Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Thai Delight


It's suddenly that time of year again, the season when life starts to vibrate with various possibilities. Everything seems to be in flux: the days suddenly stretch before you, inviting a certain leisure, and, at the market and in CSA boxes, you get a strange, but not unwelcome mixture of things like cabbage, asparagus and citrus. Somehow, it all feels very celebratory, like there's room and time for everything.


Of course, the extra hour of daylight comes with a price--the oddly destabilizing loss of an hour of sleep. Although such a smidgen of time should barely register, I always find that it takes me a solid week before I again feel that I'm back on schedule. This past Sunday, it was particularly hard to pull myself out of bed to go and tutor. As I collected my things and put my shoes on, I felt a stab of envy for the Greek and the pup, who were still fast asleep under the warm blankets and who didn't have to brave the misty morning to go and discuss the evil doings of one murderous Lady Macbeth.


When I returned home from two hours of fairly intense discussion, I decided that the only way my tired brain and I were going to get through the day without a nap was to do something a little out of the ordinary. I contemplated a trip to the gym for a yoga class, but somehow that didn't seem quite right; it quickly became apparent that only a good, old-fashioned ice cream sundae would fit the bill here. Fortunately, I had a homemade pint of Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream in the freezer for just such an occasion; from a young age I've known that a girl should always be prepared for a craving for quality ice cream.

This ice cream, in fact, is pretty special. Not only was it the first ice cream flavor that caught my eye in Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home, but it also invited me to put the skills I learned in the Thai cooking class I took in the fall to work. You see, when the Greek first gave me Jeni's book for our anniversary back in July, I was determined to make myself some ice cream for the final throes of the dissertation; naturally, as a lifelong peanut butter addict, I gravitated towards the two recipes featuring my daily fix of choice. Because I had just tried The Buckeye State when we were in Nashville for a wedding, I decided that I should go with the more adventurous flavor of the two: Bangkok Peanut, which Jeni had created as her tribute to Pad Thai. However, as was so often the case this past summer, my plan never came to fruition and my dream of making any (and all) flavor(s) of Jeni's ice cream had to be put on hold.

Only recently did I return to and complete this plan. The funny thing is that, when I looked at the recipe again in mid-February (apparently, this is the month when I did all of my cooking for March blog posts), I realized that I could no longer make it as it was written. The Thai class I had taken back in September had ruined the original list of ingredients for me. After a month of coconut milk and fish sauce tastings, dozens of chopped shallots and lectures and demonstrations about what real Thai food tastes like--fiery and flavorful--I had to make this recipe in a way that Kasma might have approved of (never mind the fact that she would most likely never approve. But that being said, the saving grace about the iffy act of turning Pad Thai into an ice cream flavor is that this savory noodle dish has its own interesting history of adaptation and fusion. Although now considered to be the quintessential Thai dish (at least abroad), in Thailand noodle dishes were always considered to be more Chinese than Thai.


As I learned back in the fall, there are certain ingredients in the Thai kitchen--fish sauce, soy sauce, palm sugar, coconut milk, tamarind pulp, the bird's eye chili that can make the most hardened individual weep--that one simply cannot go without. But for this project, I decided that the best way to go about this was to pick and choose; when you're turning a savory dish into a sweet one, something will inevitably be lost in the adaptation. In fact, I like to think that you're evoking more of a flavor profile than an actual dish. This is why, although Pad Thai doesn't require coconut milk or any kind of coconut, I decided that if Jeni wanted me to use these ingredients, I would; I didn't want to ruin what I knew was sure to be one of Jeni's signature creamy ice creams. On the other hand, however, one of the things I've always loved most about ordering Pad Thai in restaurants is the copious amount of chopped peanuts that are sprinkled on top of the dish; while I appreciate that Jeni's recipe uses peanut butter instead of peanuts, I couldn't help but add toasted and chopped peanuts to the ice cream base. Similarly, since I've always felt that Pad Thai is as much about the texture--the crunch of the peanuts and the silky bits of scrambled egg--as it is about a balance of salty, sweet and tangy flavors, I decided to add lime, both its zest and juice, as well as tamarind pulp (this is what gives color to Pad Thai; sadly, in most American Thai restaurants, this is achieved with ketchup) to balance things out.

I'm happy to report that the final product, like Pad Thai itself, was nothing short of a Thai delight--vibrant, flavorful and rich. It contains a hint of spice and the sweetness of the molasses-like palm sugar complements the soft tang of the lime and tamarind nicely. And let me assure you that, when combined with whipped cream and toasted coconut, it's as good as a meal and a wonderful pick-me-up.


