Modernist Cuisine Gelato
I have been struggling a little with how to start this post. I want to say that this is the best vegan ice cream recipe I have found, because it is, and it affords vegans an all natural frozen dessert that is almost indistinguishable from dairy based ice cream in taste and texture. But I don’t want to scare off non-vegans because this is also the most intensely nutty ice cream I have ever made, maybe ever tasted.
One of the things I enjoy when I am in Italy, is going to my favorite gelateria (gelateria alaska, venice) for either pistachio or hazelnut gelato, who am I kidding, both. Carlo Pistacchi, like all the great Italian gelatiere are simply the world masters of nut ice creams. Well this recipe gets schlubs like us at least in the same ballpark and amazingly close to homeplate. This post ends up with my version of a recipe for modernist peanut butter ice cream and gets there by walking you through some earlier and more exacting variations on the technique that come out of the recent modernist cuisine movement. Though it builds on work by a number of cutting edge chefs, modernist cuisine per se was pretty much single-handedly invented by ex-Microsoft zillionaire and current patent maven, Nathan Myhrvold. It is the ultimate example of what someone with a large excess of brains, creativity, money and appetite can come up with for the sheer fun of it.
You might have heard about his cooking lab’s $600 cookbook , which in addition to documenting an amazing set of unique recipes and techniques, displays various cooking appliances and tools sawed in-half and beautifully photographed to better convey their actual use and generally to show off to fellow cooking and gadget nerds. The Modernist shtick is to explore our knowledge of the chemistry and physics of cooking in a more deliberate way, and in the process, to produce the most delicious versions of standard recipes they can and entirely new eating experiences. How can you not love their experimentalist perspective and the fact that they use very cool, professional chemistry lab equipment to cook with. Boys and Girls messing around with expensive, well made Toys to make delicious food.
How well does all this high-end technique translate to your average home kitchen? Well… They did publish a condensed, but still beautiful version of their cookbook, Modernist Cuisine at Home that sells for a mere $140, which is why as much as I would like to, I haven’t purchased it but I follow their website and have picked up a number of nifty and effective cooking techniques from it. So lets look at their “gelatos”. First of all as you will see, these are not even remotely real gelatos. The word gelato is used to give an accurate indication of what this frozen dessert looks and tastes like, but there is no milk, cream or eggs in these recipes, they are completely vegan. What I find most interesting about them is that they are the ultimate example of using a combination of tiny quantities of natural additives and an unusual but simple technique to improve the texture and creamy mouth feel of the resulting ice cream. Variations of these techniques we can apply to our own recipes. In the end what really appealed to me about this was how completely un-ice cream like it was from an ingredients perspective, but how delicious the final results looked in the Modernist videos and photography. In other words simple curiosity.
This was the original gelato recipe out of the Modernist Cuisine tome. The only substantial ingredients in this recipe are pistachio oil, ground pistachio paste, sugar and water. These are combined with very small amounts of hydrocolloids (stabiliziers), which are “..powders that set or thicken when mixed with water.”. Gelatin is common example of a hydrocolloid. In these recipes the hydrocolloids are used to help prevent the formation of large ice crystals (the smaller the ice crystal, the smoother the texture of your ice cream) and as stabilizers of the mix emulsion.
Remember ice creams are emulsions of fat, water and other ingredients. Fat and water, like to separate (think oil and vinegar), these stabilizers help prevent that. Unfortunately this recipe uses a combination of 4 that I can almost guarantee you are not in your pantry and some are almost certainly not available at your local grocery. Don’t worry I cover a simpler approach below.
In addition to using hydrocolloids to create a better ice cream emulsion, they use a laboratory grade homogenizer to mix all the ingredients together. You will see it if you watch one of their videos. Why do they do this, besides the fact that it gives them an excuse to play with cool lab equipment? Because a lab grade homogenizer, a kind of industrial strength immersion blender, really homogenizes, that is by spinning at 30 – 45,000 rpms, it will break down the fat into much smaller globules than say whisking ingredients together would, causing them to distribute through out a liquid mix very evenly. This results in as smooth and stable an emulsion and resulting ice cream as one can make.
