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Pistachio madness two ways

(plus a handful of other frozen yogurt ideas)

Homemade pistachio frozen yogurt, very low carb

It’s over 90 degrees most of the day in Pasadena, and I’ve gotten tired of looking at the limited selection of Dreyer’s (Edy’s east of the Rockies), Breyers, Haagen Daz, and Private Selection flavors with my daughter. It’s starting to get tedious, and they’ve dropped many of the classics for the cheapest possible quality candy-plus-ersatz-vanilla (note: their real vanillas are better). The forgotten classics were better-tasting, less dependent on goo and sweetened brown wax parading as chocolate or (if salted) peanut butter.

No supermarket ice cream brand in the non-superpremium range today offers rum raisin or pistachio worth considering anymore. It’s easy enough to doctor your own version with storebought vanilla ice cream and the aforementioned rum and raisins, but pistachio?

Pistachio used to be a standard ice cream flavor, didn’t it? Maybe I’m just getting old? Naah. Even in the ’70s when I was a kid, most of the “pistachio” ice cream around was already fake. I want the real thing, not the artificially green, mostly-vanilla-with-a-tinge-of-synthetic-almond kind.

And I want it low-fat for me and my husband and low-carb for my daughter (and us too, why not?) And I want it to taste delicious despite all that. Tall order? Actually, it’s easier than you’d think.

David Lebovitz has a Sicilian pistachio paste-based gelato in The Perfect Scoop, and he blogged about it a couple of years ago as well. He made it sound delicious, but also expensive and hard to find the ingredients for. Not that I’m against a trip to Sicily, except in July when it’s about as searing as LA (been there, done that, got the sunburn and the Fellini moments combined with heat exhaustion).

About the same time, a local gelateria owner in my area took much the same position on the utter superiority of Sicilian pistachios versus California ones for an interview in the LA Times. Which is lovely if you have a good source of Sicilian pistachios or pistachio paste at a decent price, but what if you don’t?

Most of the home-brew pistachio ice cream recipes I’ve seen in magazines, blogs and cookbooks call for adding significant amounts of heavy cream. Or else they involve large amounts of sugar. Or both. Yes, those recipes will give ice cream-like results, but they’re completely offtrack for what I need.

In my universe, good taste on a hot day shouldn’t mean losing your svelte, your cool or your wallet.

The nuts themselves are okay–pistachios, like most nuts and seeds, are very low carb and though high in calories from total fat, most of that is unsaturated. If I can keep the rest of the ingredients low fat and low carb and the stuff still tastes good, I’ll have it. Right?

So okay. I’ve been playing around with California pistachios and–not gelato, that requires making an egg-based custard and blending it with flavorings. Done it once or twice, and it worked, but it’s more work than I want to do most days. Or it used to be. Nowadays I’ve got the microwave moxie to make custard without so much work, but it’s still not what I want today. I want easy.

Frozen yogurt made with real yogurt is too tart to work with anything much but fruit unless you mix in some milk–and then it’s icier and freezes harder.

However, this summer I’ve been playing around with fat-free Greek yogurt as the base for a couple of different ices in small quantities. Greek yogurt varies a bit in nutritional stats from brand to brand, and it’s expensive, which is why I took so long to try it out. But the cheapest all-real (no gelatin) stuff–Trader Joe’s O% fat plain version–while still twice as expensive as the regular plain nonfat yogurt ($5 vs. $2.50 a quart), has considerably less carb, maybe only 7 grams of carb per cup as opposed to 17 for regular. And it has about twice the protein–22 grams per cup. It’s a lot thicker and less acidic, so I’m assuming they drained out a lot of the carb in the whey. And it makes really easy frozen yogurts that taste like something and aren’t overwhelmingly tart.

Just mix in your flavoring of choice (preferably not too watery) with some sugar, and you can still-freeze it within an hour or two. If you think the tang needs to be tamed further, a little milk mixed in works okay and it stays thick enough to freeze fairly gracefully.

The texture is never going to be like ice cream, not entirely. It still mixes up pretty hard and a little icy if you still-freeze it, but once you’ve got it thawed out to the point where you can dig out a serving, it tastes good and changes to a creamy texture as you eat it, something like khulfi. Higher-fat yogurt would break the iciness up a bit but would defeat my purpose of lowering the saturated fat to something I can handle.

And the heavy fats and sugars mask any delicate flavorings. Think Italian gelato (the real kind you get on the street in Florence, not the overpriced stuff you get in pints in the supermarket here) and you know that a lighter base allows you things like rose or ricotta or apricot or kiwi, or hazelnut, or four different highly refined grades of chocolate. If you want to taste anything delicate in your ice cream, you have to get the fats and sugars down enough not to overwhelm it.

