In between school and university I took a year out. I’d originally intended to head straight on to my next level of studies, but as friends around me started to plan their various adventures abroad, it dawned on me that this kind of opportunity is pretty much once in a lifetime. When again, until you’re of retirement age, do you get the chance to take a whole year to yourself, to see the world, try new things, do what you want and go where you please?
I spent the first half of the year working in this restaurant to save money for my trip. Working long hours on London wages and living at home with no rent, I managed to save up enough to spend the next three months in South America and another two in Thailand and Australia. The year was unforgettable and – as with most of my memories – could easily be measured in experiences with food; from clearing tables and calling checks to drinking pisco sours and eating ceviche, discovering pad thai and tom yum, picking beetroot out of sandwiches (the downside of Australia . . .) and enjoying BBQs on the beach (. . . the definite up-side). Surprising then, that with all the unusual sights, sounds and smells on offer, one of my most enduring memories of food from our travels is that of the ice cream.
Our slight obsession with the sweet, cold stuff began in Thailand. After fresh fruit shakes at breakfast, simple salads for lunch and plates of pad thai flecked with crunchy beansprouts, creamy egg and tiny dried shrimps for supper, we found ourselves on more than one occasion entering a Swensen’s Ice Cream parlour, inexplicably drawn by the tacky neon lights, banana splits, hot fudge bonanzas and sprinkles on everything. Maybe our bodies craved the sugar, maybe it’s because it was insanely hot and the ice cream parlour was practically the only place we could find with air conditioning (the rusty fan on the floor of our dingy hostel simply didn’t cut it) or maybe we were just plain greedy, but ice cream became an almost daily habit.
Once we arrived in Australia, this habit developed into a fully blown addiction with the discovery of Cold Rock. Nowadays practically every shopping mall has its ice cream or milkshake equivalent – a tiny counter behind which sit a huge array of glass jars filled with chocolate, sweets, cakes and candy to ‘mix in’ to your favourite milk or ice cream base – but back then we’d never seen anything like it. Staff would slap your ice cream onto a cold stone slab, sprinkle over your treats of choice then smash and mash all the ingredients together into an amazing lumpy, bumpy usually entirely over-the-top concoction. The results were then squashed into a cup, speared with a tiny spoon and handed over with a sense of ceremony and a large pile of napkins to mop up the inevitable sticky state it would leave you in.
This was very different to the ice cream I’d eaten before. Growing up we spent our family summers in Italy where gelato was smooth and clean, the only hint of an addition being a small sprinkle of nuts, a swirl of sauce or the scratchy scribbles of chocolate in stracciatella. Cold Rock ice cream was a confection of an entirely more vulgar persuasion – fit to bursting with chocolate and cookies, hunks of cake, sugar-shelled sweets and candied fruit – with the focus more on the contents than the quality of the custard or cream itself.
Fast forward several years and I’m now the proud owner of my very own ice cream machine. While I still love the excitement of visiting an ice cream parlour and picking out flavours, I also absolutely love making my own. Depending on my mood I’ll mix it up – one week it could be the creamiest gianduja gelato, made with hazelnuts steeped in milk and strained to create as smooth a texture as possible, the next I might stir rhubarb into a custard base for the contrast of creamy ice cream and slightly chewy frozen fruit. Sometimes only sorbet will do, and others, it’s all about the mix-ins; deliciously sticky, sweet, and ever so slightly over-the-top. This ice cream falls into the latter category.
A couple of months ago I made this treacle tart with rosemary sea salt. Anyone who’s been watching Heston Blumenthal’s latest TV show will be aware of his obsession with salting anything sweet to bring out the flavour, and the addition of herbs was a revelation, providing the perfect contrast to a dessert that can otherwise overstep the mark between sweet and slightly cloying. As I was eating a mouthful of pastry with a scoop of smooth, cold clotted cream ice cream, I wondered if the two could be combined in one treacle tart extravaganza.
Originally I intended to infuse the cream with rosemary, stir some pastry through the custard and lump the whole thing into one. However, after surveying all my ingredients I realized I was moving towards Cold Rock overkill territory – the moment you realize that the eyes of your greedy inner fat person have definitely got a whole lot bigger than your stomach and you’ve simply tried to cram far too much into your poor unsuspecting ice cream base. One scoop can only hold so much.
