I’m continuing my streak of Asian desserts by looking back at one of my favorite Asian flavors: black sesame. It’s still kind of a niche flavor over here but in Hong Kong (or Japan) it’s a near-staple of any bakery menu. Interestingly, while both white and black sesame seeds are common in Asia, I almost always see black sesame seeds used for sweets. I’m not sure why; maybe it’s because the sooty hues the seeds impart to the finished products, from an inky black for pure sesame paste to a smoky charcoal grey for cakes, are so distinctive. You know right away when you see that dusky color that it’s sesame flavor, just like green means matcha and purple means taro. So efficient!
My latest black sesame love is a rich, intense black sesame ice cream from Humphry Slocombe, a perfect ending to a Valentine’s Day sushi dinner. The ice cream captures the toasty nuttiness of black sesame perfectly. Because it’s not overly sweet, it’s easy to eat a lot of it without feeling like you’re getting a sugar high. I love its delicate complexity.
Back home, I made a super-simple, super-quick version of black sesame ice cream because my ice cream maker is currently on the blink and in need of repairs. I know – disastrous news for a sweets lover and hopefully I’ll get it fixed before summer arrives. But in the meantime, this no-churn version of ice cream is a very satisfactory way to soothe my ice cream cravings.
When making ice cream without an ice cream maker, you’re looking for ingredients that won’t freeze completely – a sorbet that is mostly water, for example, will just become ice. One ingredient that works really well is condensed milk. The fat and sugar content helps prevent freezing. Whipping cream also works well, since it has high fat content, and whipping it will add in the air that’s usually incorporated with the churning action of an ice cream maker.
There are a few forms in which you’ll find black sesame: just the seeds, or ground up into a paste. Sometimes I’ve found them in an in-between form, ground up but still crumbly and not yet a paste. You’re most likely to find black sesame paste in Asian groceries, and it will give the smoothest texture to your ice cream. If you can’t find it, you can simply grind up sesame seeds in the food processor until they look like very fine crumbs, just like making tahini. You’ll eventually get a paste; if you’re having trouble adding a teaspoon or two or honey can help lubricate them. Homemade sesame paste is naturally more gritty than the store bought version. If you want your ice cream as smooth as possible, you can strain the condensed milk and black sesame mix after you combine it to get rid of the large bits.
The resulting ice cream will melt more quickly than one made in an ice cream maker, but it has the same soft, creamy mouthfeel and a full sesame flavor.
The other Humphry Slocombe flavor we had that night at dinner was an intriguingly sweet and salty white miso ice cream. Miso is a prime example of umami, the elusive fifth flavor best described as savory. Mixing it into caramel gives it a rich, salt undertone very comparable to salted caramel. There are several varieties of miso available but white miso has the lightest, most delicate flavor, which works well for a dessert. Start out with about a tablespoon in this caramel recipe and see what you think.
When I see black sesame these days, it’s often paired with matcha, but I think the white miso is just as interesting – it’s a very earthy, yin-yang mix of flavors. Just for fun I threw some mochi bits on top: they’re kind of the equivalent of mini marshmallows, chewy and sweet.
When my ice cream maker’s back in action, I’ll be making a batch of black sesame ice cream in the traditional way, but right now I’m well content. Happy March!
Black Sesame Ice Cream
- 14 oz sweetened condensed milk
- 3 tablespoons black sesame paste or ground black sesame seeds
- 3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 cups whipping cream
White Miso Caramel
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 3/4 cup whipping cream
- 1 tablespoon white miso
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, room temperature
For the ice cream:
- Combine condensed milk, sesame paste, vanilla extract, and salt in a stand mixer bowl. Beat on medium speed until fully combined. Strain into a separate bowl.
- Whip cream to soft peaks. Fold it into the condensed milk mixture.
- Pour into a 5"x9" loaf pan or other shallow container. Cover and freeze for at least six hours.
For the caramel:
- Combine sugar and 1/4 cup water in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat.
- Meanwhile, bring the cream and miso to a simmer in separate small saucepan, stirring to combine. Turn heat to low and keep warm.
- Continue cooking until sugar mixture is dark amber, about 6-8 minutes. Do not let the mixture burn!
- Remove from heat and add the cream slowly; mixture will bubble up furiously and settle down. Stir to combine. Add in butter and stir until melted and incorporated.
- Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature before using.