The ice cream project: caramel ice cream
For my birthday, which unfortunately is months away, I'm thinking about getting a shipment from Jeni's ice creams in Columbus. Jeni's signature flavor is salty caramel and ever since I first heard about it, I've been meaning to get my hands on some. Columbus is too far away to make a trip special for ice cream--I have responsibilities, after all--so the next best thing is to make it myself.
Salty caramel, as far as I know, is a unique Jeni's creation. I haven't found any recipes for it or reports of other places that serve it. Before I started this ice cream project I had never made caramel and had never made salty ice cream. I wanted to feel confident in my ice cream and caramel skills before plunging into figuring this all out for myself.
Like deep frying, making caramel sounds tricky and dangerous. Both involve heating a liquid to a very high temperature. If any gets on your hands or arms it could burn you badly. And if you don't do it right, the food will be ruined. That said, I have had no problems with either of these techniques and they no longer scare me at all. To make caramel, you put sugar in a pan and turn up the heat. Eventually it turns into a thick, dark brown liquid. You turn off the heat before it gets too dark. That's the whole operation.
To make this ice cream, I used almost the exact same ingredients I would use to make vanilla: 1.5 cups of half and half, 0.5 cups heavy cream, 4 eggs, 4.5 oz. sugar (I used vanilla sugar and left out any additional vanilla). That's it. I put the sugar in a pan and caramelized it.
Then I added the half and half off the heat, then returned the pan to the stove to dissolve the caramel in the half and half. At first it looked like an inedible mess, but eventually it all melted into a uniform golden-brown cream. This took about ten minutes, during which time I'm pretty sure some of the proteins in the cream also browned, adding the benefits of Maillard reaction flavors to the robust caramel ones you get from browned sugar. Read Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking for more on this.
I whisked the yolks, tempered them into the mixture, brought the heat to 170 (in about thirty seconds), and then strained into a bowl with the heavy cream. Ok, why leave out the heavy cream until now? Because the custard will cook without it and keeping it cold speeds up the cooling process. It worked.
You will recall I said "salty caramel." What about the salt? Simply put, I chickened out. I was going to add salt to the mixture while it was hot but I decided it would be safer to master caramel ice cream before plunging into salty caramel. And I'm really pleased that I chickened out because the caramel ice cream I made is too good on its own to screw with it. Caramelizing the sugar further thickened the custard. It froze more quickly than other ice creams and this made its texture incomparable. Rich, smooth, buttery. Really great, more like gelato or frozen custard than like my other ice creams.
I served my caramel ice cream with coarse salt on the side and sprinkled some on. It was delicious with the salt but no less without. I still want some Jeni's come February, but this will be a damn fine substitute in the meantime.
My other ice creams: