Holiday wish and history of ice cream with my Bourbon-walnut-vanilla ice cream

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Dr. Sen’s sole purpose in going to a Chinese restaurant is most often ordering a plate of extra spicy Singapore rice noodles or may be a bowl of tongue-numbing Sichuan beef tendon noodle soup. For most of us, the thought of Chinese food doesn’t revive memories of bowls of ice cream, more likely you’re thinking of stir fries or orange chicken. But, to my surprise, Chinese people have been eating ice cream far longer than you and I can imagine. The documented history of ice cream goes back to AD 618-907 during the reign of Emperor Cheng Tang, founder of the Shang dynasty. Among the army of 2,271 staff in his kitchen and winery, 94 were ‘ice men’. It was the ice men’s job to go and collect ice from the mountains, cut them in uniform sizes and then store them in ice houses made of stones. The ice was then used to freeze a milk-based dessert made from water buffalo, goat or cow’s milk. The milk was first fermented and then flavored with camphor (although I hate it, adding camphor to desserts is still practiced in India), thickened with flour and finally frozen into something very close to modern-day frozen yogurt. So basically, Tang was eating ‘tangy’ frozen desserts long before ‘froyo’ became popular. Caucasians (not “whites”, the original inhabitants of the Caucasus region) are known for drinking a fermented milk drink called “kumiss” made from mare’s milk for thousands of years. The Russians still drink something similar to it. The Mongolian equivalent is called “airag” or “tsegee”. This culture of fermented milk must have traveled to China and then Persia and to India.

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But this was all still using natural ice/snow to make frozen drinks or desserts. The real trick was to make ‘man made ice’ which in above-freezing climates needed an endothermic reaction to be created. Although Indians and Egyptians were making ice for a long time, the first documented evidence is found in a book written by Ibn Abu Usaybi’a (A.D 1230-1270), the famous Arab historian of medicine. Here, we find the first record of ice being made with cold water and saltpeter. Persians were known for making exotic and delicious frozen drinks made from fruits or fruit extracts. The Westerners got their taste of “sorbets’ from the Persian “sherbets” which are basically frozen fruit desserts in various forms.

Although making ice is pretty historic, it was not common to make it on an industrial scale even until the late 1600s and early 1700s. Ice was still being sourced naturally and stored in ice houses.  Harvesting and transporting ice became a great business model for the Americans. From United States, ice was travelling to Caribbean, South America and to India via large cargo ships in the 19th century. Making of artificial ice and then ice creams slowly started from the late 1600s in France and Italy. The ice cream back then was pretty much frozen creams with flavors added to them. There was no egg involved. The the French chef Vincent La Chapelle mentions for the first time in 1742 the addition of eggs, which became immensely popular as ice cream additives as it added a desirable texture and reduced the use of more expensive cream as an ingredient.

American started eating ice cream probably in the early 1700s when it traveled from Europe to New England. George Washington was so fond of this frozen treat that he bought a couple of pewter pot freezers from France and a “cream machine for making ice” to make ice cream at home (probably he lost all his teeth from eating an excess amount of his favorite flavor). His handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream, preserved in the Library of Congress, is a burning testament to his passion.

Thank goodness making ice cream is not so tedious anymore and I do not have to climb mountains to harvest ice. While I standardize another flavor, go and make this ice cream, you’ll thank me later. And, wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a wonderful new year 2015. Let’s celebrate this festive season one (or maybe two or three) scoop(s) at a time!

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Recipe: (adapted from Food52)

Ingredients:

Vanilla-Bourbon Ice Cream

  • 1.5 cups whole milk
  • 1.5 cups cream
  • 1/2 cup sugar, divided
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 2 tablespoons bourbon, divided
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 cup raw walnuts, lightly toasted and broken into smaller pieces

I have ‘almost’ copy-pasted the recipes as I haven’t changed anything in the recipe except making the walnut crumble. I just added toasted walnuts but if you have time, you can make the crumbles.

  1. In a medium pot, combine the milk, the cream, 1/4 cup of sugar, the salt, the vanilla bean (split it open first, and scrape it), and 1 tablespoon of the vanilla bourbon. Heat the liquid over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until it froths. Turn off the heat.
  2. In a separate small bowl, collect the egg yolks. Add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, and whisk for about 2 minutes, or until the yolks look a lighter yellow.
  3. Take a tiny measure of the milk mixture, and whisk it into the egg yolks. Keep adding the milk, little by little, whisking without pause as you go. When you’re finished, run the custard base through a sieve, add then add it back to the pot.
  4. Turn the heat again to medium-low. Stir the custard almost constantly as it heats. You want it to coat the back of your spoon; after that, it’s done.
  5. Move the custard to an ice bath. If you give it the occasional stir, it should be good and cold in about 45 minutes-1 hour. (You can also chill overnight in the fridge.) When the custard is cold, I like to stir in another tablespoon of the vanilla bourbon.
  6. Pour the cold custard into an ice cream maker. Let it go for about 20-25 minutes, or until the ice cream reaches the consistency of soft-serve. (Don’t let it go too long, or you will start to make butter.) At the last minute, add the walnuts.
  7. Spoon the ice cream into a plastic container, leaving as little air between the ice cream and the lid as possible, and move it to the freezer for at least 2-4 hours.
  8. As it is as natural as it can get, it melts really fast, so you have to be quick while serving.
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Muhammara/Roasted red pepper and walnut spread and a giveaway

