Last autumn seemed the most vibrant & animate one I'd ever seen, maybe the only one I'd ever really seen since I was a child. It was my first sober autumn in my adult life and so terribly, wonderfully orange, blue, and Rachmaninoff. It used to be a melancholy time for me, a comfortable, familiar melancholy in which a refrain from Vashti Bunyan forever repeated itself in my head. Fires are now burning and life has no reason. Winter loomed.
But last autumn was the first in a very different life. He and I were falling with the leaves only harder. Shadows were violet and light was gold. I could see, speak, form memories. He built me fires, brewed maté, and gifted me awfully romantic things like plastic skeletons and ring pops. I roasted pumpkin seeds in myriad flavors, and we dressed up as Marlon Brando & Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris for Halloween, he in an overcoat & me in fur, flowers pinned to my hat. Our synapses were swimming in oxytocin, and his hand on my knee was electric. We spent the last of the warm afternoons on a blanket in the park, setting out to read our respective books but making out like teenagers instead to both the disgust and fascination of passing tweens. We watched all of Peter Greenaway's films in bed, ate popcorn and peanut M&M's. And that's the story of how I decided not to move to New Orleans last December as I had planned. I stayed in Tennessee, and we made a home.
This ice cream is my homage to mild, smoky Indian Summer days, a time of year as ephemeral and lovely as spring, a time where fall & summer produce cross paths on their ways in and out of the market. I'm used to love that blazes, fades to embers, and then turns cold. Ash. Like so many autumn pyres. But this time it's been different. We celebrate our one year anniversary on All Saints day, about a month from now. No, a year is not a long time in the grand scheme, but to feel as happy, happier even, as I did a year ago, that...that is something. Something violently golden, an endless swoon of leaves.
Even more now than in the throes of that exploratory infatuation, as kaleidoscopic as it was, I'm so deeply satisfied I can hardly form the words to express my gratitude. We have put down roots right into each other's ventricles. I'm a touch of the crazy and no easy creature to navigate. To find someone capable of traversing the lay of my land...well, that's a rare, intrepid man. One I had almost come to believe didn't exist. He's a regular unicorn. This is a spectral time of year, romantic and eerie and crisp. I love it. It's ours. This ice cream tastes like it.
The smoky confection was inspired by a dessert course at The Catbird Seat in Nashville, TN. Our meal there was one of those where each course is a revelation, an education. Truth be told I have little interest in eating out unless the meal will tell me something I don't already know. As such, I'd rather save for months and spend it all on an experience such as The Catbird Seat rather than frittering it on underwhelming meals. Give me street food, soul food, or one of the best restaurants in the country. Otherwise, I'll cook for myself, thank you. I'm not much for the food that falls in between. They're deserving of their reputation, and if you find yourself with the opportunity to eat there, do. It didn't hurt to know that a personal hero, Grant Achatz, had eaten a seat over from me not but a few nights prior. I like to think his aura was still reverberating around, getting genius ectoplasm on my foie.
Toasted Oak Ice Cream with Fumee de Sel & Lapsang Souchong Caramel Swirlyields about 1 quart
I enjoy the wit of this combination, how it mimics this liminal season with the intermingling of fall fires and the cool cream of summer. I'd already taken to infusing my salted butter caramel with smoky lapsang souchong tea, so it seemed natural to introduce ribbons of it to the oak ice cream. I wanted to amplify the smoke so I used fumee de sel, a chardonnay oak smoked sea salt, in both the caramel and ice cream base. In addition to the smoked salt I added Tahitian vanilla beans to the base to compliment the vanilla notes in the toasted oak chips. The first time I only steeped the chips about 10-15 minutes. It was definitively oaky, but I wanted it more pronounced. So, the next attempt I let it sit for 30 minutes, which I found preferable. Feel free to experiment and find your oaky sweet spot. And I make a custard based ice cream, because it's my preference, though just a bit more work (negligible in my opinion but these things are relative). If you want, for whatever reason, to skip the eggs and just heat the milk/cream/sugar, infuse it with the oak, then chill and churn, you can do that. It will just be a less rich, creamy end result. But still good. Either way, put it on a slice of pie. A slice of the pie that I will be sharing with you soon.
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup medium toast oak chips (I ordered mine here.)
seeds from one vanilla bean pod
1/4 tsp (about two pinches) smoked sea salt
5 egg yolks
1/4 of this lapsang souchong caramel recipe (I make a half recipe & just use what I want of it)
Heat milk, cream, sugar, and vanilla in a medium sauce pan over medium-high heat until almost boiling. Remove from heat and immediately add oak chips. Cover and steep 10-30 minutes, depending on how strong you want the flavor to be. I let it go 30 minutes.
Double line a sieve with cheese cloth and set over a heat proof bowl. Strain ice cream carefully, making sure no bits of wood chips get into your base. Whisk in vanilla beans and salt after strained. Return mixture to medium heat.
Whisk egg yolks in a bowl. When the milk is hot again (around 150° F) slowly pour a quarter cup of it at a time into the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Continue doing this up to about a cup until the egg yolks are warm and tempered. Whisk this egg mixture back into the milk on the heat, adding it slowly and stirring constantly.
Stirring constantly cook the custard over medium heat until it reaches at 170° F and thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon.
Remove custard from heat and strain into a heat proof bowl. Chill thoroughly, a minimum of three hours, preferably over night. Churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturers instructions. I usually churn mine in my Cuisinart 15-20 minutes until it looks like the consistency of mashed potatoes.
To create the caramel swirl spoon a thin layer of ice cream and drizzle caramel on it, layer more ice cream, drizzle more caramel, and so forth until filled. Make sure your caramel is room temperature for ease of drizzling. I zap mine for about 10 seconds in the microwave if it's a little stiff for me.
Cover with plastic wrap pressed to the surface and chill to let it set. Serve. Preferably with pie. Good with toasted walnuts too. Or poached pears. Or both.