The ice cream project: black sesame ice cream
The consensus among my ice cream tasters is that this black sesame ice cream is interesting. No one proclaimed undying love for it. No one said that if they are ever sentenced to death, they want black sesame for the final course of their final meal before facing the great beyond. No one vowed to name their next child Black Sesame, or even their dog or goldfish. But interesting is better than blech, so I'm happy enough. It is both a virtue and flaw of my ice cream project that I make each one once, that I don't tinker with quantities and substitutions. A virtue because I focus on getting it right the first time and because each batch of ice cream is a total discovery, a new and fresh idea. But a flaw because none of them seems to come out quite perfect. Imperfection can be an end in itself but perfection would be nice once in awhile. If I weren't blogging ice cream it would be more tempting to try it again, but I don't want to write about black sesame twice. E says of Jeni's ice creams (which we sampled a few months ago) that each one overwhelms you with its intensity of flavor and captures the essence of its ingredients. Somehow I haven't accomplished that feat, but I'm just one amateur and I don't do perfection, so that's just how it is.
My immediate inspiration for making this flavor came from Robyn (blog, flickr), aka The Girl Who Ate Everything, whose adventures in New York eating are astonishing and whose efforts to document them constantly amaze me. She blogged recently about black sesame ice cream that she had at a parlor in Chinatown, so that put the idea in my head to try it out. (Mine is much darker in color; I'm eager to taste other renditions of black sesame to see if the intensity of sesame flavor is in proportion to darkness of color.)
Black sesame is a familiar flavor from dim sum confections (they're a filling in sesame balls, which also sometimes contain sweet bean paste). The black seeds taste the same as the white ones, as far as I can tell, but the Chinese love color contrast in their foods and this might explain why they prefer black sesame seeds as a filling inside a pastry made of white glutinous rice. Sesame is used as a flavor in sweets far and wide, not only in China but also in the Middle East and Europe (halva; honey sesame candy, a kind of sesame brittle that I used to eat all the time growing up). I first heard of black sesame ice cream when reading about Il Laboratorio del Gelato in NYC, which is on my short list of places to eat as soon as possible.
To make this ice cream I began by toasting and grinding seeds. I toasted them in a hot iron skillet and ground them in an electric spice grinder, which is actually a Mr. Coffee grinder in which I don't grind coffee. I remember the first time I heard Martha Stewart say that I need to buy two coffee grinders, one for coffee and one for everything else. I thought she was crazy, and maybe she is, but she was right about grinders.
(I have been using my spice grinder for all kinds of unusual tasks lately, including grinding medium bulgur into fine bulgur to make dal kibbeh, little red lentil balls with bulgur, onions, and spices which I have been cooking and eating just about all the time for two weeks. I got the idea from Mumu, and she got it from The Hungry Tiger. The recipe calls for cumin, garlic, fresh tarragon, and hot pepper paste. On the principle of if/then, I have been adding coriander (if cumin, then coriander) and ginger (if garlic, then ginger). I have been omitting the tarragon and following Mumu's substitution of gochujang for the hot pepper paste. And I have been serving them dipped in a raita made of full-fat yogurt, coarsely grated cucumber, finely chopped fresh mint, and a pinch each of salt and sugar.)
I started with two tablespoons of black sesame seeds but this seemed like too little, so I toasted and ground another two. This makes a quarter cup if you're keeping score at home. I thought that they might become tahini in my spice grinder but although they are a bit wet, they didn't turn to butter and it wasn't a bitch to clean. They did smell good. Perhaps I should mention that I buy black sesame seeds in large bags from the Asian Mart, that they're pretty cheap if you buy from an ethnic grocer (I don't care to know what Whole Foods charges), and that they don't seem to go off as quickly as white sesame seeds. I guess this is because they are lower in fat or moisture, but I can't say for sure.
After grinding my seeds, I added them to 3 cups of half and half and brought it to a simmer, tempered in my eight yolks whisked with 9 oz. of sugar to the ribbon stage, brought the mixture to 170, killed the heat, added a cup of heavy cream, and then tasted. It was like halva, like sesame candy, like dim sum, like everything I hoped it would be. I love to taste ice cream when it's warm, a sweet creamy soup in a state of becoming.
It's just as good frozen, but I suppose that the sesame flavor could be even more intense. If I were after perfection I might try a third of a cup next time, a half a cup the time after that. I might see just how far you can push the sesame. I might try a longer infusion in the cream. I might try melting halva down into the mix or adding toasted sesame seed paste.
My favorite thing about this ice cream is its color, but its flavor is excellent if a bit odd and its texture has some of the pleasing granular quality of halva. I'm not going to make it again anytime soon, but I'm looking forward to eating the pint of it still in my freezer
This post is for Barbara's monthly Spice is Right event. This installment is called "Sweet or Savory?" and asks you to cook with a spice that you grew up with as either sweet or savory and to cook with it the other way. I grew up with sesame as sweet and savory--sesame oil on broccoli and sesame candy from the corner store--but I have certainly encountered the majority of my sesame seeds on bagels, which I consider a savory food, and I think it's fair to assume that most North Americans see them that way most often. According to McCormick (and they should know), sesame seeds "may be the oldest condiment known to man." I would love to have been there when man first used a condiment. It was all downhill after that.
My other ice creams: