Thursday, June 11, 2009

Fresh Bay Leaf and Ginger Ice Cream

I’ve never made beef stew without a couple of bay leaves tossed in, and I’ve made scores of soups and sauces with them too. An element of the classic bouquet garni, bay leaves are a staple spice shelf item.
It wasn’t until recently, however, that I had the completely novel and utterly pleasurable experience of trying fresh bay leaves. If you, like me, think you are familiar with the flavor of bay but haven’t tried the fresh leaf, you are missing out on an entire dimension of this incredible spice.

Dried, the bay leaf is intense and full bodied. It can combine with assertive agents like juniper berries and garlic without losing its presence, and it holds its own against beef, lentils, tomatoes, and even game. Fresh, the bay leaf has a sweet, almost delicate flavor that I wouldn’t even think to pair with rich stewed meats. To me, the taste resembles most that of freshly ground nutmeg, with a hint of something slightly different ~ almost minty, but not quite.

I knew right away that cream and ginger were the flavor components I would use to showcase these beautiful green leaves. Cream to provide a broad, blank canvas and because the fat would really hold the flavor. Ginger, because it was just like enough to enhance, and unlike enough to be a foil for, the exotic quality of the bay.
I chose to make ice cream mainly because I really like ice cream. But I imagine this flavor combination would go over equally well as a crème brulee or a pastry cream to fill tarts or even as a custard or sabayon with fruit.
Try this out on your family and friends ~ but see if they can guess the flavors. Ginger is a given, especially with those succulent chunks of crystallized ginger studding the cream. But if anyone guesses correctly and names fresh bay, you’ll know you have a true connoisseur on your hands!
Fresh Bay Leaf and Ginger Ice Cream
~Ginger custard base recipe adapted from Bruce Weinstein's wonderful Ultimate Ice Cream Book.
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1 piece fresh ginger, about 4 inches long
  • 10 to 12 fresh bay leaves
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons minced crystallized ginger
  1. Peel fresh ginger and cut into 1/2-inch slices. Using the back of a soup spoon or small ladle, apply gentle pressure to the center (or belly) of each bay leaf, just bruising it so that it releases more of its fragrant oils upon steeping. Place milk, cream, fresh ginger, and bay leaves in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring just to the boil over medium heat. Remove from heat, cover, and let steep for 20 minutes.
  2. In a nonreactive mixing bowl, combine eggs, sugar, and cornstarch. Whisk until creamy and well combined.
  3. When the cream mixture has finished steeping, remove ginger pieces and bay leaves with a slotted spoon and return the pan to the stove. Heat, stirring, over medium heat just until bubbles begin to form at the sides. Temper the eggs by slowly pouring the hot milk mixture in a thin stream into the beaten eggs while whisking continuously. Pour the entire mixture back into the pot and return to the stove.
  4. Heat the milk-and-egg mixture over low heat, stirring constantly with a whisk. Don't whip it (you don't want it to get foamy), but gently move the whisk (or even a wooden spoon) steadily through the pan. Be sure to make contact with the bottom of the pan so the mixture doesn't scorch there.
  5. When the custard mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, remove it from the heat and pass it through a strainer into a large heatproof container. Cool for 15 minutes, then add the vanilla extract. Refrigerate the ice cream base in a covered container at least 3 hours or overnight before churning.
  6. Churn the custard base according to the directions that apply to your ice-cream machine. When the ice cream is nearly frozen but still somewhat soft, scatter bits of crystallized ginger over it while the machine is running. Alternatively, you can fold it in with a large rubber spatula after the ice cream is finished churning.
  7. Freeze in a tightly sealed, airtight container for for 2 to 3 hours to firm up and allow flavors to ripen, then enjoy!

Recipe Notes:
  • There are several varieties of laurel, but only the bay leaf, Laurus nobilis, is suitable for consumption. Don’t eat your hedges!
  • Try this ice cream alongside warm apple crisp or pumpkin pie when autumn comes along. The nutmeg-like flavor is a perfect match.
  • Do not allow your custard base to come to a boil or you’ll end up with scrambled eggs. If you do start to get clumps of congealed custard at the bottom of your pan, just remove it from the heat and whisk briskly. Strain through a fine sieve to remove any remaining lumps.
  • You can buy dried bay leaves at the grocery store in little jars, but it’s far cheaper to get them at a health food store, if yours carries herbs in bulk. Look for fresh bay leaves at specialty markets, or better yet, consider getting a potted bay laurel plant for your home or garden (climate permitting).



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