Saturday, September 20, 2008

Time-Travel, Brown Sugar Ice Cream & Gregory Peck

September 17th, Part II, AKA Notes on Time-Travel, Brown Sugar Ice Cream and Gregory Peck

Welcome back to a continuation of the September 17th inaugural post! (Yes, I realize it’s the 19th now, but I began writing this two nights ago after the initial posting.) Many of you know that I attach a lot of significance to dates since the corresponding memories for any given day are very deeply embedded are in my brain. As my birthday falls on the 17th of August, it’s not too surprising that my favorite numbers end in 7, and it felt good to have 9-17 as my official beginning for Kitchen Fiddler.

I was thinking about my previous September 17ths tonight, of which there have been many happy ones, and I found myself thinking a LOT about ice cream. But wait…. Perhaps I should explain the first part of that statement, for those of you who haven’t really played the Louise Memory Game before.

I spend a lot of my mental energy thinking about TIME, especially as it relates to my creative growth and in my relationships with others. I think most people view time as a smooth-flowing continuum, a long line of days steadily unspooling in a forward direction. However, I tend to think of time vertically, whereby a long line of days keeps looping back upon itself with each new year. This creates 365 columns of days, all of which are labeled with an individual date. (I sometimes think of it as a length of chain with 365 different links, each of which represents an individual day of the year, and a new identical length of chain for every new year is layered on top of the previous one to create distinct columns of links/days.) While the individual occurrences within any given column of days seem unrelated at first glance, they are in fact inextricably linked to each other by their common date. Perhaps this vertical view of time is my own personal way of trying to find order in chaos, but the truth is that this strange brain of mine causes me to feel that I am constantly ‘time-traveling’.

In other words, I can take any day and burrow my way down the column of dates through two decades worth of memories. In thinking, “What happened on September 17th last year? Two years ago? Three?” etc., I can vividly recall the events that happened on any of those dates with just as much immediacy as if they had just occurred. Granted, this can be very painful at times. But more often than not, it is a most wonderful gift to be able to vividly relive some of the happiest events of my life. It’s also extremely helpful as it allows me to chart my creative growth over the years with much clarity, being able to take stock of where I once was and where I am now, and I can apply that to developments in friendships and other relationships as well. This memory extends to experiences of all kinds, with particular emphasis on conversations , dialogue and music that I’ve heard. As a violinist, it makes sense that my aural memory would be sharper than my visual recall, but my sense of taste memory is also quite acute. And that finally brings me full circle back to the real subject of today’s post: ICE CREAM!

I have had ice cream on my brain quite a lot lately. These cravings have always been rather insistent, but lately they have intensified to an almost silly degree. Shorter days and cooler weather are signals to most normal people that the leisurely summer days of lazy ice cream cones are over. But while everyone else is gearing up for more typical fall desserts such as apple crisps and pumpkin pies, I am dragging my still-sandaled heels, refusing to accept that fall is here, and my ice cream lust definitely increases in inverse proportion to how cold it is outside. This sense of urgency typically begins to build in mid-September, and I really had to laugh yesterday as I scrolled through multiple September 17ths and noticed a very distinct and decadent ice cream-related thread running throughout this particular collection of days! (This probably does not come as a surprise to any of my friends.)

For instance, there was the monumental discovery on this day in 1992 of Haagen-Dazs Deep Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice Cream with my dear friend Jennifer, my partner-in-crime in all things chocolate. I’d been frantically practicing at school all day, knowing that I’d be sitting in the hot seat at the first orchestra rehearsal of the year that next morning, so after a whole day of cramming the Mendelssohn “Italian” and Shostakovich 10th symphonies, I knew that Haagen-Dazs was absolutely required at the end of the day. I’d always favored Haagen-Dazs’s coffee or vanilla-based ice creams over their chocolate-related flavors, which lacked focus in my opinion. But when Jennifer made a bid for the Deep Chocolate Peanut Butter, I suddenly found that I had a new favorite flavor. It was a revelation in its intensity. This veritable treasure trove of honest-to-God GOBS of frozen peanut butter madness embedded in the softly-chocolate ice cream was the perfect play of salty and sweet, and the entire pint was practically inhaled in one very giggly sitting. Though that was the first of many pints that Jennifer and I devoured together throughout our college years, that 9-17-92 pint of chocolate peanut butter insanity is the one that stands out in memory.

