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Ice cream, enhanced

Sometimes your kid sees a new flavor of Dreyer’s ice cream at the store and decides she has to try it because “It’s Black Raspberry, Mom!” and it’s on sale. But mostly because it’s a trendy light purple (“Orchid or thistle?” I asked, calling on my distant memories of the Binney & Smith guide to the universe.  “Lavender” she retorted. I caved to her superior fashion sense.) It was made with real raspberries–that’s a plus, I suppose. And it came in a “half-the-fat” version, and it was enough on sale that I could get a safety flavor as well.

It’s been over 100 degrees here in Pasadena this week, so ice cream is practically a medical supply.

When we got it home though, it tasted sweet and kind of dull. The fruit flavor was there but not particularly strong, and the overall effect–particularly the smell, for some reason–reminded me suddenly of those horrible “berry-flavored” motion sickness lozenges my mother used to foist on us just before long car trips. Bonamine? I’m still shuddering forty years later.

My daughter, blissfully free of Bonamine-induced associations, still thought it had merit, though, so we kept the lavender-tinted ice cream and I wondered whether anyone else would eat it without having to be threatened. What was wrong with it and could it possibly be fixed?

I’ve been potschkying around with store bought ice cream pretty much ever since I was old enough to buy it for myself–adding extra cocoa powder and some mint or almond extract to chocolate, leftover coffee and cinnamon to vanilla, and on and on. Not many people do this, or do this enough, I’ve discovered. You have to wonder why not, because most non-super premium ice cream in America is a little, or a lot, bland.

In fact, the only flavor I never messed with was Ben & Jerry’s Coffee Heath Bar Crunch, which was perfect and sublime and needed no help ever, other than a spoon. My husband and I were such devotees that when we had a chance to spend a late-summer week in Vermont and New Hampshire one year (way back when, in our 20s), we made sure to stop in at the factory in Stowe for a tour. CHBC was such a supreme flavor that I only gave it up when Ben and Jerry both retired and a new CEO took over. Somehow, the next pint I bought tasted a little off–weak on coffee flavor or something, hmmm…I looked at the ingredients and sure enough, they’d changed the formula and flavorings. It had also been monoglycerided down, even though the fat count was still in the stratosphere. I’m sure my ice cream snobbery saved me from a decade of extra arterial damage, but I’ve been sullen and resentful ever since (or at least that’s the explanation this week).

So anyway–back to the prosaic purple ice cream. It needed something–tartness–to liven it up, and probably would have been better as a frozen yogurt. Come to think of it, would yogurt work? Naah. Messy. Plus refreezing time. Lemon? Maybe, maybe not–it might end up seeming too sweet. Then I found a lime in the fridge–from who knows how many weeks ago; it had already lost its green, but it was still fine inside. Sometimes where lemon’s pure acidity underscores the sweetness and makes it more apparent, lime’s aromatic edge undercuts it and makes the flavor seem fresher. Works for ginger ale, works for blueberry jam…

A squeeze, a stir–from lavender to…raspberry pink (what else?) and I have to say, a BIG improvement in flavor. Much more like actual black raspberry. That’s all it took? Why couldn’t they have done that at the ice cream factory? But they didn’t.

I have another reason for punching up my storebought ice creams, and it’s not just boredom or fidgetiness (though those are obviously tops).

A long-ago-and-far-away gelato-eating expedition in Florence (it didn’t start out that way, but it’s the fulltime occupation in the summer–even more of a medical necessity when you’re wandering outside all day as a tourist) taught me the difference between Italian and American standards for ice creams: Americans expect big portions and don’t really pay attention to the flavor. Bland and sweet is acceptable. Italians are happy enough with small 1/3 cup portions as long as the flavors are wild and adventurous and vivid. If you can taste it well with one of those tiny gelato spoons, a gram at a time, it’ll last you.

Makes you wonder whether the lack of flavor punch in American ice cream (and maybe our other food as well) is the reason we typically eat biggish portions at a sitting, or seek out seconds. If it doesn’t taste like much, you eat it without paying attention, and end up not feeling like you’ve really eaten it. Interesting and vivid flavor seems like a good idea for health and portion control as well as pleasure–if you’re going to have ice cream, after all, you may as well taste it. Otherwise you could just suck on ice cubes.