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How little I know about the world around me. Although I have heard it mentioned for all the wrong reasons, I didn’t even know that Aleppo (or Haleb, its original Arabic name) is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in human civilization, and was the western terminus of the fabled Silk Route. Although I have never been there, if I close my eyes, I can almost see a town bustling with traders from all around the world and their myriad valuables. Silks from China, spices from India, pottery form Istanbul, dates from Persia, interspersed with piles of the famous local olives and the sound of vigorous haggling in a hundred different languages. Delicately spiced hot tea is being poured into tiny cups, traders are nibbling on mezze and saffron-tinged desserts are being eyed while succulent kabobs are eagerly devoured.  Knowingly and unknowingly, humans are exchanging social, cultural and religious beliefs while ostensibly engaged in the mere barter of merchandise. History is being written and diversity created.

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Unfortunately, my mind is jolted to the present and I open my eyes to look at the Google search on ‘Aleppo, Syria’ on the computer screen in front of me. What I see is best left unseen. Ruined buildings, wounded children, bombings, rape, destruction and sadness litter the screen. What happened to the beautiful city of a thousand caravans? Why are they destroying something so precious? Something which is impossible for anyone to recreate? There is probably no answer. At least I cannot find any answer. When I read that Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, and his equally brutal uncle, Rifaat, intentionally kept Aleppo’s main highway opened for the Syrians to see the devastation wrought when their forces butchered tens of thousands of the locals in 1982, I was shocked. How can people destroy something their own, something invaluable, something so priceless? I would think people would do the opposite, guard their national treasures with their lives. But again, I might be in some naïve wonderland.

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Apart from a rich history and a storybook landscape of monuments, mosques, churches, wooden wheels and aqueducts, Aleppo’s Souk (Bazaar or marketplace) is a world by itself, being the heart and soul of the trade in precious stones, metals, silk, spices, textiles and olives. With the historical Silk Road being replaced by modern trade routes, the digging of Suez Canal, Turkey occupying the northern part of Aleppo the city’s heart and soul slowly bled out. The final coup de grace was dealt by the recent war and all that is left now is a ‘dead city’.

Anyway, as my husband says, a million dictators cannot rob a country of its beautiful culinary heritage. The dip Muhammara (Moo-hamm-mra) is a specialty from the regions surrounding Aleppo. In fact a crucial ingredient for this dip is the Aleppo pepper which is very different from any other chili pepper I know. It’s hard for me to describe but I’ll try. It has a smoky flavor, oily and flaky texture and moderate heat with a mild sweetness in the background. It’s like mixing cayenne with ancho chilies and paprika at the same time but still not quite there (you know what I am trying to say, right?).

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I am doing a giveaway and will be sending one lucky winner a small pack of Aleppo pepper, a bottle of pomegranate molasses and a beautiful platter from Anthropologie. Aleppo pepper is very hard to find now due to the war so don’t think that the tiny amount in the packet is because I am mean – it’s sold that way. All you have do is write down few words on how you like to see the world in 2014. Unfortunately, I can only ship the prize to the US as it will contain food items. I will accept entries until January 30th, 2013.

Recipe:

Ingredients:

Roasted red pepper paste: around 2/3 cup (if you do not have access to the red pepper paste shown in the picture, roast 3 red bell peppers on the stove top or in the oven. The taste will be very different but it will still taste good. This pepper paste is available in any Mediterranean grocery store or online)

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Walnut: 2/3 cup

Bread crumb: 1/3 cup

Garlic: 2 medium cloves

Cumin: 1 tsp. toasted and coarsely ground

Pomegranate molasses: 1 tbsp.

Lemon juice: 1 tbsp. or less

Zest from ½ a lemon

Olive oil 1/3 cup

Sugar to taste

Aleppo pepper (can be substituted with regular chili pepper flakes): 1 tbsp (more or less preferred)

Salt to taste

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  • Toast the walnuts to a dark brown color. Let it cool. Rub them loosely to get rid of some of the skin.
  • Toast the bread crumb until you get a toasted bread aroma. Let it cool too.
  • In a food processor add all the ingredients and pulse it to a homogeneous mixture. I added a couple of tablespoon of water to help the processor blade. It helps to bring the paste to a manageable consistency too.
  • Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly.
  • Serve it with warm pita bread or crusty regular bread.