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Plain Vanilla No More: Ice Cream To Swoon For

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
August 23, 2011

My 10-year-old son and I were lolling in our chairs in a post-dinner torpor, sweating from every pore even though all we’d had to eat was cold pasta salad. “Hey, do you feel like going for an ice cream?” I asked him. He sprang to his feet, like a human exclamation point. “That’s exactly what I was going to say.”

We left the dishes and drove, in a shared cloud of pesto breath, to the soft-serve stand a couple of miles away. Noah got a root beer float. I got a malted milkshake. I sipped and chewed on the straw — a bad habit I can’t seem to shake — and waited to be transported. Vanilla. Sugar. A hint of malt. Vanilla. Sugar. A hint of malt. The same thing, over and over. Sure, it was freezing cold, which was without question a relief. Still, I wanted to be swept off my feet, yet here I was, strictly earthbound.

Noah was happy with his float, and I too should probably have just ordered one of my favorites — mint chip or maple walnut or some other chunk-studded flavor. But I’d just wanted to get something different from my usual, and I thought the platonic plainness of a malted would serve.

But it just didn’t. So I decided: Next time, different would have to mean different. Really different. After all, what is the use of having 700 cookbooks if you can’t find a recipe or two for weird-flavored ice creams?

As I fired up EatYourBooks.com, the cookbook-indexing website that allows me to actually use my too-big-to-browse collection, I pondered what would make an ice cream truly different. I didn’t want an ice cream flavor that was uncommon here but conventional in its country of origin, like green tea (Japan) or rosewater (India). As I see it, simply coming from far away doesn’t make you exotic. Not in a country like this one.

I wanted something that you wouldn’t expect to find in an ice cream at all. An ice cream that included not fruit, but vegetables. Not candy morsels, but herbs and spices. Not sugar, but vinegar. I wanted ice creams that not only refused to meet you halfway but dared you to chase them all the way back to their savory, salty, pungent sources.

I’m not the first to have this idea. As I soon discovered, it’s easy to find outlandish-sounding recipes based on any number of unexpected ingredients, ranging from avocado to zabaglione.

You don’t have to go to terrific lengths if you want to go to the Twilight Zone of frozen treats. You can get an ice cream to express a deeply contrarian character with a single ingredient — black pepper. From the first taste of black pepper ice cream, you know beyond a doubt that something is definitely Not Normal. Yet it instantly grows on you — the coarse heat of the pepper and the chill of the cream echoing each other in quick succession like a series of slaps and kisses.

Even more intriguing, to my mind, are the ice creams that sound like an ordinary weeknight dinner prep that has taken a violent left turn. What about basil and pine nut ice cream? (That’s practically pesto, said Noah.) Or caramelized onion and balsamic vinegar ice cream? Which sounds as though it ought to be served atop a steak and a salad.

The kids were surprisingly enthusiastic about our adventure on the dark side of ice cream. “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if we had garlic ice cream?” exclaimed Noah. “We have,” I pointed out. “At the garlic festival a couple years ago.” My son was unfazed. “Well, let’s have it again.” Meanwhile, his little sister’s face disappeared deep inside her bowl as she licked up the last of the pepper ice cream and hunted for stray particles. Eventually she re-emerged, her nose generously daubed with pepper-flecked custard.

I’m sure those black wizards, the molecular gastronomists, could and would go farther. I’m sure they could find a way to make fried chicken ice cream or baby octopus ice cream or pretzel-with-mustard ice cream. And I don’t blame them a bit for going to town with their dehydrators and liquid nitrogen and Pacojets. They’re mad scientists, and that’s just what they do.

But no such sorcery is necessary for my family. We’re pretty balanced eaters who just need a little variety from time to time. None of us is terribly picky, and for the most part we’ll try anything once. Moreover, we’ve always been good about eating our vegetables — even when they happen to be in ice cream. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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