A Twist on the Familiar: Tonka Bean and Cocoa Nib Ice Cream

April 17th, 2009

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Do you ever wonder how just about everyone's favorite ice cream flavor seems inextricably tied to his or her childhood? After divulging their #1 choice, people will nearly always follow up with, "This was the only flavor I ate when I was a child!" or some variant thereof. I am no exception. Strawberry ice cream was my one true love (ok, there was a brief foray into orange sherbet territory, but I reconciled with strawberry pretty quickly). My sisters: chocolate and mint chip. My boyfriend: good old vanilla. I find it fascinating, and touching, that ice cream is such a cultural lodestone. It also makes me smile to think that with all the funky, jazzy, new ice cream flavors

That's not to say that I don't also embrace the flip side of ice cream: its workhorse versatility, its perfection as a canvas for endless flavor experimentation. Once I learned ice creams all start from a similar dairy base, I realized that just about any flavor was possible. Once I got an ice cream maker, there was no stopping me.

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There are two main types of ice cream: French style, which is made with eggs, and Philadelphia or American style, which does not contain eggs. The French style ice cream, which uses the eggs to create a custard base, crème anglaise-style, has a richer, smoother mouthfeel owing to the emulsifying properties of the eggs; these ice creams are the ones that attract a raft of over-the-top adjectives like "indulgent", "decadent", and "sinful." Philadelphia style ice creams, which rely only on the milk and cream for richness, have a lighter, more delicate taste. Oftentimes, the recipes for Philadelphia style ice creams do not even require any cooking, making them quite simple to put together.

Both styles have their merits, however, when I am experimenting with ice cream flavors I usually like using a Philadelphia style recipe, because the simplicity of the ingredients really lets the added flavors shine through. Alice Medrich touches on this in her book Pure Dessert, where she discusses her experiments in the kitchen to really let the essence of the flavors come through; oftentimes it led to her editing out or reducing amounts of ingredients previously thought necessary.

In fact, this ice cream I made is based on Medrich's cocoa nib ice cream, one of my very favorite ice cream flavors. Now, I think this is amazing because well, 1)Medrich is an amazing pastry chef, but also 2)it's pretty difficult to displace people's ice cream preferences. If you look at at a top ten list of ice cream flavors, it always has the same perennials: strawberry, vanilla, chocolate chip, butter pecan. While I enjoy playing ice cream mad scientist in the kitchen and I think most people are now used to seeing "exotic" ice cream flavors when going out to restaurants, I'd still wager that most people are not going to list lavender honey praline or coconut lemongrass as their top flavor. Perhaps foodies in the future will prove me wrong! But I believe the power of nostalgia is hard to overcome. Also, the reason such basic flavors like chocolate and coffee have such staying power is because they are so simple and pure: they appeal to a very elemental part of us.

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Which is why I found Medrich's cocoa nib ice cream such a revelation: cream infused with cocoa nib had a taste that seemed very different and yet was teasingly familiar. Cocoa nibs have a taste very remisicent of chocolate, yet also unique - they have a nutty, rustic, darker edge to them - raw, unprocessed chocolate, as it were. So when I tasted this soft, delicate ice cream, with a hue somewhere between eggshell and mocha, it tasted like a far-off memory of chocolate. I think that's why this ice cream is so appealing - it triggers just enough of a sense of familiarity, yet has a twist. Just about everyone I've urged to try this ice cream is fascinated by it.

I decided I needed my fix of this ice cream last week, and as I set about making it I thought of adding another ingredient: tonka beans. These deliciously fragrant little beans (see above) are another example of a twist on the familiar: they smell very similar to vanilla beans, mixed with cloves, cinnamon, and, some say, hay. When I tasted a tonka bean it has a taste like vanilla but also a a bit grassy, so I could see the hay comparison. Tonka beans have been used as a substitute for vanilla, so what, I wondered, would cocoa nibs and tonka beans taste like? Chocolate and vanilla or something entirely different?

As it turned out, the tonka bean added a wonderful layer of complexity to the ice cream. The chocolatey, nutty flavor of cocoa nibs is the first to fill your mouth. Then the top notes of clove and sweet vanilla round out the finish. I kept eating spoonful after spoonful, trying to discern all the different components, and then realizing that I was also really enjoying it!

A health note: tonka beans seem to be quite popular in the dessert world right now: I was turned on to them by none other than Tartelette herself. However, there have been concerns raised on the internet as to the possible dangerous side-effects of these beans. Tonka beans contain coumarin, which in large doses is considered toxic by the FDA. I'm not sure if it's actually illegal to sell tonka beans in the US, although they appear to be available in other parts of the world. My two cents is that I don't think the small amount of tonka bean used in this recipe should be dangerous for anyone who is healthy. I guess I wouldn't recommend eating tonka beans every day, but again this advice could be true for many things. If you are concerned or want to know more there is a good thread on eGullet. Also, even if you don't have tonka beans I would still highly recommend making the cocoa nib ice cream - it's that good!

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To go with the ice cream I made the pizzelles from my cookie book, with a tablespoon of cocoa powder added, and dipped them in white chocolate and pistachios to create little handmade cones. Did that bring back memories of wanting my ice cream in those outrageous triple-dipped chocolate-and-sprinkled-covered sugar cones?
Yep, but that's a story for next time...

And, once summer gets closer, you can be sure I'll be working on the perfect strawberry ice cream!

Tonkabeanicecreamduobyanitachudessertfirst

Tonka Bean and Cocoa Nib Ice Cream with Chocolate Pizzelles

about 1 1/2 quarts ice cream
  • adapted from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert

Ice Cream

  • 1 1/2 cups (13 oz) whole milk
  • 1 1/2 cups (13 oz) heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz) sugar
  • 1/3 cup (2 oz) cocoa nibs, coarsely chopped
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons grated tonka bean
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

Pizzelles

  • 2/3 cup + ½ cup (5 1/2 oz) all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 pinches salt
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • ½ cup (3 1/2 oz) sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For the ice cream:

  • Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat.
  • Remove from heat, cover, and let steep for about 20 minutes.
  • Strain mixture into a clean container, cover, and let chill overnight.
  • Freeze in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions.

For the pizzelles:

  • Sift all purpose flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt into a bowl and set aside.
  • In a stand mixer with whisk attachment, whip the eggs and sugar on high speed until thickened, about 1 minute. Scrape down bowl sides as needed.
  • Combine vanilla extract with the melted butter and with mixer on low speed gradually add to egg mixture. Mix just until combined, scraping down bowl sides as needed.
  • Remove bowl from mixer and fold in the sifted dry ingredients with a rubber spatula, making sure to mix until smooth and free of dry patches. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and allow to rest for 15 minutes.
  • Preheat the electric pizzelle press as listed in the instruction booklet.
  • Once pizzelle press is heated, open press and place 2 teaspoonfuls of batter on each pizzelle grid and gently close the press and bake following the pizzelle press instruction booklet. Note: the first few pizzelle are never perfect,note the positioning of the batter and finished color so you can make adjustments for the following pizzelles.
  • Gently lift pizzelles from press and cool completely on a wire rack.

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