I am pretty easy-going when it comes to food. I am also extremely critical about what is placed in front of me.
Does this seem contradictory? I promise you, it's really not.
I will eat just about anything, if it's gluten-free. Well, okay, I guess I've already admitted to a couple of food aversions in this space. And I try to be conscious of the bigger impact my food choices can have beyond just my own bodily health. But aside from those caveats, I'm open to anything. I don't necessarily love everything I taste, but for the most part I will eat it if it's put in front of me. There are probably many reasons for this, ranging from the desire to simply satiate my hunger, to wanting to show consideration to the person who prepared it, to recognizing that even when it's not amazingly delicious, food is more than just food and eating it is to engage in a web of complex relationships that makes life more interesting. Of course, eating out of habit and by memory also need to be included here.
But I don't actually want to talk about how broad my palate is. I want to talk about how I constantly critique everything I consume.
Because I do. With every bite, I've got an internal conversation racing along between my mouth and my mind. Do I like it? Why? Why not? What parts are good? What should be changed? How would I do it differently? What makes it absolutely perfect, and how can that be applied to other dishes? Writing it out like this makes it sound exhausting, like I'm doing homework at every meal.
It's not like that at all.
In fact, I find it invigorating. I am not so critical that not loving a food will stop me from eating it, so this mental analysis doesn't really get in the way of feeding myself. And I rarely communicate any of this out loud - I do it for my own benefit, not to find things to complain to others about. But by thinking about food this way (and practically all foods, not just the high-end or artisan products we've all by now been taught that we're supposed to pay lots of attention to), it gives me a lot to challenge myself with and keeps me on my toes, which makes the act of eating much more mindful than it might otherwise be. I love finding inspiration in mediocre foods, ones which seem like they should work but for one reason or another end up falling flat on my tongue. It's almost like a game.
I played this game on that lovely, dreamy Sunday I just told you about. At the town creamery, the one with the chalkboard and customers lined up to the door and sticky-faced, smiling children everywhere. I knew as soon as I saw it on the board that I would order it. Chocolate Cherry Amaretto. Some of my favorite flavors, together in ice cream, one of my favorite foods. I immediately yanked my expectations way up high (and who doesn't when they're ordering ice cream?), imagining rich chocolate and winey cherries with the sophistication of almond liqueur. You know, grown-up ice cream.
Instead, I was served a cup of bland vanilla ice cream that was swirled with red something (artificially-flavored cherry sauce, no doubt), and speckled with little dots of dried cherries and waxy chocolate pieces. No Amaretto flavor to be found. My sky-high expectations did a free-fall and shattered.
But still? It was ice cream, on a hot, uncharacteristically lazy summer Sunday, I was with my family, and I was hungry. I ate all of it. And decided that I could easily make the ice cream my mind had instantly conjured when it read those misleading words. See? I'm not picky. But I do know what I want.
So when I made the ice cream base for my recent mesquite experiment, I made a double batch, saving half for this new flavor. I churned it into my ideal version of rich, intense chocolate-almond ice cream, and added big pieces of plump, tart dried cherries and crackly, sweet candied almonds. It was easy, and so, so worth it. It was exactly what I thought I was getting at the ice cream shop. So, odd as it may sound, I am ever so grateful that I ordered such a disappointing flavor that day!
And it turns out that what I had imagined to be a very mature flavor is, quite simply, a great flavor. Josh and I both love it, but so do the boys, who have enthusiastically eaten their shares with no signs of concern when they hit upon a chewy cherry or angular almond.
It is ice cream at its very best.
Chocolate Cherry Almond Ice Cream
yields approximately 2 pints
Make one batch basic ice cream base
Make the chocolate base:
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 fluid cup half and half
1/4 pound (4 ounces) bittersweet chocolate, chopped
Sift the cocoa and sugar into a small saucepan. Whisk in the half and half. Over medium-low heat, bring the mixture to a low simmer, and simmer for five minutes. Off the heat, add the chopped chocolate and whisk to combine. Chill.
Make the candied almonds:
1 cup sliced almonds
1 Tbsp egg white, whisked until very frothy
3 Tbsp turbinado (or demerara) sugar - you could also use granulated sugar, but turbinado sugar gives the almonds a more complex, darker flavor
Preheat the oven to 350º. Spread the almonds in a single layer on a rimmed baking pan, and toast in the oven just until they begin to develop some light brown color. Keep a close eye on them, and stir them around periodically in case your oven, like mine, has definite hot and cold zones. Remove from oven and allow them to cool on the pan. Keep the oven on.
Put the cooled almonds in a small bowl, and pour some of the whisked egg white in. Stir. You want to coat all of the almonds with the white, but not have them positively dripping. You probably won't need all of the white. Stir in the sugar.
Spread the almond mixture in a single layer on a parchment- or silicon mat-lined baking pan. Put the pan in the oven, and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the almonds are a dark caramel color and almost dry. Remove from oven, and move the almonds (still on the parchment) to a cooling rack. Once cool, break up any clumps so you have individual almond pieces.
Make the chocolate cherry almond ice cream:
Additional ingredients needed:
1 tsp almond extract
1 cup dried tart cherries (buy the best you can, to ensure they're plump and moist), roughly chopped
Whisk the almond extract and chocolate base into the ice cream base. Pour mixture into the bowl of your ice cream maker, and churn according to the manufacturer's instructions.
Once the ice cream reaches soft serve consistency, add the candied almonds and chopped cherries, letting your machine mix them into the ice cream. Transfer the ice cream into the container you'll be freezing it in. I like to use chilled 1-quart lidded glass bowls. Press plastic wrap directly on the surface, put the lid on, and stick it in the freezer. It's ready to eat once it's firm! Ice cream keeps, frozen, for up to two months.
Posted by Tara Barker at 7:00 AM