended up making three batches before getting it right. As before, the third time proved successful, and I’m pleased to present the watermelon sherbet recipe I’ve come up with (twice).
You need to start with three cups of watermelon puree. I get this from putting about five cups of chopped watermelon into a blender.
I love how frothy it looks at the top. Like beer, except not gross. Of course, we’re looking for three cups of juice, not 2 2/3 cups of juice and some froth, so after this I scooped up the froth and blended some more watermelon to top it off. But let’s just admire the pretty froth, shall we?
To that, whisk in 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon vodka, two teaspoons lime juice, a pinch of salt, and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla (normally vanilla is something I double or triple in a recipe; people never seem to use enough vanilla. But for this one, don’t increase the amount of vanilla. It’s watermelon’s day; don’t overshadow it). Then stir in 1/4 cup of cream.
Now we add science.
In my first recreation attempt, I didn’t use any xanthan gum because I thought perhaps the vodka and the sugar would be enough to give it a smooth texture, and if I can avoid using a hard-to-find ingredient, I will. But it wasn’t quite right. When I went at it with an ice cream scoop, the parts I scooped kept breaking and folding in on themselves. It wasn’t quite icy–it was soft, like snow–but it wasn’t the texture I was going for. This is to say that it’s perfectly okay to make this without the xanthan gum–just keep in mind that the end texture won’t be as sherbet-like. It’ll be a little harder to dig up a spoonful from the container. But if you do make it without the xanthan gum, add an extra teaspoon of lime juice. The xanthan gum adds a slight bitterness–which sounds terrible, but again, if you’re trying to prevent overwhelming sweetness, it really helps rein in the watermelon’s sweetness without making the sherbet taste bitter in any way–and adding some extra lime juice will keep the flavors in balance.
Note the differences in the comparison below: the one on the left doesn’t have xanthan gum, and the one on the right does.
Start by putting the 1/4 teaspoon of xanthan gum into a small bowl. Add a spoonful of the watermelon mixture and quickly stir it together, taking care to prevent lumps from forming. This is just like stirring in cornstarch, or making gravy. Add another spoonful of liquid and stir some more; repeat this until you have yourself a slurry you’d be comfortable mixing into the full batch. It’s okay if there are some lumps. Shh.
Then churn away! Let freeze for 2+ hours or overnight.
Note that it’s not as scoopable as something with more fat, like ice cream. I wasn’t able to get a perfectly rounded scoop, but it was easy to get half-scoops. I accept half-scoops. You should, too.
- 3 cups watermelon juice or puree (I get this from blending up 5 cups of chopped watermelon)
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 tsp vanilla
- 2 tsp. lime juice
- a pinch of salt
- 1 tbsp. vodka
- 1/4 cup cream
- 1/4 tsp. xanthan gum (ideal for texture; if not using, add an extra teaspoon of lime juice)
Whisk together the watermelon juice, sugar, vanilla, lime juice, salt, and vodka. Stir in the cream. In a small, separate (dry) bowl, add the 1/4 tsp. xanthan gum and stir in a spoonful of the watermelon mixture. Once integrated, add another spoonful of the watermelon mixture and stir to blend again. Do this until the consistency is more liquid than gel, and then whisk it into the watermelon mixture.
Pour the mixture into an ice cream maker and churn according to the manufacturer’s directions. Transfer to a container and let freeze for 2+ hours or overnight.