It’s been hot for the past week and a half or so in the Bay Area. Really hot. I’ve hit the pool every day, and I’ve avoided using the stove, eating salads, bread, cheese and charcuterie for dinner instead. Last weekend, I was going to make a watermelon, feta and mint salad to bring to a BBQ, but the mint at all the farmers’ markets looked pretty pathetic (I guess the heat got to the mint as well) so I had to ditch that plan. I decided going to grill some peaches and make a raspberry sauce… hmmm, what else would go with that ? Ice cream! I hadn’t made a batch of ice cream nearly all summer. Shameful, right? Then I remembered my mental bookmark of David Lebovitz’s salted butter caramel ice cream. I was unsure of making an ice cream involving molten sugar, but since he declared that it was better than Berthillon’s (the best ice cream I have ever had; Birite in San Francisco makes a reasonable facsimile) and it would be some time before I returned to Paris, I decided what the hell. Besides, the idea of finding parking and enduring the line at Birite (18th and Guerrero!) was more than a little daunting.
Like all great recipes, this one kept its ingredients simple – just cream, milk, eggs, sugar, salted butter, salt (preferably fleur de sel) and vanilla. I had all the ingredients on hand, except the butter (I only keep unsalted in the house). I wanted to try Vermont Butter and Cheese Co.’s but the Kerrygold at Trader Joe’s was the most convenient option. I also used Strauss milk and cream (I don’t like their butter, though. Tastes like movie popcorn butter to me), and Marin Sun Farms eggs. Have you tried Marin Sun Farms eggs? I will drive out to the SF Ferry Building and brave all the tourists on Saturdays just to buy their eggs. They’re that good. The only other eggs that I have had that were better were from a really eccentric and flaky vendor at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market called B&B, but I haven’t seen them there in quite some time.
The recipe comes in two parts. The first is a basic praline (to stir into the churned ice cream), and the second is the ice cream custard. Since you have to let the custard chill overnight, you don’t have to make the praline until later. A molten sugar incident that left me with bandages all over my face for the summer and drove me to seek the advice of a plastic surgeon has heightened my sunscreen obsession exponentially and made me hypervigilant about dealing with molten sugar now. I studied all of the comments and links left on David’s recipe entry including his tips about making caramel, and followed every instruction to a t. I premeasured out all the ingredients and neatly set up the mise. I even made an ice bath, a step I had ignored in the past when melting sugar.
As I began to make the praline, I remembered… I had actually done this many, many times before, when I went through an obsession with preparing tarte tatin. A few years ago, I made 1-2 tarte tatins a week from the end of summer to the beginning of spring. After the molten sugar incident, I guess I had blocked it out! Anyways, caramelizing sugar for a praline is a lot easier (and safer!) than melting sugar to a soft ball stage for italian buttercream. Basically, you heat the sugar in an even layer over moderate heat in a large, heavy duty saucepan. As the edges begin to melt, you stir the outside melted sugar towards the inside. As soon as it all dissolves and turns golden, you IMMEDIATELY, without even blinking, sprinkle in some salt and pour it into a silpat lined cookie sheet. Don’t wait around once it dissolves and turns brown; the sugar contines to cook, caramelize and burn after you turn off the heat and even on the cookie sheet. Don’t stick your fingers in the sugar until you are certain that it’s cooled, and don’t touch the underside of the cookie sheet. Once it is cool, break off a little of the praline and taste it to make sure it isn’t burnt. I had to try three times before I got it right. Luckily, this is a pretty quick and easy process, and only involves half a cup of sugar.
Making the custard also involves caramelizing some sugar, but instead of pouring it out, you add the butter and salt to the pot. This is actually a little easier than making the praline – there’s more of a margin of error since the addition of the butter slows down the cooking process and prevents the sugar from burning. Once the butter is melted, you add the cream, then half of the milk. It will definitely seize up. So much so that the first time, I freaked out a little – “Omigod! I ruined the recipe! Aaah!” – and wound up sloshing the cream all over my kitchen. So, carefully whisk in the cream, and just continue stirring it over the stove. Make sure you scrape the bottom of the pot. The newly formed lumps (or gigantic hunk) of caramelized sugar will eventually dissolve. Then you temper the egg yolks, and pour the custard through a strainer into a bowl containing the rest of the milk set over an ice bath. The strainer doesn’t just strain out the curdled eggs – remember those seized lumps of sugar? That’s the point at which you realize, “oh, David is so smart!”. Cool the custard in the refrigerator overnight before churning. My pastry chef friend says that this allows the flavors to mingle, deepen and ripen.
While the ice cream churns, crush the praline into confetti sized pieces. David says he uses a mortar and pestle, but he suggests using a rolling pin. I didn’t feel like dirtying any more dishes, so I crushed it with my hands by rolling it up in the silpat and cracking it as small pieces as I could. Then, I used the butt of an empty wine bottle to bash it up some more. Add it to the ice cream in the last five minutes of churning. Because of the salt, this ice cream is pretty loose, so freeze it for a few more hours once it’s done churning. You might want to crank up the freezer to help it harden.
The verdict? Unanimous approval, even from Zack, who doesn’t even like Birite’s salted caramel ice cream.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” he asks as he POLISHES OF THE CONTAINER.
“Like I’m doing something really awful, and you’re going to kill me!”
Um, sweetie, you are, and I am!