This blog is no longer updated. Please visit for more...

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Herbal Vegan Ice Creams

One of my favorite things about summer is having boxes and boxes of herbs growing on the porches, ready to snip and pluck and enliven dinner with their presence. This year my container herb garden expanded with the addition of some herbs I planted specifically with dessert making in mind: lemon verbena, English lavender, orange mint and lemon balm, but there are many other herbs that while usually experienced in a savory situation, lend themselves well to sweets too. I've been really inspired by the scents and flavors of summer herbs and flowers lately and given the heat of the season, ice cream has been a perfect vehicle for experimenting with them.

Genovese basil ice cream
We've just hit strawberry season here in New England and since having a strawberry-basil martini at Cuchi-Cuchi (a decadently over-the-top special occasions spot for drinks in Cambridge) I've been wanting to do a basil and strawberry dessert. Strawberry and basil are unexpected but well recognized partners and it seemed impossible to go wrong with a strawberry pie à la mode, but it was unthinkable that my first strawberry pie of the season not be a strawberry-rhubarb pie and I worried that the sour bite of rhubarb would throw off the delicate meld of fruit and herb flavors.

strawberry rhubarb pie with Genovese basil ice cream
Worried needlessly, I should say. In fact, this combination was summer heaven. The creamy intensely basil-infused ice cream seemed a perfect match for the sweet-tart pie, so much more interesting and well matched than a vanilla ice cream.

It was the kind of good that inspires dreams at night and prompts people to dish themselves up a generous portion for breakfast the next morning. Now, I grew up in a home where pie, especially strawberry rhubarb, was seen as a perfectly acceptable breakfast, but even I had a moment of nutritional horror when I saw this emerge from our kitchen at 8am. A basil garnished plate with a huge wedge of pie and four scoops of ice cream? What do you think? Was the line of breakfast decency crossed here?

Thai basil
With the success of the standard Italian variety of basil in ice cream, my thoughts wandered to its neighbor in the herb garden, Thai basil. Thai basil has a notable anise/licorice flavor that complements its sweet herby basil notes as well. It's a beautiful herb with a sharper, more elongated leaf than Genovese basil and bright purple stems, as well as deeply purple flowers and a taste to match its dramatic appearance. The flavors of Thai basil are more layered and complex than they are in Italian basil and I knew as soon as I tasted my first batch of basil ice cream that it would be even better with Thai basil.

Thai basil ice cream
So, the very next day: Thai basil ice cream. I made it exactly the same way I made the other basil ice cream and could tell as soon as it started steeping in the hot soy milk, releasing coils of heavily anise-basil scented steam that this ice cream was going to be next level. And indeed, it tastes incredible. It's a cool, creamy distillation of the exquisite flavors of Thai basil, at once full of overwhelmingly gorgeous crisp flavors and softly aromatic earthy green notes, but all in balance like a Thai palace, delicate and impeccable, so beautiful its intricacies can't seem gaudy.

grilled strawberries and Thai basil ice cream
Curious if Thai basil would pair as well with strawberries as its Italian relative, I tried serving it on top of strawberries cooked on skewers over dying coals in the grill. Grilled strawberries are a perennial favorite around here in the summer. My favorite way to prepare them is with a quick marinade of brown sugar and brandy, but here it was just a fresh strawberry straight to the grill to warm and turn into a sweet, syrupy delicacy all on its own. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that the berry was a wonderful partner to Thai basil ice cream, but it was just so unexpectedly good and exciting that it made me want to make ice creams out of every herb in the garden, just to see what would happen.

laksa leaf

I might have launched my full-fledged herbal ice cream experiments with rosemary ice cream (still on my list) but I got diverted by an interesting herbal discovery: laksa leaf. Here's the thing about laksa leaf, I'd never cooked with it before. I've eaten laksa leaf in laksa, the sort of national curry of Malaysia, a rich yellow coconut broth with rice noodles that is often eaten for breakfast, but I'd never seen it for sale in the States. Rather, I never knew that I'd seen it, though in fact I had under its various other names: Vietnamese mint and Vietnamese coriander, I just never knew it was all the same thing. So when I came into possession of "rau ram" and had to do culinary sleuthing to figure out what that was, it was a miraculous discovery to find that rau ram is a staple herb of Vietnamese cooking, hence the English references to it as Vietnamese mint and/or coriander, but it is also known as laksa leaf in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia where laksa is immensely popular.

laksa leaf ice cream with candied ginger
Laksa leaf's English names, Vietnamese mint or Vietnamese coriander are apt given its primary culinary usage in Vietnam, and given that it tastes a little bit like both mint and coriander in equal measure and all at once, though it is not botanically related to either. It also has a deeply peppery spice to it which is heightened with cooking and a bright lemon scent which, unfortunately, seems to dampen with cooking. Riding high on the Thai basil ice cream, I thought the spicy edge, which I really like in sweets, combined with the minty, citrus tones of laksa would be great in ice cream. Long story short, it's not...exactly. Not that it's not good or compelling, it's just not great like the Thai basil ice cream. It's salvageable though. Laksa leaf ice cream can be made tastefully, I'm convinced. On this first try I think user error may have been partially to blame for the less-than-ideal outcome. Definitely too much laksa leaf for one and maybe not enough other stuff for two. In this batch I used a rich coconut milk base and palm sugar, both laksa ingredients, but maybe galangal, ginger or lemongrass, all of which are used in in the spice paste for laksa, would improve this ice cream.

rau tia to
Experimenting with tia to, a Vietnamese herb that is related to shiso, which is used in a fair bit of Japanese cooking and is sometimes referred to as Japanese basil, I also thought would be a successful venture. Again, short story: it wasn't really. I'm not even as convinced about the possibility for delicious results on this one as I am with the laksa leaf ice cream.