So–a few suggestions for upping the flavor of store bought ice creams.

Go for plain flavors as your base

Try to find ones that are relatively low in carb and fat for a half-cup serving. Low here means about 15 grams of carb per half-cup, and maybe 2-3 grams of saturated fat.

Not only don’t the dressed-up flavors with loads of mix-ins need (or take well to) further tinkering at home, they’re not always as high in quality. Dreyer’s (Edy’s on the east coast), seems to try to keep the nutrition stats consistent across the line–ice creams with lots of mix-ins and/or caramel-type ribbon swirl are a bit higher in carb, up to maybe 22 grams per serving.

To keep things consistently low, though, the components or the ice cream itself have to compensate–so Reese’s Cup-style peanut butter and chocolate chip swirl has iffy peanut butter and iffier quality chocolate chips (well, so do the real Reese’s ™–don’t know whether authenticity is such a good thing in this case), plus the ice cream’s a bit icy, maybe even a little stale-tasting on occasion. You’d get more intense flavor from vanilla bean ice cream with a few squares of good dark chocolate chopped in and some peanuts or a bit of peanuts-only peanut butter.

Make flavors you can’t buy

Sometimes these are ones you grew up with, like Rum Raisin–I think only Haagen Daz still makes this. People got kind of prissy about feeding ice cream with rum flavoring in it to kids, I guess. Or raisins got too expensive.  So did pistachios, except in super premium ice creams.

No one makes ginger, or lemon-ginger, even though I’m pretty sure those were two of Bon Appétit‘s and Gourmet‘s big summer standbys for at least a decade (and I know because I once bought a decade’s worth of each magazine from my friends-of-the-library auxiliary at about a dime an issue. The seasons change, the same 10 recipes repeat…)

And no one makes Sabra (chocolate orange), or fig, or liquorice, or marzipan, or rose. Or pear. Or chocolate hazelnut with sour cherries.  Or even just plain bittersweet chocolate. There are home recipes for all of these if you have an ice cream maker, but you might try starting with a commercial ice cream and just blending in the flavors you like.

One benefit to this don’t-do-it-all-yourself scheme–if it’s Dreyer’s or Breyer’s, and probably if it’s any decent commercial brand that’s not super premium high-fat, the ice cream will be sweet enough without upping the carb significantly (unless your modification includes big fruit, candy, jams, cookies or other carb-laden mix-ins, I mean).

This is a serious point for us, since my daughter’s diabetic and too young for me to consider sugar substitutes. Homemade ice creams made with ordinary table sugar are a lot more challenging to keep limited in carbs and still get them to taste overtly sweet. Until I tried it several times, I never really appreciated the engineering efforts of the commercial ice cream producers. Engineering is usually a dirty word among foodies, unless they’ve gone molecular. But in this case, it’s a genuine benefit.

Intensify a plain flavor

Is this too obvious? Maybe not. “Vanilla” seems plain until you enhance it with some extra vanilla at home. Chocolate in the tub is pretty light, but you can get to Valrhona intensity by adding cocoa powder and a bit of extra vanilla and/or some brewed coffee (and not extra sugar). Coffee–extra-fine ground coffee beans or coffee crystals will add texture as well as depth. Mint chip–the green stuff or the white, I’m not really a snob that far–a little extra mint extract, not enough to taste like a postage stamp (am I dating myself now that they’re not lickable anymore?)

So anyway, now we’ve got the theory down, here are…

Some combos worth trying:

Sopaipilla: vanilla bean ice cream, drizzle of honey, cinnamon (and possibly cornflakes if you have and like them)

Rum raisin (kinda): vanilla bean ice cream, raisins (obviously), almond extract or rum if you have it–just enough to flavor (2 drops extract, maybe a spoonful of rum per serving)

Chocolate raspberry: chocolate ice cream, optional extra cocoa powder, crushed frozen raspberries or some raspberry jam.

