Sunday, March 8, 2009

Lapsang souchang-honey ice cream with almond brittle

This recipe is definitely an experiment. I went into it not at all sure it was going to work and, not having tried the final ripened product yet, I'm still trepidatious. The problem is balancing the smokiness of the tea with the sweetness of the honey while both flavors vary with temperature. And then there's the question of whether smoky ice cream is palatable at all whatever the balance is.

I used Jeni Britton's cream cheese and corn starch recipe again (reduced by a third like last time as I don't think there's going to be call for a big batch of this flavor). Because I'm infusing the dairy with something that needs to be strained out I had to make a few small procedural changes. Also, I bought a brick of very mild fresh cream cheese to avoid the tanginess that came through last time. I'm going to keep that in the freezer to avoid increased tang from aging and just slice off chunks as needed.

I started with:
1 1/3 cups whole milk
7 ounces heavy cream
and five teaspoons of lapsang souchang.
That's a lot of tea for that much liquid, but I've had trouble infusing flavor into dairy before so I adjusted upwards. All that went into a pot which I heated over medium heat until boiling and then simmered for four minutes. I found I had to stir frequently to keep the tea in the dairy and not up in the froth.

After four minutes I strained out the tea leaves and returned the dairy to the cleaned pot. I whisked in a half cup of honey--wildflower as I want the honey flavor to be noticeable against the lapsang--and returned it to the heat. Once the honey was well dissolved I added a scant Tablespoon of cornstarch dissolved in a couple Tablespoons of milk and brought the mix up to a boil to thicken.

Then all I had to do was add a pinch of salt and another ounce of cream to compensate for the water absorbed by the tea leaves and then whisk in the cream cheese. That involved quite a bit of whisking and even then I still had some bits of cream cheese floating about. At this point the mix had the look and texture of turkey gravy and smelled really odd. After cooling it on the counter for a half hour I crossed my fingers and put it went into the refrigerator to chill overnight.

Meanwhile, time to make the almond brittle. Slivered almonds are generally recommended, but I had whole and I didn't have a sliverer so I crushed them with the bottom of a heavy saucepan. Someone, on Top Chef I think, said that that gives you better control of the size of the pieces than using a food processor. I still got a pretty wide range, but it didn't start turning into almond butter which is the usual problem I have when using a machine to chop nuts.

I ended up with a half cup of nut bits so, scaling down a Mario Batali recipe, I measured out 3 ounces of sugar and a couple teaspoons of water into a small pan and started heating it up. Batali says to cook the sugar to exactly 338 degrees, but my sugar was so shallow I couldn't get a good reading on the candy thermometer and tilting the pot made the sugar seize up so I had to add water and start again. I couldn't judge by color either since I was using the Florida Crystals sugar that still has a bit of molasses in it. So I had to go by my gut to find the right moment between soft candy and burnt sugar to stir in the almonds. A bit by smell too, now that I think about it, as that first whiff with a hint of burning is the sign to make my move. And, unexpectedly, I got it right. The almond to sugar ratio is a bit high, but that's fine for an ice cream component. Once it cooled I whacked it with a chef's knife to break it up and, when the ice cream finished churning, stirred it in.

And here it is. It's weird, but very good and it's getting surprisingly positive response from the coworkers. First off, the texture is fabulously soft and creamy straight from the freezer. That's because of the fructose from the honey I think. Without that leg up, I think the odd flavor would have a harder time being accepted.

The flavor with the honey, smoke, almond and cream has the complexity and shifting balance of a good shot of Scotch or maybe Bourbon. It's not quite the same, but it's got a lot of the same flavor components. Each bite starts sweet cream with an undertone of savory smoke. That spreads through the mouth until you swallow and suddenly the smoke is to the fore with the sweet cream underneath. If you got a piece of brittle, the smoke, almond and crisp sugar mingle as you chew. I'm not sure I'm doing a great job of explaining here; it's complex and unusual so it's hard to put into words.

It's interesting that the flavor gets cruder as the ice cream melts until it's just bright honey and sharp smoke. When fully frozen, both of those are damped allowing the flavor of cream tea to tie them together I think.


Sarah C. said...

You nailed it when you said that it has the complexity and shifting balance of a good Scotch. I am surprised that I like this ice cream so much!

billjac said...

Honestly, I was surprised how much I liked it too. I didn't expect it to be good, but not so accessibly and straightforwardly tasty.