Tuesday, July 8, 2008

We all scream for ice cream. part two.

Several years ago I discovered butter caramels made with fleur de sel. They came from the île de Ré, and I had bought some of the sel de Ré a little while before. (The salt had large, coarse crystals, unlike the flaky Maldon salt that I began using much later, and which I still use to this day). The caramels were sweet and buttery, with the sharp contrast of the sea salt intensifying the flavors, and they were instantly addictive. I left a trail of those little blue-and-white wrappers wherever I went, and when they disappeared from the shelves of Williams-Sonoma, I was inconsolable. Years went by. A blog (written by a couple whom I had met at the Lark Whole Beast Supper) mentioned a recipe for a Salted Butter Caramel ice cream (which they used to fill profiteroles served with a mocha sauce). The recipe came from David Lebovitz, who was a pastry chef at Chez Panisse and who now lives in Paris. I took note of the idea of salted butter caramel ice cream and filed it away in that part of my brain called Delicious Things To Try (Someday, When I Have The Equipment), but did not take it seriously until G. mentioned it as her latest ice cream experiment.

Finally, I broke down and bought my own ice cream machine. After a brief flirtation with vanilla ice cream, just to see how my cute little ice cream maker worked, it was time to really go for it and confront my deepest fear: making caramel. I don't know why, but I have a fear of burning sugar. It's not as though I have any aversion to setting things on fire, but I have always had trouble with the concept of melting sugar. Often it would burn, or stick to where I didn't want it to stick, or it was a pain in the ass to clean off the pots and utensils and the trail of rock-hard caramel droplets trailing across the floor and countertops. But my desire to play with my new ice cream maker won out, and soon I had everything laid out and ready to go: cream, milk, butter, eggs, vanilla, and of course, sugar. Spatulas and whisks littered every surface; sugar made the floor gritty underfoot. Oh well.

First: the caramel praline. The sugar was poured into a heavy saucepan, set over medium heat. I ran around cleaning up the kitchen, separating eggs, dividing the milk, making an ice bath for the custard. The sugar began to melt, and I stirred it carefully. The color deepened, and I took it to the edge of burnt before sprinkling it with some finely crushed sea salt and pouring it over one of those silicone baking sheets. It was beautiful. Then came the caramel custard base: more sugar, melting slowly into a pool of dark caramel. Again, I pushed it almost to the edge of being burnt, then added the butter, which melted and foamed as I stirred it in. I poured in the cream, which fizzled madly; first the caramel seized into fat globs, then slowly melded with the cream into a smooth, butterscotch mass. I added milk, tempered in the eggs, cooked it all until it thickened across the back of a spoon. I strained it all into more cold milk, whisked it together, tasted it. It was good. It was heartbreaking that I would have to wait almost an entire day before this creamy goodness could be turned into ice cream, but patience is its own reward, or something.

Throughout the day I kept thinking of my tub of custard, waiting for me at home. I practically shot out the door exactly eight hours after I had walked in, almost ran all the way home, and once inside my apartment breathlessly tossing aside backpack, jacket, shoes, mail, a visible trail down the hallway. Grabbing the plastic tub of ice-cream mixture I dipped another spoon in - it was smooth and cold and ever so faintly bittersweet - and started up the ice cream maker. While it churned away I smashed the praline into bits with a sherry bottle that happened to be standing on the counter (I couldn't find the rolling pin), and I waited until the creamy custard definitely looked like ice cream before I stirred it in. The tiny shards of caramel swirled into the golden-brown depths; I turned it off, removed the cover, the plastic dasher, dipped another spoon in - I am almost out of spoons now - and fell straight into heaven. (At this point I realize that the front door is still open).

It always seems a bit of a miracle when I produce something absolutely delicious in the kitchen. I wonder, could I really have made something so wonderful, me, with my bare hands and my propensity for wreaking havoc just about anywhere I go? I can hardly wait to make more ice cream, but I am out of freezer space. I can just imagine all the possibilities before me.

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