Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Io Saturnalia, Happy Solstice, Happy Kwanzaa, et cetera
It's almost the new year. I remember when the years seemed to slug on and on forever, how it seemed I would die of anticipation before another Christmas rolled around. Not to be melodramatic, but I've been feeling old lately - not middle-age-crisis old, but old enough that my little cousins are beginning to consider me more of a grown-up now. But at least I can still play hide-and-go-seek with the best of them (I had to be summoned by olly olly oxen free from one of my hiding spots this year) even with my nineteen-year-old, nearly six-foot frame (darn that last inch >.<), I still host the post-Christmas sleepover with my younger cousins, and I still run around with them and allow them to pummel me (while their parents chat and drink downstairs).
So Christmas came and went as it always does, with me feeling just a wee bit older than usual. We host my mom's side of the family for Christmas each year, with a sit-down first dinner (i.e. around two o'clock), see-what-else-you-can-eat second dinner (i.e. leftovers from first dinner plus really awesome ribs which my dad makes), and let's-commence-with-the-final-food-coma dessert (i.e. ice cream sundaes and various other pastries provided in a pot-luck style). Now, I do help my dad with first dinner, especially with the side dishes. He does most of second dinner, since I'm usually chasing small children around and trying to prevent them from drawing with Expo markers on the walls (this goal was not achieved this year... we have some lovely black scribbles in the study now). But dessert, the sundae bar of wonders: this is my arena.
A while back, I received The Ciao Bella Book of Gelato and Sorbetto as a gift. Since then, when I feel compelled to break out my ice cream maker, I almost always turn to this compilation of gelatos, sorbettos, sauces, and pastries. Gelato differs from ice cream in terms of ratios: the former tends to have more egg yolks and milk, and less cream, than the latter; moreover, gelato does not involve the incorporation of air like ice cream does (aside from the small amount introduced during the churning process), making for a denser product. Premium ice creams only contain a small amount of air, while cheaper products contain large amounts (so you're not necessarily getting more ice cream, just more volume). Anyway, with gelatos and ice creams, your base ingredients consist of egg yolks, milk, cream, and sugar. You can make a pretty darn tasty vanilla by adding a little extract to this (real vanilla extract, if you please), or you can get fancy with orange zest, cardamom, star anise, and cinnamon. I made this combination for the Christmas sundae bar this year by infusing the milk and cream with whole cardamom pods and star anise, then making the custard with the zest and cinnamon added in.
I think the orange-cardamom gelato was pretty successful, but it would've been better with less anise (I should've used only one star, or pericarp, rather than two to perfume the milk-cream). My mint-brownie gelato concoction, however, was wildly successful - it was a struggle not to eat the whole batch myself. I spied the recipe for mint-chip gelato in Ciao Bella, which was simply the plain base spiked with mint extract and laced with chocolate chunks... And for some reason, I imagined the chocolate chunks as brownie chunks instead. Genius. I'm sure it's been done before, but I was very pleased with myself for thinking of it. Ciao Bella has a wonderful recipe for brownies, and it makes a ton of them - I was left with two-thirds of them for munching. This summer I found a lovely chocolate sauce recipe that I used to make chocolate milk after crew practice, and this is what I used for this year's sundae bar. In the past I've also made the caramel sauce from Ciao Bella, but this year I decided to forgo that addition considering the gelato offerings. With a little homemade whipped cream, and maybe some shards of peppermint patties if you're feeling adventurous, this hot fudge mint-brownie sundae is heavenly.
2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
4 large egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon mint extract
2 sticks unsalted butter
8 ounces semisweet baking chocolate
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
Combine the milk and cream in a heavy-bottom saucepan, and cook over medium-low heat until it reaches 170° F. If you don't have a thermometer, this is when little bubbles begin to form - so you don't want it to be boiling, or even simmering really. Be sure to stir occasionally to prevent a skin from forming or the bottom from burning. While the milk is warming up, whisk the egg yolks in a medium bowl until smooth, then slowly whisk in the sugar until the mixture is smooth and pale yellow.
Once the milk has come up to temperature, turn off the heat and temper the yolks. This just means that we want to add, slowly, some of the hot liquid to the eggs in order to bring them up to temperature. We do this to avoid scrambling the eggs, since we want to thicken the custard with them, not have pieces of them floating around. I usually put my bowl of yolks on a towel to prevent the bowl from moving around while I simultaneously whisk and pour (if you have an extra pair of hands lying around, its owner could hold the bowl for you). So, begin whisking the yolks, then start pouring in a ladel-full of hot milk-cream while you keep whisking. Add another ladel-full, then slowly pour this egg mixture into the milk-cream pot while whisking.
Now that you have the milk, cream, eggs, and sugar in your pot, turn the heat on to low and cook, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until the custard reaches 185° F. If you don't have a thermometer, check the custard's doneness by dunking your wooden spoon into the custard, holding the spoon with the convex side facing you (so the edge is facing down at the pot), and wipe your fingertip horizontally through the middle of the custard on the spoon. The remaining custard should not begin to drip or slide when you do this, and it should leave a definite line where your finger had been. This means it has thickened sufficiently. Pour the mixture through a fine mesh strainer, then cool completely in the refrigerator, ~4 hours.
While that's cooling, jump on those brownies. Preheat the oven to 350° F and chop the chocolate into small shards. Either in the microwave or a small saucepan, melt the chocolate and butter together, then let cool slightly. In a small bowl, sift the flour, cocoa powder, and salt together. In a large bowl, beat the eggs on low speed until smooth, then slowly add in the sugar until incorporated. Beat the eggs and sugar on medium speed until the mixture is pale yellow and thick. Reduce the speed again and add in the butter-chocolate mixture. Now mix in the flour, cocoa, and salt until just combined. I was able to fill one 13x9 inch pan and one 9x9 inch pan, but you could try other sizes. Bake ~20 minutes (depending on your pans) until set, then cool completely.
Cut half of the brownies from the 13x9 inch pan into small chunks, about 1/2 inch cubes, then put them in the freezer until they've hardened. Remove your chilled custard from the fridge, then add in the mint extract. Churn in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. Once it's almost done, ~1 minute left, slowly add the frozen brownie chunks and let the ice cream maker churn them into the frozen custard. Freeze until solid, then serve with hot fudge and whipped cream.