Making ice cream doesn’t require a fancy electric ice cream maker, or even an old-fashioned hand-cranked one like the one I use, but a freezer is most definitely necessary. (Of course, ice cream has been around a lot longer than electric freezers, but that’s a post for another day.) Today, frozen food is so cheap and readily available that we often forget what a luxury it once was to simply have ice. Indeed, the notion that we now have machines to make frozen water seems both appalling and magical; what culture could be both so lazy and inspired as to invent a device for such a simple end? And yet ice machines and their kitchen brethren – immersion blenders, coffee makers, and the rest – make a range of small, simple pleasures readily and widely accessible.* Chief among these simple pleasures, of course, is ice cream.
In Japan, I found the national obsession with sofuto kurimu (soft cream, aka soft-serve ice cream) a little perplexing. The stuff was gummy and airy and tended to stay solid much longer than seemed natural, much like the plasticized goo pumped out by ice cream trucks across New York City every summer. I’ll admit here that I ate and heartily enjoyed a Mister Softee cone plastered with garish rainbow sprinkles not so long ago. That’s mostly just nostalgia kicking in, though.
I eventually came to realize that soft serve’s popularity in Japan was perhaps directly related to its strange, otherworldly texture; after all, this is a culture where okra and raw egg and natto and tororo are all enjoyed together in happy, slippery harmony. Just as Americans are enthralled with crunch, the Japanese are obsessed with the nebulous texture known as neba neba, or sticky-slimy (usually with a touch of goo for good measure). In this context, sofuto kurimu actually starts to make some sense – it’s simply a stop along the frozen dessert textural spectrum, anchored by ethereal semifreddo at one end and super dense kulfi at the other. Then there’s chewy and stretchy(!) Turkish dondurma, which I’ve yet to try.
Perhaps Japanese soft serve consumers recognize a key fact: the true essence of ice cream’s pleasure lies in its texture, or more precisely the complex interplay of flavor, texture, and temperature. (Clearly, the folks who invented Dippin’ Dots recognized ice cream’s special properties long ago.) As a culinary medium, ice cream affords almost limitless experimentation and creativity; its ability to be simultaneously liquid and solid, warm and cold, contributes to its special status in the pastry kitchen, and increasingly the savory kitchen, too. In a single spoonful, flavors engage in an intimate dance with temperature and texture: ingredients reveal themselves subtly, crescendoing and dissipating at a languid pace befitting ice cream’s semi-solid / semi-fluid state. Thankfully, you don’t need to own any special equipment to make this dream a reality.
(*Obviously, this statement conveniently ignores arguments about planned obsolescence and needless energy use, etc.)
Plum & Shiso Ice Cream – 青じそとプラムのアイスクリーム
Shiso embodies the most unique qualities of three herbs: mint’s cheery brightness, basil’s sweet assertiveness, and cilantro’s unmistakeable soapy funk. In this ice cream, shiso‘s high, herbal notes hit first, followed by slow recognition of its distinctive pungency and depth. The plum swirl balances what would otherwise be a somewhat challenging dessert with a touch of fruity familiarity and acidic tang.
For the shiso ice cream:
1 cup heavy cream (8 oz. / 225 ml)
1 cup unsweetened, unflavored soy milk (8 oz. / 225 ml) (or substitute regular whole milk)
1 cup sugar (6 3/8 oz. / 183 g)*
20 shiso leaves (1/2 oz. / 14 g) (or substitute a 3:1 mixture of basil and mint)
4 egg yolks (3 oz. / 85 g)
Bring cream, soy milk, and 1/2 cup sugar just to a boil in a medium saucepan. Remove from heat, add the shiso, and steep for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together egg yolks, salt, and remaining sugar. Slowly drizzle in 1/4 cup of the cream mixture while whisking. Gradually pour the yolk mixture into the remaining cream in the saucepan, whisking constantly. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture coats the back of a spoon. (As you stir, be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan.) Strain and chill in an ice bath.
For the plum swirl
13 oz. (370 g.) sugar plums (or another small, sweet-tart variety), pitted and quartered
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar (1 7/8 oz. / 82 g)
1/2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 small strip lemon peel
*This ice cream is on the sweet side, so feel free to reduce the sugar by a quarter or up to a half to suit your tastes.
Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan and simmer over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes. Remove the lemon peel and continue simmering until the mixture has reduced by about half. Puree and chill in an ice bath.
Pour the cooled custard mixture into an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Alternatively, you can pour the mixture into a deep pan and stir at frequent intervals t0 break up any large ice crystals. The result may not be as smooth or creamy as that obtained in an ice cream maker, but you can get pretty close. For more detailed instructions, check out ice cream guru David Lebovitz’s post on the subject.) When the ice cream is almost completely frozen, add about three tablespoons of the plum jam, marbling it with a knife. Continue freezing until solid.