Common sense prevailed as I considered that one of the joys of a good treacle tart is the crispy, flaky crust under all that rich, oozing filling. So I baked my pastry blind as snappy little biscuits infused with chopped crystallized rosemary (made with a combination of sugar and sea salt), and kept my ice cream fairly simple with nuggets of treacle tart mix and studs of buttered pecan. I also attempted pastry ice cream cones, on which I had about a 50% success rate; some turned out beautifully whilst others flaked and fell apart as I attempted to remove the moulds. I’ve included some vague instructions on making the cones below as it’s something I’m still experimenting with, but if you want guaranteed success first time I’d bake the pastry as biscuits or in a mince pie tin and serve the ice cream separately.
When making an ice cream with mix-ins, remember that speed is vital so that ice cream doesn’t melt and cause nasty ice crystals later. Big chunks of mixture can cause havoc with the motor of your machine so add them at the end, working quickly to layer the ice cream before putting straight into the freezer. This ice cream can be served straight away, but if you leave it for a couple of days the nuggets of treacle tart will go incredibly chewy with a slight softness round the edge as the ice cream seeps in. I was impatient and dug straight in, so only discovered this last night as we scraped a final meager scoop from the bottom of the tub. Time to make another batch, I think . . .
Treacle Tart Ice Cream with Rosemary Sea-Salt Pastry
(makes about 1 litre)
For the ice cream
500ml double cream
250ml whole milk
125g golden caster sugar
Pinch of salt
Seeds scraped from one vanilla pod
1 tsp sea salt flakes
300g golden syrup
25g maple syrup
110g brown breadcrumbs
1 large free range egg
2 scant tbsp cream
Zest & juice of half a lemon
Put 250ml of cream in a medium saucepan with the sugar, salt and vanilla seeds. Warm over a medium heat until the sugar is dissolved, then remove from the heat and stir in the remaining cream and all the milk.
Preheat the oven to 190 degrees C. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.
Melt the butter in a small frying pan then stir in the pecans. Mix til completely coated then transfer to your baking tray. Sprinkle with sea salt and toast for about 10 minutes, turning every so often. Remove from the oven, set aside to cool then roughly chop.
Warm the golden syrup over a gentle heat. Once slightly liquid, stir in the golden and maple syrups and breadcrumbs. Add the egg, cream and lemon zest and juice then transfer to the same tray you toasted your pecans on. Bake your treacle tart filling for around an hour at 190 degrees C, forking up at ten minute intervals to ensure plenty of slightly toasty edges. Once a lovely golden brown colour and slightly crisp to the touch, remove from the oven and leave to cool.
Once cooled blend half the mixture in a magimix to fine breadcrumbs, and tear the other half into bite-sized chunks.
To assemble your ice cream
Churn the vanilla base in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. A couple of minutes before it’s done, pour in your treacle tart breadcrumbs.
Sprinkle some chopped nuts into the container you plan to freeze your ice cream in. Pour over some ice cream, sprinkle with some of your treacle tart bite-sized chunks, then repeat the process in layers until you’ve used up all the ingredients. Give it a little stir if you think the pieces need to be incorporated better, then freeze. Remove from the freezer ten minutes before serving to allow to soften slightly.
For the rosemary pastry
A few sprigs rosemary, leaves picked
1 egg white
1 tsp caster sugar
Pinch sea salt
85g unsalted butter, room temperature
50g granulated sugar
1 large free range egg yolk
140g plain flour
To crystallize your rosemary, brush sprigs in egg white, sprinkle with a little caster sugar and sea salt, and set aside in a warm place to dry out. Finely chop.
Make the pastry using this simple recipe, adding the chopped crystallized rosemary along with the flour in the final stage of mixing.
Roll your pastry out to a few mm thick. You can then either roll around ice cream cone moulds if you have them, press into mini mince pie tart tins or bake flat as biscuits. Bake at 190 degrees C, checking after 10 minutes as these little pastries do colour quickly. If making cones, you’ll notice that one edge becomes slightly flatter where they rest on the baking tray – try turning regularly to avoid this but be careful not to break the pastry – it’s very friable!
Once cooked to your desired colour, remove from the oven and leave to cool before serving with big scoops of sticky, chewy ice cream. Bliss.