Chocolate strawberry: add fresh sliced or crushed frozen strawberries (jam won’t really do it for this one, it’s too sugary and not fresh enough).

Piña colada: vanilla bean ice cream, pineapple chunks, coconut flakes, rum

Pistachio: vanilla bean or French vanilla ice cream, toasted ground unsalted pistachios (maybe even ground to a paste so you can get more flavor out of the nuts), almond extract (go light on this), possibly a pinch of salt

Pistachio khulfi: toasted ground unsalted pistachios, grinding of green cardamom, dab or two of dulce de leche or caramel sauce if you have it

Ice café (Israeli version):  cup of hot or cold brewed coffee, scoop of vanilla bean ice cream floated in it.

Azar Nafisi’s version: vanilla bean ice cream, coffee poured over, toasted walnuts or almonds (taken from her description in Reading Lolita in Tehran, but I’m not sure what she actually does with the coffee or how much she pours on. I think it’s a small amount poured over the ice cream rather than a full mug of coffee, but who knows. To each her own.)

Cappuccino: vanilla bean ice cream, drizzle of very strong cold coffee poured over and stirred in (and possibly refrozen to keep it from melting down to nothing), sprinkle of cinnamon.

Mocha: coffee ice cream, cocoa powder OR chocolate ice cream, coffee powder.

Jamocha Almond Chunk: coffee ice cream (Dreyer’s 1/2 the fat is the best I’ve tasted recently, and at about 15 g carb and 100 calories per half cup, that’s saying something), toasted unsalted almonds, chopped dark chocolate.

Ginger, lemon-ginger: vanilla bean ice cream, grated fresh or chopped candied ginger, squeeze of lime juice and/or grating of lemon peel.

Lemon: vanilla bean ice cream, lemon juice, grated lemon peel

Sabra: chocolate ice cream (or vanilla, your preference), cocoa powder, grated orange peel  or orange marmalade.

Fig: French vanilla, chopped dried figs soaked up in a bowl with a little hot water and a little sherry, madeira, or orange juice in the microwave.

Pear: vanilla bean ice cream, pears lightly microwaved or grilled with a bit of brown sugar, tiny grating or pinch of nutmeg

Marzipan or Amaretto: vanilla bean ice cream, almond extract plus toasted almonds, maybe a sprinkling of demerara sugar (“sugar in the raw” or brown large-crystal sugar)

Chai: vanilla bean ice cream, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon

Liquorice: I’d say soak some prunes in hot water in the microwave, add fresh- ground aniseed, purèe and mix into vanilla bean ice cream. Molasses and aniseed or anisette also work well to produce that bittersweet edge of black liquorice.

Rose: blend a VERY SMALL amount of rosewater into vanilla ice cream. You don’t want it soapy, just suggestive of roses. Add a good squeeze of lemon juice too–this is pretty important in cutting the potential for soapiness. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios.

Sacher torte: chocolate ice cream, optional extra cocoa powder, chopped dark chocolate, apricot jam.

Dark chocolate hazelnut with sour cherries, AKA the Fellini Special (named for the restaurant in Charlottesville, VA, where I had this) : Oy. My favorite, favorite. Either chocolate or vanilla bean ice cream, blended in the food processor until really dark with a hefty amount of cocoa powder, a drizzle of frangelico if you have it. Mix in freshly toasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped dark chocolate, and some dried sour cherries soaked up with a little bit of boiling water, and freeze until firm.

And then there’s the ultimate party piece–it takes a day or so to make because you have to freeze each layer well before adding the next:

Ice Cream Bombe: 3-4 different flavors of ice cream softened and layered successively into a salad bowl or other suitable mold, with things like apricot jam, chopped nuts, crushed cookies and chocolate ganache sandwiched between one layer and the next. To unmold, dip the container in water a few seconds, put a large plate over it and invert it quickly. Spread fudge sauce or ganache over the top, sprinkle nuts etc., and refreeze. Cut in wedges to serve. Dip the cutting knife in hot water between slices.

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