The primary reason that these recipes are referred to as gelatos and not ice creams I suspect, is because homogenizers, like home immersion blenders, don’t add any appreciable air to the mix like whisking or using a blender would. From our humble home ice cream making perspectives should we get hung up on this? Heck no, if you have an immersion blender use that, if you have a blender use that. Though I do wonder if a dremel tool could be some how be setup as diy homogenizer, hmm..? Also it should be noted that, a very expensive ($4000?) ice cream maker called a PacoJet is used to freeze the mix. Though its use may contribute to an ultimate smoothness with these recipes, it is certainly not critical to making them. Anyway if you have read this far and are still interested, you will enjoy the description and fascinating video on the Modernist Cuisine Site.
Peanut Butter and Jelly Ice Cream
This recipe is from Modernist Cuisine at Home and as the website puts it was “re-engineered” from the the original pistachio recipe to be more accessible to home cooks. It forms the basis of what I ended up trying below. In this recipe the water is replaced with grape juice, the pistachio oil and paste is replaced with the much less expensive peanut oil and smooth peanut butter equivalents, and the 4 stabilizers are replaced with one, xanthan gum. Happily this is fairly readily available, I purchased Bob’s Red Mill brand at Whole Foods. It comes in packets similar to yeast and is inexpensive. To quote the site “First discovered by USDA scientists in the 1950s, xanthan gum is fermented by plant-loving bacteria, characterized by sticky cell walls. It is no less natural than vinegar or yeast.” You can read their whole entry on xanthan gum here. The biggest issue with using it, with this whole technique actually, is that xanthan gum is very powerful and small differences in quantity can yield very different levels of solidity. In the pistachio gelato post the author notes that they typically use between 0.1 to 0.2 grams for every 100 g of liquid in a recipe.
The Modernist folks strongly recommend measuring out what you need on a digital scale and don’t even give a volumetric equivalent. I suspect (untried) that you could use about 2/3 of an 1/8 teaspoon measuring spoon for a quart of ice cream and about right. For a pint you have to measure with a scale, see my peanut recipe below. I haven’t made this particular recipe because to be honest the flavor combination of grape juice and peanut butter just doesn’t appeal to me. If you like the idea then by all means try it as laid out in their post or for a pint worth use my recipe below and replace the water with grape or strawberry juice. Though as you will see if you click through to the link, the resulting ice cream is a beautiful color, especially in the photo of the quenelle scoop. I ended up making a straight peanut butter ice cream. But the original post is very interesting and I encourage you to read it.
Modernist Peanut Butter Ice Cream
Because I had the ingredients I needed on hand, I decided to make a straight peanut version of this recipe. I wish I could say that this photo is of my ice cream but it isn’t. However this is almost exactly what mine ended up looking like and a good indication of what you can expect. Check out Liz Fabry’s blog she is an amazing food photographer.
One of primary glories of the original idea and execution is ending up with a super smooth, practically grain-free texture. I knew going into this that wasn’t going to happen because my fresh peanut butter was not smooth. But I didn’t care, I was mostly very curious about what the overall end result would taste like. Note that whatever nut butter and oil you try, they have to be pure and without any other ingredients or additives.
In case this experiment turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, I cut the recipe in half and made a pint. Lastly I decided to use my table top blender because the immersion blender I own is frankly, a piece of junk. Please note: if using a table top blender, the water mix you bring to a boil has to be combined in the blender with the nut oil and butter. Here’s thing, it is thick and at boiling temperature. If you get some on your skin you will almost certainly suffer a serious burn. Use a pot with a good handle that will let you pour without spilling.
