Sunday, April 26, 2009

Liquid, Gas, and Solid

"The truth is, ice cream is really hard to screw up."

And so began the in-store demonstration by Ben Van Leeuwen, co-founder of Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream.  If you are not familiar with their product I urge you to pick up a pint at Whole Foods today.  Van Leeuwen's products are everything you want an ice cream to be: startlingly simple with the kind of taste that transports your soul to a happier place.  Was that description rather dramatic?  Yeah, sure.  But am I joking?  Nuh-uh.  

Those of us in NYC are lucky enough to be able to get scoops at the various Van Leeuwen's trucks parked around the city.  This ain't no Mr. Softee.  And thank goodness for that.  

Along with Ben's brother and wife, the trio Van Leeuwen thought it would be a good thing if a truck served organic ice cream that used local ingredients.  After realizing there was nothing out there that met that criteria, they started producing the treats themselves.  That was a year ago.  Now the egg custard colored trucks can be found all around town including Soho and Union Square.

The reason behind food philosophies is often as simple as it is successful.  When I was barely out of my teens, I asked Patricia Curtain, long time cook at and illustrator of several Chez Panisse cookbooks, why you have to use unsalted butter when making a pie crust if you just going to add salt to the dough later.  "Because it tastes better," was her reply.

You really can't argue with that.

Ben Van Leeuwen has this same straight forward, "no duh," approach to his craft.  He stressed that it is imperative to use the best ingredients because with ice cream because you really aren't doing much to alter what you started with.  BVL (he didn't say I could call him that but it just feels right), is passionate about doing what is right for the sake of good. 

On the night of this class at The Brooklyn Kitchen, he happily shared with us his opinions about the best chocolate (Michel Cluizel), the best pistachios (from Bronte, Sicily) in addition to the different methods of drying vanilla, the ideal ratios of fruit to butter fat, and the dreadful, common employ of artificial stabilizers in mainstream ice cream production.  

Some of Ben's more memorable quotes:
  • In regards to letting the eggs in one's custard cook - "It's awful.  It's just horrible.  Don't let it happen."
  • When asked about making coffee ice cream - "Use really good freeze dried coffee.  Sorry.  It's pretty unromantic."
  • "Nut oils can do weird things."
  • About sourcing new ingredients - "I didn't find anything, anything awesome."
I'm pretty sure a new-thought religion could be based on that last one - if it's not awesome, why bother?

So, what did I learn?
  • Both chocolate and vanilla are originally from Mexico.
  • I should be using a double boiler to make custard (egg are less likely to cook/clot)
  • Cool your custard in an ice bath
  • I should be experimenting with duck eggs
  • Breyer's adds vanilla wood pulp to their ice cream to give it an handmade look
  • Natural vanilla has 350 flavor components (wow!)
  • Ice cream is liquid, gas, and solid - water is the solid, cream is the liquid (lower freezing point than water), and the gas is the air infused through the custard by way of churning.  
Someone asked BVL what was the weirdest flavor he'd ever made and the answer was Szechwan pepper (infuse custard with 1 tablespoon of the peppercorns) - I will definitely be trying this in the next few weeks.  I told him I had bought kaffir lime leaves and thought maybe a sherbet or a sorbet?  Maybe a syrup?  "Definitely a sorbet.  And those leaves aren't like bay leaves.  You could put some in there."  Um, okay, cool!

During the evening's demonstration, Ben made two flavors of ice cream: chocolate and earl grey tea.  And, this is really exciting, we got to taste a flavor he currently is experimenting with - green tea.  We were sent home with a half pint of our choice to freeze up at home.  I took the earl grey and let me tell you, this stuff reigns supreme.  Thanks, Ben!

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