Friday, May 7, 2010

Mint for the Moms

Growing up, as much as life changed from year to year, I could always predict one constant: Baskin Robbins ice cream cake, mint chip, on every family member’s birthday. You know the kind: so green it’s practically blue. Surely we must have  shared a mutual mania for this flavor, for it to endure year after year, right? The answer is no, but Mom did, so there was never any question what we were getting–and we learned to love it. She ordered a cake twice the necessary size, then after the last of the cracked-out party guests was carted home, she sliced and squirreled away a nice little stash for herself at the back of the freezer, cleverly barricaded behind a forbidding wall of my father’s frozen stocks and animal bones. Sneaky Mom, you didn’t think we were on to you?

Except one year, maybe it was my ninth birthday, I rebelled and went with the seasonal pumpkin pie flavor for my party cake. She must have been devastated, but Mom bit her tongue and did the ordering (half the usual size). It fell flatter than a spinach crepe among the invitees, who were horrified by the hunks of orangey-brown cake melting into even more revolting rust-colored puddles on their plates, and I had to admit right then and there…Mom knew best.

A month ago we visited my parents, and my younger daughter’s birthday fell during the visit. Of course my mom surprised her with a…wait for it…Baskin Robbins mint chip ice cream cake, ablaze with four candles. Only, half the cake had to be vanilla, because the birthday girl does not actually like mint chip.

But here’s the thing: although I really do like B.R. mint chip occasionally, I really do, it’s like going on a joy ride with the high school bad-boy in his brightly colored muscle car. You wind up with a queasy stomach and secretly admit it’s not really all that good for you. I vowed years ago, after tasting a boule of Feuille de Menthe at Berthillon in Paris, that I would start making my own mint chip–from the real, leafy deal, not the stuff that dribbles out of a wee bottle. And I wouldn’t add food coloring, either, no matter how much a colorless mint chip might unsettle some people. So I always keep at least two kinds of mint growing, to infuse into my own mint leaf ice cream and give it layers of flavor. Mint overwhelms us each year because, make no mistake, it’s a weed–albeit a tasty and refreshing one. If you have a black thumb and are bummed out about it, I recommend buying yourself a pot of mint.
Replicating those chips–or rather flaky shards, as I should describe them (frankly the best part of the classic B.R. variety)–was a bit more difficult, but then I learned the trick while working as the assistant to the pastry chef at a French restaurant in New York. We used to do this thing with the pistachio ice cream. After the machine churned out the frozen product, we would scoop it into quart containers and one of us would pour a thin, steady stream of bittersweet chocolate onto the ice cream while the other stirred like hell. And the other was usually me, getting yelled at to stir faster, faster, choking back tears as blisters ballooned on my hands. You had to stir fast as a cartoon, or else the ice cream would melt and the chocolate would settle into thick, unseemly clumps–call it the Magic Shell effect. Ideally, the thread of liquid chocolate would freeze on contact and disperse evenly and elegantly throughout the frozen custard. Then, when you ate the ice cream, whispers of chocolate would dissolve on your tongue–rather than cracking your teeth open, like big hunks of frozen chocolate do. I was really good at it for a while and even mastered the skill at home, solo, pouring and stirring in dexterous rhythm. I can still do it–though, sadly, my skills have gone flabby and would never pass muster in a 3-star French restaurant.

So Mom’s on her way up to visit right now. And guess what I made for her? Yep, it’s waiting in the freezer for when she gets here. But the real reason she’s making the drive is not to celebrate Mother’s Day or sit down and eat a bowl of mint chip ice cream with me….it’s because my sister just had a baby, just in time to celebrate her own first Mother's Day! Woohoo! He–my new nephew–weighed in at 10 ½ pounds at birth, and none of us can figure out how that happened, but my sis needs all the help and feeding she can get. She’s not a big girl by any stretch, and this heft of baby is unprecedented in our family, but somehow this clever boy siphoned off every bit of the good food she enjoyed while he was still hooked up: countless stracciatella crostini at Roman's, sushi at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo (just kidding, doctor), slow-roasted pulled pork shoulder I made for her baby shower. He already knows the good stuff, and I have a feeling things will continue in the same vein, so I’m taking it upon myself to feed her, and indirectly him, as best I can. Starting with my double-mint leaf/chocolate chip ice cream, which I stirred solo like a madwoman and left hidden behind a fortress of scary items in her freezer, while she was in the hospital. Cass, have you found it yet?

