Oh, the delights of a Western Washington summer! Strawberries, raspberries, huckleberries, blueberries, black currants, blackberries.
They are bountiful and often free for the plucking at the edges of backyards, school yards and sides of trails. When spotted, they submit easily to the grabby fingertips of even the smallest berry-wanting hands that quickly smash the soft fruits - red and blue, black and juicy - into their desperate mouths.
But people. Let's not get carried away. Not yet. While we're talking summer around here, we must not forget about that most quintessential warm-weather treat of all: Ice cream.
Everybody has their favorite. Mine happens to be a really good, rich vanilla. The kind made with a yolky, custard base and bourbon vanilla beans. None of that extract business for me.
Now let's get back to the berry.
Recently, I was reading Nigel Slater's, Ripe, which features a number of beautiful frozen treats, some of which do not require an ice cream maker at all. If you haven't taken a look at this book, you absolutely should. His writing has a gracefulness that I appreciate and his approach to cookery (as the British say it) is both intuitive and filled with good sense.
One of the berry types that he highlights in this volume is the black currant. When I acquired some from Sumas River Farm, I went home immediately to see what Slater had to say about it.
I was immediately struck by his use of the word "strident."
These berries, which I had only seen before in the form of jelly, were dark and covered with a slight bloom. Their appearance reminded me of a smaller, rounder purple grape.
Interesting, I thought. Surely strident was an extreme way to describe a berry. Didn't that word usually go along with controversial political topics which pundits shouted angrily about on TV?
I decided to taste a few berries in raw form (even after Slater's warning that black currants must be cooked). They were, uh, well, let's just say highly opinionated might be a bit of an understatement, as would mouth puckering.
Unsure of how to proceed, I yanked them off their stems (yank being the correct word, as they were quite stubborn in their position of non-cooperation during the entire procedure even as my fingertips became stained with what I can only describe as the color black). I threw them into a small saucepan, along with a couple tablespoons each of water and sugar.
It only took a minute or two for the berries to burst. I removed them from the stove and pushed the entire amount through a sieve to remove skin and as many seeds as possible. I poured the black-purple sauce into a jar and plunked it onto a shelf in the fridge.
I went on with the business of my day.
A week passed before I suddenly remembered the puree. I had to do something with it! Calmly, I decided to follow Slater's advice. I stirred a few spoonfuls into a just-churned vanilla ice cream to make a ripple.
For those of you unfamiliar with ripples, they are a British concoction made of vanilla-based ice cream with some fruit puree simply mixed in. The traditional version contains raspberry and I understand the pink-swirled sweet is well-loved by many a Briton, child or adult.
Here's a version featuring that stubborn, strident fruit. Yes, the black currant. Let's just say it's a berry with a strong personality, which makes it a perfect partner to sweet, creamy vanilla.
When streaked through with the super-tart, almost-astringent flavor of the black currant, the vanilla ice cream is elevated into a better, multi-dimensional version of itself. The whole thing pops and cartwheels off your palate.
Let us use the appropriate word to describe the Black Currant Ripple. If heavenly doesn't suit you, maybe the better choice would be...Divine?
Black Currant Ripple
For the vanilla base:
1 vanilla bean
2 cups whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
5 large egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
For the fruit puree:
1/2 pint black currants, removed from their stems
1-2 Tablespoons water
2 Tablespoons sugar
To make the fruit puree:
Give your fruit a good rinse. Place berries in a small saucepan. Add water and sugar. Over medium heat, cook just until the berries burst. Remove from heat. Pour mixture through a sieve and push through to remove skin and seeds. Set puree aside. Puree can be made up to a week ahead.
To make the vanilla base:
With a sharp paring knife, split the vanilla bean in half and scrape out the seeds into a medium saucepan. Add the vanilla pod, milk and cream. Over medium heat, bring mixture to a boil and turn off and remove from heat immediately. Cover and allow flavors to infuse for at least 30 minutes.
After the flavors have infused, return the saucepan to the stove. Over medium heat, rewarm the mixture. Turn off heat as soon as it comes to boil.
Prepare an ice bath in a large bowl.
Whisk egg yolks and sugar together in a bowl. Whisk a couple of tablespoons of the cream mixture into the egg yolks and sugar. Slowly add a few more tablespoons, whisking constantly. At this point you can add the remaining cream mixture in a slow, steady stream as you continue to whisk. Pour the mixture back into the pot and return it to the stove.
Over medium heat, cook the custard mixture for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Make sure you scrape the bottom and the sides of the pan. The custard will thicken and when it is done it will just coast the back of your wooden spoon/spatula. Strain the mixture into a bowl that is smaller than your ice bath. Place your bowl of custard into the ice bath to cool, stirring the mixture.
Place the custard in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours but overnight is best as it will allow your ice cream to achieve the creamiest consistency. Process in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.
After removing ice cream from machine, place half in a freezer-proof container. Place a few spoonfuls of puree over the vanilla and then swirl it through. Place the remaining half of the vanilla ice cream over the first layer. Scoop remaining puree over the vanilla and swirl through that layer.
Place in freezer for a few hours before enjoying.
Makes 1 quart.
p.s. Don't forget to wash off your vanilla bean pods and let them dry completely before tossing them into your jar of sugar. You'll have vanilla sugar in no time, which you can use for your next batch of ice cream!