Not that I’m entirely subtle. My favorite icier-textured frogurt for when it’s broiling out is mint–Greek yogurt, a couple of drops of mint extract, if that’s strong enough without tasting like postage stamps, and a tablespoon or so of sugar. Divvy it up into 2-4 paper cups or popsicle makers (small is okay for this), freeze. On a searingly hot day it’s pretty good, intensely flavored and refreshing, and its popsicle-style texture is fine with me.

For something like coffee frogurt, I really do want a creamier texture if I can get it. I finally figured I should just brew a little bit of triple-strength coffee so I can mix just a few spoonfuls into a cup of Greek yogurt, maybe with a few spoonfuls of milk, and still get strong enough flavor.

A spoonful or two of alcohol-based flavorings like rum, amaretto, even just vanilla extract can soften the hard-freeze effect, since the alcohol freezing point is lower than that for water.

Or you can add something protein or starch to the mix–egg custards and cornstarch are the usual route for gelati and standard commercial ice cream, but silken tofu and nonfat powdered dry milk also work to break up the ice crystals. Greek yogurt is providing most of the protein here and little water, and the carb is a lot less than for the powdered dry milk.

The last thing on my list, and it sounds either weird or completely obvious, is to add a fat–but I want something unsaturated. Oil? Yuck (though I have seen some olive oil ice creams flavored with basil or the like). But what about nut butters? Those, don’t laugh too hard, work pretty well and give the frozen yogurt a richness that feels like ice cream, only without big saturated fats or modifiers or xanthan gum or corn syrup solids or whatever. Plus they’re interesting flavors.

Halvah: I started with my trusty jar of tehina–sesame paste. It’s got almost all its fat in polyunsaturated form. A tablespoon in a cup of Greek yogurt, plus a tablespoon of sugar, stir, freeze, dig out a chunk–not so hard! And the flavor–kind of like frozen halvah. Very rich, though. Maybe I could get away with less tehina or more yogurt?

Chocolate halvah: I tried a chocolate version–also not bad–by adding two tablespoons of cocoa powder and an additional spoonful of sugar to the tehina/yogurt mix. Pretty good, but the tehina taste was definitely still there alongside the chocolate. Like chocolate marble halvah. You have to be a fan.

Peanut butter? Probably more Americans would like it than the tehina version. Go easy on the peanut butter; a good-tasting mix I once made with half a cup got way, way way too rich very quickly once it was frozen. Stick with a tablespoon or so per cup of yogurt. I’d use natural peanuts-only peanut butter, preferably the crunchy one, for the purest taste, limit the sugar and add a pinch of salt.

But really. I started out wanting pistachio, and that’s where I’m still going with this. Because I ended up with two, count ’em TWO, really good, really different variations on pistachio, and both of them were really easy, really low in saturated fat, and REALLY low-carb. And actively delicious, which is definitely the point.

California pistachios may not be the Sicilian ideal, but they taste pretty good for what they are.  TJ’s sells 8 oz of roasted unsalted ones for about 5 bucks. Not exactly cheap. Still, the shelling’s been done, and for a pint of finished frogurt, you only need an ounce of pistachios. Will that be enough to taste like something? Oh, yes.

The instructions for hazelnut-flavored (00h–gotta try that one next) creams  and ice creams usually call for steeping toasted crushed hazelnuts in hot cream or milk before making a custard. I set out to do the same thing with pistachios.

For the first try, I took about 2 tablespoons of the nuts, toasted them again very briefly to refresh the flavor, and ground them to a fine powder in my coffee grinder. Then I tipped them into a microwaveable coffee mug, added half a cup of skim milk and 2 tablespoons of brown sugar (which is what I had in the house), and nuked the mixture 30 seconds. It came out a thick pourable cream, not green per se but yellowish-tan and very fragrant. I had to let it cool to room temperature for longer than I thought, but maybe that helped the flavor develop.

Ground toasted pistachios steeping in hot milk

I mixed the cooled pistachio cream into a cup of Greek yogurt and tasted. Pistachio, strongly, but not as sweetly aromatic as it smelled–this is true of just eating them as well. Avocado-y more than sweet. More brown sugar–another tablespoon. And something was still missing. What? I caved. Amaretto, about 2 teaspoons, helped a lot and yet it didn’t detract from the pistachio-ness. Also a small pinch of salt, less than 1/8th teaspoon, and a very small dash of nutmeg, for that eggy, custardy suggestion that toasted pistachios always carry, and that was it.