Thai Peanut Ice Cream 

heavily adapted from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams and inspired by the beginner Thai cooking class with Kasma Loha-unchit

Yields 1 quart

1 1/4 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup natural peanut butter
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup unsweetened coconut milk
1/2 cup packed palm or coconut sugar (about 1 and 1/2 blocks), grated or chopped in the food processor (you can also warm it up in the microwave to make it easier to work with)
3 tablespoons honey
zest of 1 lime
2-3 tablespoons tamarind juice (made from a small block of tamarind pulp)
3 half-inch slices of peeled fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon unsweetened shredded coconut, toasted
1/3 cup peanuts, toasted and roughly chopped
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Prep work: 
- Mix 2 tablespoons of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl to make smooth slurry.
-Whisk the cream cheese, peanut butter and salt in a medium bowl until smooth.
-Prepare (grate or break up a block in the food processor) and measure out the palm sugar.
-Take a small chunk from a block of tamarind pulp (about 2 ounces) and place it in a small bowl.
Then, add 1/4 warm water to it. Let it soak for 10-15 minutes. Then, once the pulp has softened, grab a handful and squeeze it really hard. The thick juice (really, the pulp that has separated from the seeds and tough membranes) will seep through your fingers. Keep doing this until you end up with a thick and smooth tamarind paste in the bowl. Discard the membranes and seeds. (If this explanation isn't up to snuff, here's a website with visuals.)
-Once the tamarind is ready, fill a large bowl with ice and water.

To make the ice cream: 
-Combine the remaining milk, cream, coconut milk, palm sugar, honey, lime zest, tamarind juice and ginger slices in a four-quart saucepan, then bring to a roiling boil over medium-high heat. Boil for 4 minutes.
-Remove from heat and remove the ginger slices with a small sieve. Then, whisk in the cornstarch slurry.
-Bring the mixture back to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring with a heatproof spatula, until slightly thickened (1-2 minutes).
-Remove from the heat.
-Slowly whisk the hot milk mixture into the peanut butter, cream cheese and salt mixture. Then, whisk in the toasted coconut, peanuts, lime juice and cayenne pepper.
-Place the bowl in the ice bath. Let stand for about 30 minutes, or until cold.
-Pour the ice cream base into the frozen canister of your ice cream maker and spin until thick and creamy (20-25 minutes).
-Using a sturdy spatula, scrape the ice cream into a storage container and press a sheet of parchment against its surface. Seal with an airtight light and place in the freezer.
-The ice cream should sit in the freezer for at least 4 hours before it will be ready for consumption.

4 comments:

  1. I just came back to comment on your salmon tart, and to my delight, also saw this fresh and mouthwatering post! This looks like possibly the world's most perfect food: peanut butter, toasted coconut, and ice cream in one. I wish I had this waiting for me at home today, but at least I have the recipe. (Jeni's book has been on my list ever since I heard she uses cream cheese in her ice cream base -- and I've even splurged for a $12 pint -- but I haven't managed to buy the book yet.) Thank you for sharing!

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  2. I guess I've fooled everybody. I had turned into an "occasional blogger," but I've suddenly gotten my zest back for the whole enterprise (although I have been sorely remiss with a post for the jam blog; it wasn't a good week to lose an hour) and have all of these good things to share! And I agree: this is pretty much my ideal ice cream flavor. The more I eat it, the more I like the combination. Granted, I don't know how Jeni's original version would have tasted, but I like the brightened up and Thai-icized (Thai-ified?) version that I created by taking the best parts of Kasma's and Jeni's recipe. It was a fun kitchen project and I'm never sorry to come home to a pint of Jeni's (I haven't yet splurged for a pint--I know they sell it at Market Hall--but I have been tempted; there are some amazing flavors out now and some things you just can't make at home...Fir tree ice cream, for example!). The book is great!

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  3. Ah, how totally glorious! I love these later evenings too, but have had to fight to get used to missing that hour of sleep. I am so excited/inspired/jealous about/by/of your Thai cooking class! And this ice cream both looks and sounds amazing. I have been on this weird anti-ice cream streak during my pregnancy (I know, blasphemy!), but as the days get longer and the weather gets hotter, I find myself craving something just like this;)

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    Replies
    1. The Thai cooking was a lot of fun; I do miss those evenings spent in the kitchen, although I can't say I miss the moment when I would bite into a bird's eye chili and feel an intense flash of heat....

      I don't know how you're managing not to eat ice cream (I'm amazed by the power of pregnancy cravings; perhaps this explains my mom's obsession with Big Macs when she was pregnant with me), but I hope that, should you suddenly get the urge, that you manage to have something like this. It's really light and flavorful--not to mention superbly textured. :)

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