The first issue that came up was that my kitchen scale was only accurate to a gram. Since I only needed .15 grams of xanthan gum this wasn’t going to work, so everything was put on hold while I waited for this small scale to arrive. I’m always looking for excuses to purchase kitchen gadgets so I was happy to spend the $10. Hey you never know when you are going to absolutely have to measure out a hundredth of a gram of something! The scale arrived and I’m happy to say it is idiot proof. Eyeballing it I would say that .15 gram is about a 1/16th of teaspoon but don’t make this based on that. As you will see this recipe is a bit fussy in regards to measurements. I divided the P. B. & J recipe exactly in half with no fudging, as I have no experience or feel for this technique at all. Also I used tapioca starch, not corn.
- 1¼ cup + 3 tablespoons of water / 340 grams water
- ¼ cup + 1 tablespoons / 75 grams sugar
- ⅛ cup (2 tablespoons) / 12.5 grams tapioca starch or corn starch
- ⅞ teaspoons salt (round it up to a teaspoon)
- .15 grams xanthan gum
- ¼ cup + 2 tablespoons / 105 grams pure peanut butter
- ¼ cup / 51 grams roasted peanut oil (no additives)
- Add water to a pot.
- Combine all the dry ingredients, then add to pot.
- Continually mix with immersion blender until liquid boils.
- Remove from heat.
- Add peanut butter and oil and combine until smooth with immersion blender.
- If you are using a freezer-canister ice cream maker, pre-chill the mixture in an ice bath. If you are using an ice cream maker with a built-in compressor you can skip this step.
- Churn in your ice cream maker as per manufacturer's instructions.
- Add warm water and combined dry ingredients to blender and blend for 15 seconds.
- Transfer to a pot with a sturdy handle on burner and bring to a boil, whisking continually.
- Remove from heat. Please be super careful this mix is thick and hot!
- Add the peanut butter, peanut oil to the blender. Blend until smooth.
- Very Carefully add the hot water to the blender. Blend until smooth.
- Pre-chill as needed by your ice cream maker.
- Churn in your ice cream maker as per manufacturer's instructions.
- If desired, firm in your freezer for approximately 4 hours before serving.
The final result was amazingly good and not just because I was shocked that this worked at all. A beautiful very pale creamy brown with tiny flecks of peanut. Very creamy, rich and smooth. A small portion goes a long way. If someone didn’t tell you, you would never know this wasn’t dairy based. It is very simple to make, even with the slightly fussy measuring. As I say above, the water, tapioca starch, xantham gum, sugar and salt mix gets thick, not fudge thick, but thicker than other ice cream mixes. Its starts out milky and goes almost translucent as you approach boiling. Keep stirring until it just starts to boil and then take it off the heat. Again I can’t stress this enough, be really careful pouring the hot mix into a blender if you use this method.
I bet that a fantastic milkshake is waiting to be made with this ice cream, milk or nut milk, chocolate, and a little vanilla extract. The bottom line is if you are either a vegan or love nut ice creams, order up one of those little scales and start cooking!
Well obviously you can use any nut for which you can get buy or make a reasonably smooth nut butter from. Actually I think I am going to buy a nut butter machine as they seem to be very inexpensive. I will add what I find out as an update at the bottom of this post. Even though you would ideally use the same flavor oil I don’t think this is a deal breaker. The nut butters are in themselves so flavorful you could probably use a pure canola oil or even olive oil which I suspect would complement nut flavors well. But there are a number of nuts that you can fairly readily get both oils and butters for.
At my local Wholefoods you can freshly grind, almond, cashew, and peanut butters, and there are jars of walnut, sesame, hazelnut and probably more. Nut butters and oils are not inexpensive, but remember this ice cream is very rich and small portions go a long way. A version made with almonds and strawberry juice is one I would like to try soon. Orange and almonds are also a great flavor combination.
More information of Modernist Cuisine
There are a lot of YouTube videos of people experimenting with Modernist techniques, but a good place to start is their website.