Jennifer and I also had another serious 9-17 chocolate ice cream revelation in 1994, this time of the homemade variety. The New Basics Cookbook was my culinary bible throughout the '90s, and though I’d steadily worked my way through many of the recipes in the book, it wasn’t until 1994 that I had my own ice cream maker and could finally attack some of the in 'The Soda Fountain’ chapter. My maiden voyage was with the Bittersweet Chocolate Ice Cream recipe, and I must say that it was a rather successful voyage. A single spoonful of the velvety bittersweet custard prompted a frantic phone call on my part, begging Jennifer to come over at the earliest opportunity, and it was a minor miracle that I didn’t devour the entire bowl of velvety chocolate custard myself before I could transfer it into the ice cream maker! (She was happy to oblige.)

Ice cream clearly brings out a decadent streak in me, especially when it’s freshly homemade. I could ply you with many more 9-17 ice cream stories, but I will leave you with the one that’s really making me smile, otherwise known as the Brown Sugar Ice Cream Incident of 1995. It was an abysmally rainy day but I was determined to salvage it by renting “Roman Holiday”, which seemed like a wonderfully indulgent thing to watch on such a wet afternoon. I knew that an equally indulgent ice cream would make the dreariness of the day seem so much less so, and I turned once again to another recipe from The New Basics Cookbook.

I can usually anticipate how a recipe will turn out, but this brown sugar number really threw me for a loop. It was so deceptively simple, an easy and quite traditional custard made of egg yolks, milk and vanilla, with brown sugar standing in for regular granulated sugar. However, once this ice cream base began to freeze in the machine, it received a most welcome addition of tangy sour cream stirred in, which added an undeniable richness while tempering the caramel sass of the brown sugar. Once it had churned in the ice cream maker, the texture was nothing short of luxurious. It was almost shocking how good it was! And though it was perfectly delicious on its own, it seemed to cry out for a generous scattering of toasted almonds over the ice cream, just to provide a little textural contrast. When I took a bite of the ice cream with the almonds, I believe that’s when I began to swoon. Ordinarily I would have called Jennifer to come over and devour the freshly churned ice cream with me, but she was out of town and I was to left to my own devices with a container full of freshly frozen heaven as I settled in to watch “Roman Holiday”.

Two hours and two bowls of ice cream later, my heart felt like it was soaring. Some might say I was having an extreme sugar rush, but I would claim otherwise. I don’t know if it was Gregory Peck’s understated charm and the unbearable loveliness of Audrey Hepburn that inspired me. Maybe it was the beauty of the black&white cinematography, sparking countless daydreams of Rome and adventure. The dreariness of the rain might have prompted my intense yearning for Mediterranean sunshine. Or perhaps it really was the unexpected delight of that crazy ice cream that set me off, as the finished product was so much greater than the sum of its parts, one luscious spoonful after another. All I know is that “Roman Holiday” catapulted its way into my top ten favorite movies that afternoon. When I was paid a surprise visit that evening by a dear friend who bore a distinct resemblance to the very dashing Gregory Peck, I was extremely grateful that I had enough of that gorgeous brown sugar ice cream left over to share, and I found myself behaving rather immoderately. What can I say??

Though I have enjoyed that film many times since 9-17-95, it is impossible for me to watch it without thinking of that oh-so-very-lovely first viewing. And I can’t even say the words “Roman Holiday” without instantly craving Brown Sugar Ice Cream! In fact, I’m craving it right now and may have to go make some myself. I encourage you to do the same, and do be sure to lavishly sprinkle the finished ice cream with toasted slivered almonds. You will thank me, I know.

Adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins

2 cups whole milk
6 egg yolks
2/3 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream

Heat the milk to a boil in a heavy saucepan. Then cover the pan and remove it from the heat.

Whisk the egg yolks and brown sugar together in a bowl until thickened. Stir in the vanilla.

Slowly pour the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until it has thickened slightly and coats the back of a spoon (do not allow it to boil).

Allow the custard to cool to room temperature. Then refrigerate it, loosely covered, until chilled, a minimum of 3 hours.

Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions just until it begins to set. Then add the sour cream and continue freezing until it is set. Makes 1 quart.

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