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Ice Cream Therapy

Chocolate Cherry frozen yogurt

Just in time for my daughter’s return last week from college in a part of the northeast where it was still snowing in May, Pasadena entered its first major heat wave of the year–and our AC broke down in honor of the occasion. Fun times!

Today’s topic, as last year and the year before, when I first started this post (and then got side-tracked with all the college application stuff and the very unpleasantly named FAFSA)… and every year at this time, once the heat starts hitting town, is ice cream. Well, ice cream and a couple of lighter, more flavorful and frugal home-brew variations because that’s what’s uppermost on my wishlist, other than cooler air here and cooler heads everywhere. So anyway, imagine it’s two summers ago, not now, for at least the next two parts of this adventure…

Gelato

It started with gelato.

Right before the fourth of July two years ago, I found out that I could take my daughter’s sharps containers to a local sheriff’s office for disposal instead of having to drive to the CleanLA site in west Glendale (not a nice area, and the guys in white hazmat suits make you stay in your car and pop the trunk. They’re not mean about it but it’s still unnerving). When I looked up the Altadena sheriff’s office online, the map showed an unexpected gem across the main street: Bulgarini Gelato, which in 12 or so years of operation and despite its tiny size has become nationally known in the food world.

A friend has been after me for years to visit and try their pistachio gelato, insisting that it’s the real thing because they use Sicilian pistachios and it’s all natural (you know the kind of friend who speaks in italics). Despite or possibly because of how holistic she made it sound, I’d never gotten over there.

It’s a shame, in a way, because Bulgarini is the living result of a rescue operation–the owners did an apprenticeship in Italy to learn the old-style from-scratch processes for making real gelato, just as all the old guys were retiring and all the gelato shops were going to factory-made, synthetically flavored powdered mixes.

My husband and I had been to Italy… 25? can it be? years ago for a conference (the only way we could have afforded it then), when real gelato was still available. We quickly figured out how to order anything at one of the bustling gelaterie in Florence: sharpen your elbows and your tongue, know which of the 30 or 40–or more–flavors you want (spinach? avocado? rose? fior di latte? kiwi? cassata?), get to the front of the throng and have your money ready, because it’s gonna cost you. But a tiny cup–at an outrageous 3000 lire (right before the Euro took over)–held two or three distinctive flavors you ate with a tiny spoon and that didn’t melt as fast as ice cream, so you had more time to keep tasting as you wandered around the city, taking in the sights.

Bulgarini was almost the opposite experience. At mid-afternoon on a hot July day, the whole shopping plaza was silent and dusty and it took some time to locate the gelato shop in a group of new indie businesses off to the side of the deserted RiteAid. The gelateria was dead quiet, just a few customers trickling in at a time, though steadily. No need for elbows or decisiveness. Leo Bulgarini, the owner and artisan gelato maker, stood to the side with his arms folded, not saying anything as he supervised the girl behind the counter, who spoke a tiny amount of English and was obviously pretty new. There were only ten or twelve flavors in the case, reasonable for handmade in such a small shop, and none of them spinach or avocado–also reasonable, since most customers here probably wouldn’t be ready to chance them.

As in Florence, the prices on the chalkboard were authentically astronomical–the smallest cup was $7 for up to two flavors, plus an extra dollar for the Sicilian pistachio. Which I got anyway because that was the mission, even though I kind of gulped as I forked over a twenty, and asked that the second flavor be nocciola–hazelnut. I figured the super-dark chocolate and the fruit flavors were things I already knew I liked, and they might clash or overwhelm the subtleties of pistachio. The hazelnut would be just different enough to be interesting as well as a test of truth in flavor, because chocolate and fruit are easier to be convincing about and because commercial hazelnut flavoring tends to be disappointing–oversweetened and often synthetic.

In any case, I tasted and was floored. Really floored, but too shy in that environment to say anything.

When the silence threatened to become extra-awkward, I ducked out into the shaded courtyard and tasted it again. The Oregon hazelnut was so clean, so crisp, so exactly and precisely hazelnut and nothing else–not faint, not sweet or faked with extracts or overdressed in any way–that it was actually more impressive and possibly more Italian than the Sicilian pistachio that followed. The texture was right too–slightly stretchy, not super-rich, and it didn’t melt right away, so there was time to eat it in small experimental tastes.

Was it worth seven or eight bucks for a 3-4-ounce serving? There’s no way I could make a habit of it–it really is too expensive for a snack. But for a special occasion, the real thing is worth a try. My husband was overscheduled for his birthday that year, and we were away the next, but he’s just going to have to clear his slate so I can drag him back before his next birthday. Maybe tomorrow, actually.

