Monday, August 10, 2009

A Grown-Up Mint Chip Ice Cream

When life hands you a garden overflowing with mint, you have some seriously appealing options. You can use your fragrant mint sprigs to make juleps or mojitos to slake your thirst. You can tear the fresh leaves into slivers to toss with fresh seasonal berries or sliced stone fruits for a marvelous summer salad. Or, if it is the weekend of your beloved nephew’s 8th birthday and you are the proud new owner of an ice cream maker, you have absolutely no excuse not to make him fresh mint chip ice cream.

I used two heaping cups of fresh mint to steep the milk, letting the vibrant green leaves work their magic and infuse the liquid with bright flavor.

(It really does help to have friends with gardens in which the mint grows like weeds! These friends are usually very willing to make herbal contributions to my kitchen.)

My Little Chef was very eager to help get this mint chip ice cream party happening, so he helped me strain out the herbs, extracting every last drop of flavor from the infused milk. Mac also insisted on helping me crack the eggs, which he managed to do beautifully without spilling a single speck of shell into the bowl! (I was very proud of him.) We whisked egg yolks into the minty milk to thicken it, cooking it over low heat to make a custard that formed the base of this ice cream.

Our patience was tested as we waited for the custard to cool, and there was a frequent refrain of “Is it ready yet, Louise?” all afternoon. But good things come to those who wait, for the ice cream maker churned our custard into frozen bliss. At the end of the freezing time, we poured in the melted chocolate that immediately splintered into tiny streaks, and the ice cream was done.

This was no ordinary mint chip ice cream, studded with hard brittle chocolate chips, flavored with mint extract and tinted an artificial green. No, this was something altogether different. Not only did it have the soft texture of a freshly homemade ice cream, this was a lively creation infused with the most invigorating spearmint flavor and shot throughout with exquisite little shards of chocolate.

While I scooped the fresh ice cream into little ramekins, Mac invited his parents, Peter and Alison, to come sample our handiwork. There were lots of smiles as the four of us sat around my table, devouring the mint chip madness and raising our spoons to the big boy who was about to turn eight years old on Monday. Mac takes after his dad, for I remember my brother ALWAYS ordering mint chip whenever we went out for ice cream as kids. And though Peter doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth as an adult, we were delighted when even he wanted seconds too. We took it as a huge compliment.

Stracciatella is the Italian version of chocolate chip ice cream. The name comes from the Italian word "stracciato”, meaning “streaks”, which is what happens when to the melted chocolate when it is drizzled into the ice cream at the end of the freezing process. The contrast of the temperatures causes the chocolate to seize immediately upon contact with the frozen custard, hardening and breaking into little streaky chips.

Many ice cream recipes call for a combination of cream and milk, but I wanted to lighten the texture of this summer treat for I didn’t want the richness of cream to interfere with the brightness of the mint. Since I used all milk, I suppose my improvised recipe technically qualifies as an ice milk. It will not be as voluminous as a version made with both milk and cream, so if you want a richer version, substitute 1 cup of cream for the last cup of whole milk that is stirred in right before the custard is frozen in the ice cream maker.

4 cups whole milk, divided
¾ cup sugar
Pinch of salt
2 cups fresh mint leaves, packed
6 extra-large egg yolks
3.5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

Combine 3 cups of the milk, the sugar and a pinch of salt in a medium heavy saucepan over medium high heat. When the milk is almost at a simmer and steam begins to rise from the surface, remove from the heat and immediately stir in the fresh mint leaves. Cover and steep for at least 1 hour. (If you’re not ready to make the custard right away after an hour of steeping time, transfer the saucepan to the refrigerator as the mint steeps.)

When you are ready to make the custard, pour the milk mixture through a large sieve to strain out the mint leaves. Use a spatula or spoon to press on the mint leaves, extracting as much of the mint-flavored liquid as you can. Return the infused milk to the saucepan over medium-low heat until it becomes very warm to the touch.

Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks together in a separate bowl for 1 minute. Whisk ½ cup of the hot milk into the egg yolks, blending gently but thoroughly, and then very gradually stir this mixture back into the saucepan with the rest of the hot milk. (This method of gradually adding a bit of hot milk to the yolks before incorporating the rest of the milk tempers the eggs and prevents the yolks from scrambling, which they will do if they are “shocked” by a large amount of hot liquid all at once.)

Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the custard begins to thicken. It will coat the back of the spoon and hold an outline if you draw your finger along it. (This can take anywhere from 6 to 8 minutes.) Do not let the mixture boil.

Strain the custard through a sieve into a heatproof bowl. Refrigerate the custard at least two hours or until it has chilled to 40°. (You can speed this process up by placing the bowl in a large bowl filled with ice water.)

When you are ready to freeze it, stir in the remaining cup of whole milk, mixing in well. Freeze the custard in an ice cream maker, according to the manufacturer’s directions.

While the custard is freezing, place the chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl set in a skillet of simmering water. Melt the chocolate, stirring frequently, making sure not to let any water come into contact with the melted chocolate. Set aside to cool slightly. (Alternately, you can melt the chocolate in the microwave over medium-high power in 20-second increments, stirring the chocolate after every 20 seconds.)

When the custard is almost frozen, pour the melted chocolate into the churning ice cream maker. The chocolate will harden and break into little chips. Transfer to a plastic container and place in the freezer for 30 minutes before serving.

Makes 1 quart.

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