It still needs tempering before you serve it, but it’s very creamy, very flavorful, and (as tested by my daughter), it’s pretty low in carb–70 grams or so, a little more than a standard 1/2 c. (60-63 g total weight) serving of Dreyer’s, was worth about 12 grams of carb. Which is less than the lightest commercial ice cream. And the saturated fat content is still very low because pistachios have mostly mono- and polyunsaturated fats. It’s not noncaloric, obviously, but it’s definitely doable and intensely pistachio. It won’t break your heart.

The SECOND pistachio madness came over me as soon as that batch was done. My daughter egged me on to do it again, so I started out the same way–only  this time I was thinking “Pistachio khulfi!” because I’d just made a channa masala dal the night before and I had a few cardamom pods left over.

I wanted more frozen yogurt this time, and I wanted it less acidic. So I took 3 cardamom pods and cracked the seeds into my coffee grinder, ground them with the ounce of toasted pistachios to fine powder, and microwaved that with about 2/3 c. milk, 2 T granulated sugar, and a spoonful of half-and-half–I’d decided that since there was more milk and the same ounce of pistachios, I needed a little more fat to keep things from being too icy, but I don’t know if it really made a difference. I steeped and cooled the thickened mixture 20 minutes or so, then mixed it gradually into 2 cups of Greek yogurt and tasted–1 more tablespoon of sugar, for a total of 3, was just right for the moment, even though I’d doubled both the milk and the yogurt in the end. The cardamom overtook the pistachio a little in this version but it made the scant amount of sugar sing harder for its supper. After eating the finished product once or twice, I think I’d add another tablespoon or two for something definitely sweeter, but at the time I was test tasting before freezing, it tasted good. The pistachio flavor is less pronounced than in the first version but still there. If you want it stronger (and maybe have the frogurt freeze a little less hard), you might increase the nuts back up to 3 or 4 T for the 2/3 c milk and 2 c yogurt.

Pistachio frozen yogurt "khulfi" with cardamom

Pistachio frozen yogurt makes about 1 1/2 c or four 70-g. servings worth about 12 g. carb each

  • 2 T freshly roasted (or briefly re-toasted) unsalted pistachios, finely ground
  • 2-3 T brown sugar
  • 1/2 c. skim milk
  • 1 c. plain fat-free Greek yogurt (Trader Joe’s is good)
  • 2 t amaretto or a few drops of almond flavoring
  • very small grinding of nutmeg
  • small pinch of salt

Toast and grind the pistachios to a fine powder. There might be a few larger chunks of pistachio left–that’s okay. Pour into a mug with the milk and brown sugar, stir and microwave 30 s or until thickened and starting to rise up the mug (don’t let it boil over the edge). Stir, cover and let steep until cool, about 20 minutes. Mix into the yogurt, add the amaretto or extract just to taste and stir in the nutmeg and salt. Freeze in an ice cream maker or still-freeze in a microwaveable container with a lid or in paper cups, as preferred. To still-freeze, stir the partially frozen mixture very well with a fork once the mixture starts to harden at the edges and return it to the freezer. This breaks up the forming ice crystals somewhat finer and gives the unfrozen mixture in the middle new “seed” sites to start freezing from so it’ll go a little faster. Do this a couple of times during the course of the 2 hours or so that it needs to freeze completely. You may need to temper it a bit before you eat–let it sit on the counter a few minutes to soften or microwave it 15-20 seconds, then stir well.

Pistachio Khulfi makes 3 c.

  • 1 oz. toasted unsalted pistachios (note: 2 oz if you want it more pronounced)
  • 2/3 c. skim milk (plus 1 T half-and-half, optional)
  • 2 c. thick fat-free Greek yogurt, low-carb version (TJs, 7 g/cup)
  • 3 T sugar (note: might add another 1-2 T if you want it sweeter)
  • seeds from 3 cardamom pods or 1/4 t. ground cardamom
  • v. small pinch nutmeg, optional

Toast the pistachios lightly to refresh, grind with cardamom seeds in a coffee grinder or the like until they’re a fine powder. Mix with the milk and sugar and microwave a minute, stir, microwave another 30 s to 1 minute until thickened. Stir, cover and steep 20 minutes until cooled. Mix gradually into the yogurt in a few additions, taste for sugar (should be lightly sweet and spicy, not very tart, and you should still be able to taste the pistachio in the background). Still-freeze either in a quart container OR–better, I think, for khulfi–pour into smallish paper cups or cone-shaped popsicle forms. Or freeze in an ice cream maker and then scoop into cones or cups. Temper by thawing slightly before serving, and garnish with crushed toasted pistachios if you want to go the whole way and make it look pretty. Cue the Bollywood dance numbers.

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