rau tia to ice cream with slivered dragon fruit
There was a basil element to the flavor, as well as an edge of anise that had me thinking that tia to might be close to Thai basil's flavor profile. However, tia to also has a strong, almost medicinally intense pepper/menthol scent to it that, in truth, made me flinch. So, I'm taking this as a well earned, out and out failure. Sometimes when you gamble you win big and sometimes you've just got to shrug and biking over to the store for cookie dough ice cream.

pandan ice cream
Having kitchen failures is both scary and inspiring. It hurts to completely bomb out on something, but it can keep you reaching for the next thing, hoping that it will bring success, or at least validation. And so I was relieved to risk it all on pandan ice cream and come up aces. Many people call pandan (screwpine in English) "Asian vanilla," but that's not a particularly useful description because it doesn't in fact taste anything like vanilla. Pandan, a long flat, grassy looking leaf, is popular in Malaysia and is used in savory dishes as well as in sweets. It's usage in sweets throughout Southeast Asia partially accounts for its comparison to vanilla. It is an expected flavor and a necessary aromatic in many popular desserts. Like vanilla, it has an elusive quality that tastes like comfort, like something you'd want to swath yourself in. Pandan is nutty, toasted, floral, warm, grassy, intoxicating, delicately soft and yet demanding and captivating. It's sold in extract form in many Asian markets in the States, but usually has a great deal of green food coloring added. I prefer the frozen leaves anyway, also readily avaliable in Asian markets, which give just a tiny tint of palest green when used.

lychee cake with pandan ice cream
Pandan is also not for everyone. This was a hit or miss ice cream with tasters, but I adored it, especially on top of a slice of dense and fruity lychee cake, inspired by the lychee butter cake on Dessert First, which was incredibly delicious. I especially liked the idea of using lychee syrup as the liquid in this recipe and found that it worked very nicely to sweeten and so used much less sugar than the original recipe called for. The cake also turned out nicely with oil instead of butter and was plenty rich, especially à la mode.

chocolate pandan ice cream with pan seared baby banana and coconut

Pandan gained a larger following with this chocolate variation that also made use of a coconut milk base. While I love the flavor of pandan on its own, I'll concede that the chocolate did transform it into something pretty delectable. To go with this ice cream, I was going to make baby banana fritters from Pichet Ong's Sweet Spot, which I should hardly have to mention that I'm in cookbook love with, but intense and horrible heat in the Northeast made me think a super quick sear on the bananas was a better bet.

lychee cake with rose ice cream
With half a lychee cake left and all the pandan ice cream gone, I thought back to the original accompaniment to the lychee cake on Dessert First, strawberries with rose cream. I don't happen to grow roses in my garden, but a tin of rose jam from the Indian market has been haunting my shelves for a while waiting for the perfect inspiration and I immediately reached for it.

rose ice cream
With an almond milk base and no additional sweeter, this light rose ice cream struck us all dead silent as we ate it under the stars during the intense heatwave last week. It was floral, of course, but wonderfully so, light and refreshing, not cloying or sickly-sweet. It was bliss, and perfect with the lychee cake.

rose ice cream in the ice cream maker
A note on making ice creams: I'm using this Cuisinart ICE 50BC ice cream maker. It's serious. I got a deal on it and would probably balk at buying a full price one, but if you can find a deal or don't mind a splurge, it's pretty awesome. Even it though, which promises ice cream in 30 minutes or whatever nonsense, does not deliver miracles. The ice cream pictured above is the consistency you will get after running an already chilled mix for about half an hour in the ice cream maker. It's quite enjoyably edible, but not perfectly frozen through. To get it to really set up, you'll need a couple-few (that's a Western NY-ism from my younger days meaning, "I don't know really, two or three?") hours in the freezer.

As far as bases go for the ice cream, I got inspired by the pastry cream I've been working with, which involves cooked tapioca starch. The mixture becomes pudding-like and freezes in a wonderfully textured way--not too hard, not too icy, but just creamy and meltingly delicious. As far as liquids, a mix of soy, nut or rice milk with something heavier does the trick nicely. Coconut milk is nice in situations where you'd like to impart a little coconut flavor, otherwise my ice cream base of choice is currently unsweetened MimicCreme. It's made mostly of almond and cashew and it's rich and creamy and pretty wow. The price is also wow, but if you've made your own nut milk lately, this seems a pretty good deal. On their website you can buy a case of twelve at a per unit cost of $4.59 and there's apparently no shipping charge (?!) if you take ground shipping in the United States, making it a good dollar+ less expensive than I've seen anywhere else. And that, my friends, will make a lot of ice cream.

Basil Ice Cream

1 1/2 cups unsweetened soymilk
1 1/2 cups MimicCreme or soy creamer
1 cup packed basil (Italian or Thai)
1/3 cup sugar
5 teaspoons tapioca starch
pinch of salt

In a medium saucepan, gently heat the soymilk, cream and basil until the mixture boils.
Cover immediately and leave to steep for an hour.
With an immersion blender or in a food processor, puree the mix for one minute.
Strain through a mesh strainer, pushing hard against the basil pulp with the back of a spoon to extract all of the liquid.
Return the liquid to the stove top and heat again, stirring in the the sweetener, tapioca starch and salt. Continue stirring until the mixture reaches a rolling boil and thickens to a pudding-like consistency.
Pour mixture into a wide, flat dish and cool throughly before finishing ice cream with your ice cream maker.

In other news, I was happy to receive a VegBloggy award a couple weeks ago from VegNews magazine and am really gratified that people find this blog interesting. It's definitely an honor to just have readers, so thank you all very much. There will be a feature on vegan blogs in the newest issue of VegNews, so look for it! In other, other news, I just got through my first week of farm share veggies and will soon post the results. Think: pea tendrils!