Happy Mother's Day!

Double Mint-Leaf/Chocolate Chip Ice Cream
Note: allow time for custard mixture to cool, 8 hours or more. I usually do this on consecutive days.

  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy (whipping) cream
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 huge handful chopped mint sprigs, preferably from two different varieties of mint: e.g., peppermint, spearmint, chocolate mint, and/or black mint
  • 6 ounces good quality bittersweet chocolate (like the Callebaut 70%), either chopped coarsely if you're going for the melt-and-stir method, or chopped extremely fine if you want to take an easier path. Mini chocolate chips are fine, too. 
Put milk, cream, and half the sugar in a heavy saucepan and whisk to combine. Set over medium-high heat. In a medium bowl, whisk together yolks and other half sugar. Watch the cream mixture very carefully until it just begins to foam and bubble on the sides–it will boil over quickly! Turn heat off and ladle some of cream mixture into yolks, whisking it together. Do this with a few more ladles full of cream mixture, then turn heat back on very low. Pour contents of bowl back into saucepan, whisking the whole time, until mixture begins to thicken slightly–enough to lightly coat the back of a spoon.
Pour back into the mixing bowl and stir in mint leaves.
To cool more quickly, set the bowl over a larger bowl with ice in it. Cover with plastic wrap with a couple of holes poked in it–this will let steam out and prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate, stirring occasionally, at least 8 hours or overnight. Mixture must be very cold for most ice cream makers. 
When ready to freeze, get your ice cream maker ready, and also put container that will hold ice cream into the freezer. Immediately before using, strain ice cream mixture into a clean bowl with a mesh strainer, pressing on mint leaves to extract maximum flavor. Discard leaves. Freeze ice cream according to your machine's instructions–I use a simple canister machine from Cuisinart and it takes me around 20 minutes. 

Meanwhile, the chocolate: If attempting the melt-and-stir method, make a double boiler with a metal bowl and saucepan while the ice cream is freezing. Put a little water at the bottom of the pan (should not touch bowl) and bring to a gentle simmer. Put the bowl on top and fill with all but a few pieces of chopped chocolate. Melt chocolate slowly, and when it's just melted, remove bowl and stir remaining pieces into the melted chocolate until they melt, too. You want the chocolate to be liquid but not hot–you can test by touching a little chocolate on your lower lip. If you curse, it's too hot. Should feel nearly room temperature. 

When ice cream is thick and frozen, you can do one of two things. One, simply stir in chips or thinly chopped chocolate, and put in the freezer. Or Two, proceed from above: transfer ice cream into cold container (or leave it in the canister with paddle removed). Have a big mixing spoon with the chocolate and a wooden spoon or spatula with the ice cream. Partner up or go solo. One hand drizzles a thin stream of chocolate into the ice cream while the other stirs it in furiously. Faster! Faster! Work quickly, stopping once you are satisfied with the distribution of chocolate.


  1. Sounds delicious!! Ben and ezra's favorite favor. We have the icecream attachment for our mixer. We will try to make it. Great story! I grew up with baskin and Robbin but always got carvel cakes. Great writing!! Happy mothers day!


  2. This is such a beautiful post. I have to admit that I too grew up on B&R, although our favorite was chocolate chip of the plain variety. I still agree that the flakes of chocolate they use are better than any chunks or chips of chocolate in any store-bought ice cream, ever! Lucie LOVES their mint chocolate chip and, once again, I will admit that we buy it on occasion. But I can clearly see how this recipe would forever change her palate. Now I have to go and get myself an ice cream maker!

  3. Leo says: "Thank you for inviting me to a mint ice cream breakfast." Next time please invite me.

  4. I had a little giggle reading this. Back in the day when I worked at Ben and Jerry's (for some reason still one of my most talked about jobs) I had to constantly explain to the kiddies why the mint chocolate chip ice cream wasn't green. I guess they had been spending too much time over at B&R too!