by Liza Roberts
photographs by Leslie Baker
Charles Winston Jr. is a self-described ice cream nut. The owner of North Raleigh’s Winston’s Grille, he loves it so much he took himself to ice cream school at Penn State a few years ago. He loves it so much he makes ice cream at work, and he loves it so much he makes ice cream at home.
At this time of year, he makes it with his family.
Winston, 52, and his wife, Jenny, 42, have made an annual tradition out of it, mixing up peppermint ice cream with their three children to give as Christmas presents to extended family and friends. They make more than 100 quart-size cartons, each accompanied with a 12-ounce jar of homemade hot fudge made from Jenny’s mother’s own recipe.
“One year, Jenny was going to make her fudge, and I said, why don’t we do peppermint ice cream, too?” Charles recalls. Peppermint ice cream held a special place in their hearts as a once-a-year childhood treat. That year the family made a modest 35 ice cream-hot fudge combinations and quickly realized they’d created a bit of a sugary monster: Word spread, and people clamored for more. Now the annual project requires cases upon cases of cartons, jars, and ingredients, many hands on deck, advance planning, and orchestrated coordination.
When it’s done, the family effort makes for a tasty result, but one that for obvious reasons, recipients need to be home to receive. “Three strikes and you’re out,” Jenny says with a laugh, describing their annual drive around town with a cooler of dry ice and slowly melting frozen gifts.
The Winstons typically gather in the restaurant kitchen on a day when it’s closed to make their ice cream. They begin with an all-natural milk-cream-sugar mixture from Jackson’s Dairy Farm in Dunn, into which they mix crushed peppermints and Andes mints.
Restaurant kitchens are familiar territory for all of them. Charles grew up in and around the Angus Barn, which his father, Charles Winston Sr., founded with Thad Eure Jr. The younger Winston picked up a love of cooking and hospitality; in addition to Winston’s Grille, he has owned a fleet of Golden Corral restaurants in the Atlanta area. As a youngster at the Angus Barn, he jokes, “I was more a janitor than anything else, but I waited tables, bartended and things. I grew up in it.”
Like Jenny, he also grew up with wonderful home cooking, and home is the place where the five of them gather to make Jenny’s hot fudge.
The Winstons don’t leave much to chance. Ingredients are neatly laid out, bowls and whisks are at the ready. Armed with a calculator and a legal pad, Charles makes sure proportions are right. Being a restaurateur, he has a bit of an unfair advantage: a gigantic, built-in, steam-jacketed, industrial-quality kettle in their Raleigh home kitchen.
Into it go butter and squares of Bakers’ unsweetened chocolate, counted out carefully by Charlie, 11, and Georgia, 8. At the counter nearby, Ruth Anne, 13, gets jars ready.
For three children in the after-school hours surrounded by chocolate, they take their roles remarkably seriously. Each takes turns slowly pouring in sugar, salt, and condensed milk, while Jenny measures vanilla into pressed pewter measuring spoons that show the dings of regular use.
Do they taste as they go? Never. It’s too bitter until the end, Jenny says, too hot, and besides, they trust the recipe, handed down by her mother, Judy Nims. Jenny has been making it her whole life, after all, even bringing it to college, and selling the hot fudge at sorority fund-raisers. Once the fudge sauce has been given a vigorous whisking, it’s time to decant.
“This is the real challenge,” Jenny says, as all five Winstons line up glass jars and Charles gets ready to tip the kettle. As a steady stream of liquid chocolate pours out, the kids and Jenny form a fireman-style assembly line – one jar fills and is whisked away as a new one swoops in to take its place. Only a few hot fudge drops make it to the floor, and Ruth Anne, the responsible oldest, makes sure each jar is wiped clean before it’s covered with a lid, decorated with a sticker, and placed in a cardboard box.
“Teamwork!” says Jenny, with pride.
“Yum!” says Georgia, the youngest, breaking ranks to lick a whisk, followed quickly by her brother Charlie, and then, there they are, at the end of it, a bunch of kids in the after-school-hours, surrounded by chocolate – and a countertop covered with homemade presents.
Jenny’s Hot Fudge Sauce
1 1/2 sticks butter
9 ounces unsweetened chocolate
2 cups sugar
16 ounces evaporated milk
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/2 tablespoon almond extract (optional; the Winstons skip it)
Melt chocolate and butter in double boiler. Remove from heat; blend in sugar and salt. Gradually stir in milk. Return double boiler to heat and cook mixture for 4 minutes stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Add vanilla and optional almond extract. Chill. Can be reheated. Serve warm over peppermint ice cream.
Makes 6 jars.