Here’s some free life advice: if you ever see two vanilla beans on sale for $8, buy them.
That’s literally what happened to me last week at Cookbook in Echo Park. They’re selling vanilla beans in little packets of two for eight bucks. Here’s the thing: if you’ve never worked with a vanilla bean before, you should treat yourself, at least once, to the experience… especially if you like vanilla. A fresh vanilla bean is intensely fragrant in the most natural way — the total opposite of a vanilla-scented candle — and scraping the little black seeds out with a sharp knife is the closest many of us will ever get to buying caviar.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s no better way to use a vanilla bean than to make vanilla bean ice cream. The simple ingredients — whole milk, cream, egg yolks, sugar — really allow the vanilla bean to shine. And though there are many complex and wonderful ice creams out there for you to make (David Lebovitz’s Malted Milk Ice Cream, with Whoppers in it, from The Perfect Scoop may be my favorite), vanilla bean is an ideal starter ice cream. It really shows you what homemade ice cream can taste like vs. store bought.
For this version, I used a recipe from a new favorite ice cream book (#2, after David’s): La Grotta Ices. The book is by Kitty Travers, who sells ice cream in a converted green grocers in South London. I saw it, once again, at Cookbook right near the vanilla beans. The cover called out to me.
The book is full of surprising and delightful ice cream and sorbet combinations: pink gooseberry and hazelnut crunch, prune and Earl Grey, rhubarb and Angelica. All of that sounds quite exquisite, but I thought the best one to give the book a test drive was the French vanilla. Only, as mentioned, I used two vanilla beans instead of one.
I even went a step further and used my vanilla sugar — sugar that sits in a jar with discarded vanilla beans — to really hit another vanilla note. I suppose you could call this triple vanilla bean ice cream, but let’s not get carried away with ourselves. Whatever you call it, it comes out looking gorgeous with the little black specks (don’t you love little black specks in your vanilla ice cream?) and tasting truly sublime.
Just to be extra gourmet, I served mine with some fancy olive oil and Saba — a cooked grape must — which I’ve had laying around ever since I bought a bottle at Monsieur Marcel at The Grove, B.C. (before Covid). But you could top it any way you like; a salted caramel sauce might be nice. Or just eat it by itself. You put two vanilla beans in it, for crying out loud! But you won’t regret that choice, especially if it’s your first time. Your first time with a vanilla bean is always special.
Double Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
- 2 vanilla pods The original recipe calls for one, but I called this “double vanilla bean ice cream” so it’s up to you.
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- Pinch sea salt
- 3 large egg yolks
- 1 cup sugar
Start by splitting the vanilla pods down the middle with a small, sharp knife. Scrape out the seeds and place them, and the pods, in a pot with the milk, cream, and sea salt. Turn the heat to medium, and whisk to get the seeds broken up as it heats. Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together in a separate bowl.
When the liquid is hot and steaming (but not boiling), quickly whisk a little into the egg yolks to temper them. Then add the rest of the liquid, whisking constantly, until it’s combined.
Return it to the pot and cook over a medium/low heat until it reaches 180 degrees, stirring all the time with a rubber spatula to prevent it from curdling. As soon as it reaches the proper temp, pour into another container (a soup container works great), cover, and refrigerate overnight. (As Kitty Travers says: “This recipe really does benefit from being aged in the fridge overnight before churning. The texture will thicken and have better ‘mouthfeel’ and you get a warm long-lasting flavour from the vanilla pod.” Two pods, in our case.
The next day (sorry!), strain the custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean container, pressing down to extract everything from the vanilla pods. Use a hand blender to blend the cold custard for a minute to emulsify. (If you don’t have one, you can skip this step.)
Pour the custard into an ice cream machine and churn according to the machine’s instructions until frozen and the texture of whipped cream, about 20 – 25 minutes.
Transfer to a lidded container and freeze until ready to serve.
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