Ice cream parlor ice cream

A few weeks after the Bulgarini experience, we flew east to see my mom and do college tours in Boston and then hung out with my sister in Maine. After a day or so of dank heat we finally admitted it was more than we could handle–what can I say, we’ve gone soft since moving to the land of 10% humidity or less. We gave in to temptation that afternoon and sampled hand-cranked ice cream at a local ’50s-style ice cream parlor. There was an impressive list of flavors on the chalkboard–easily more than 40, including licorice, various berries and several different variations on chocolate, caramel and coffee. We all liked it well enough, but I was the only one who got something other than your basic oversized milk-chocolate-caramel-cappuccino.

I came away with an important realization: Ginger just isn’t as common as it should be, it’s a great flavor that really deserves a comeback. But it shouldn’t be stuck in sweet, bland basic vanilla superpremium ice cream that’s starting to drip before you even get out the door. Even after I told the girl at the counter to give me only half the softball-sized scoop she was aiming at my cone, and she complied, puzzled that anyone would ask for less instead of more, it was just way too much. My husband went for two flavors, two full scoops. I’m still not sure how he possibly managed it, and I was watching (queasily). Oy. Boys are just into stunt portions is how I explain it.

When we got back home to California, our cat was fine, the kitchen hadn’t crawled away, and reality sat waiting on the doorstep: school was only a couple of weeks down the road and it was hot here too–though not as humid, at least. I suggested ice cream (light, not Haagen-Daz)–and my daughter glared; after the excess version from Maine, she was trying not to, which was probably smart for all of us.

The skinny versions

If you can’t get to Altadena or Maine, and you’re not sure a $5+ pint of ersatz supermarket gelato is the real experience (it isn’t) or you want a flavor that’s not so predictable, you can make gelato yourself for not very much money. Cookbooks from the 1990s abound with recipes (though probably not the spinach or rose flavors), and you might be able to find a Brazilian recipe for avocado ice cream online.

The basic idea for gelato is to make an egg and milk custard and blend it with fruit, nut pastes or other flavorings before freezing. Some use cornstarch in addition to or as a substitute for some of the eggs, and that’s as traditional as all-eggs in some parts of Italy. The base ingredients are inexpensive either way.

Bulgarini gave a local magazine a recipe for his cherimoya gelato several years ago, with a custard of 4 cups whole milk, 4 egg yolks, about half a cup of sugar (100 g) and about 2 cups of chopped cherimoya fruit, or the same amount of peaches with some added lemon juice.

Given that I’ve made pastry cream, flan, quiche and other similar custard mixtures successfully in a microwave, I was inclined to do something like the microwave pastry cream from the emergency éclairs recipe. My recipe is only about 2 cups, half as much as Bulgarini’s custard, but reasonably easy to double if you want. I use skim milk and limit the yolks because I’m trying hard to limit the dietary badness, so my results come out icier and I don’t really mind as long as it’s cold and it tastes good.

You can keep my version as-is but with less flour or use Bulgarini’s proportions of 1 yolk per cup of milk and skip the flour–actually, I’d recommend cornstarch instead, and less of it, because my versions came out a bit gluey once I froze them, and I had to break them up and blend them with more milk in the food processor to fix it. And use whatever milk you want, as long as it won’t separate under heat. Just don’t use cream–the whole point of gelato is that with less butterfat than ice cream, the flavor shines through more cleanly and the gelato also doesn’t melt as fast.

Microwave the milk first in the microwave to the point where it starts to seethe upward, then whisk it into the sugar plus thickener (egg, starch, or both), in a bowl, microwave the whole again half a minute or a minute at a time and whisking to keep it smooth as it thickens. It will work as long as you’re paying attention to the results–any microwaving requires cook’s judgment and a little improvisation.

Also, I’ve found that you can just heat the milk to a simmer in a microwaveable bowl with the sugar and flour or cornstarch (if using) already in it and whisked in prior to heating. You just have to stop and whisk  every minute or so into heating so you don’t get a thickened ring of starch at the bottom of the bowl. Then whisk the yolks in one by one, so you don’t need an extra bowl, and reheat to cook and thicken the custard. Bear in mind that 4 cups of liquid will take longer to heat to a simmer, maybe twice as long as for 2 cups.

Once the custard is done to your way of thinking, it’s thickened enough to coat a spoon, cool it in the fridge or–faster by far–over an ice bath (pour into a snaplock container, stick it on a sheet pan with some ice cubes and water around it).

Then flavor it: blend it in a food processor with about half as much fruit, or with 2-3 ounces of nut paste (pistachio, toasted hazelnut, etc.) or with spoonful-type amounts, to taste, of selected flavorings like rosewater, vanilla, liqueur, cocoa powder, espresso (liquid if you can stand iciness; powder if you’d rather minimize that), almond extract or amaretto, lemon or orange peel, grated ginger, etc. Chill and freeze in an ice cream maker or still-freeze it.

As noted above, my first attempt at this was for coffee gelato using the microwave pastry cream recipe for éclairs. Even though I brew coffee strong enough to glue anyone’s eyelids open, the water in the coffee was enough to create ice crystals and the flour thickener, fine for actual pastry cream, made it seem slightly gummy when the custard was frozen. So I broke up the hardened mass and blended it with a bit of extra milk and retasted and refroze it, and that seemed to fix the texture–it was still a bit icy but finer-grained, and  it wasn’t gluey anymore.

My next attempts–same recipe base, flour and all, you’d think I’d learn–were for pistachio and lemon/yogurt/ginger, and they had the same gumminess problem from the flour. So I fixed them the same way, blending with a bit of extra milk and refreezing.

My skim milk versions are never quite gelato; they’re more like ice milk, but less sweet, I suppose. They’re good enough for us at home and light enough in fat and carb counts for a reasonable serving not to set off alarm bells or make us feel bloated. The microwave pastry cream base is really fast and it definitely works, but I’m pretty sure it would be better to cut the flour from an ounce/30 grams per 2 cups of milk to something substantially less, maybe a tablespoon or 15 grams, or just leave it out and use an extra egg yolk.

Chocolate Frogs

Ever since a quick post I did last summer on saving end-of-summer berries, in part by washing and freezing them and maybe stirring them into Greek yogurt for insta-freeze frozen yogurt, I have made several more light-on-carb-and-fat frogurt recipes, mostly chocolate-based ones, no eggs or flour involved, heavy on the cocoa powder, light on the sugar, and you don’t need to heat anything up. Strictly stir-and-freeze using a hand whisk or a couple of forks for blending right in the container, and they’re surprisingly intense and refreshing. But they’re not old-style acidic thanks to both the Greek yogurt and the addition of milk.

Chocolate frogurt is obviously not ice cream but it’s pretty good for what it is, and the intense flavors make a little go a long way. The general amounts below make about a pint, maybe a little more or less, and we can generally get 4 to 6 half-cup/2-inch cube/~75-gram chunks out of it. I excuse myself for such departures from sensible living by figuring that it’s a fun way to use up the last bit of a quart of yogurt without having to work hard, the total carb is about 12 or so grams a serving, pretty reasonable for half a cup, with nothing fake.

Chocolate Cherry Frogurt

Stir the last inch or so, say 4-8 ounces, of a large ~32-oz. carton of Trader Joe’s or other milk-and-cultures-only plain nonfat Greek yogurt with about the same amount of skim milk, two-ish tablespoons of sugar but 4-5 tablespoons of cocoa, plus a few drops each of vanilla and almond extract or a spoonful of amaretto or brewed coffee together in the bottom of the yogurt container until the cocoa mixes into the yogurt smoothly and the whole thing is thickened.

Taste–obviously. I like things pretty bittersweet but you might like them more mellow; adjust as you see fit. If it’s pale and not chocolate enough for you, add a little more cocoa and maybe a spoonful of brewed or a couple of pinches of powdered coffee ; if it’s too dusty-tasting, add a spoonful of sugar and a little more milk and beat it again. If it’s looking pale with dark cocoa spots as well as tasting dusty and bitter from cocoa, stirring a little more and adding sugar will also help integrate the cocoa powder. Either way it will darken somewhat once you freeze it.

Drop in a large handful of frozen pitted (!!!) cherries, 20 or so, and stir. The frozen fruit will start the yogurt mixture freezing, especially if you’ve kept it in the plastic yogurt container, which acts as an insulator. Then just pop the lid back on and freeze the carton. Check on it in about half an hour and stir up the solid bits into the still-liquid center and refreeze. OR you could just divide the mixture up into servings before freezing by spooning it into small 3-ounce paper Dixie cups or popsicle holders for paletas, and then you don’t need to stir.

To serve from the quart container, if it’s solidified hard, thaw a few minutes or, after checking that there’s no remnant of the original foil seal stuck to the top of the yogurt container, microwave 15-30 seconds, just enough so you can get a knife or fork through to divide it.

Variations to mix in

With a great chocolate frog base, you can probably come up with plenty of variations, but here are a couple of my current favorites.

  • Frozen raspberries
  • 5-6 large sliced fresh and very-ripe strawberries, which doesn’t have the insta-freeze factor the way pre-frozen cherries do, but ends up tasting pretty good. Maybe sugar the strawberry slices very lightly and let them sit a few minutes to macerate before stirring them in.
  • A dollop or so of thick-cut orange marmalade. The syrup keeps it from freezing as hard as the strawberries in the first variation, and the flavor combination of orange peel with the intense chocolate frogurt base is a classic.
  • A good handful of toasted hazelnuts–I like the texture of whole ones better than chopped or crushed (of course I tested both dutifully). Plus, and this is what does it, either the marmalade or some shredded or grated organic orange peel (another good reason to buy organic oranges when you can–just wash well, save the peel and throw it in a baggie in the freezer for later). This one is just decadent and goes equally well with darker and lighter chocolate intensities.

Mangia bene and stay cool…

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