There are many foods that I truly love, but ice cream is probably at the top of the list. I am almost always in the mood to eat ice cream. If I turn down an offer of ice cream, someone should probably take my temperature. Besides the fact that there is something about ice cream that is particularly satisfying (the cold, sweet, rich, creaminess perhaps?), I am certain that part of my attachment to it is rooted in a nostalgia for summers long gone. Ice cream conjures up hot summer nights from my childhood—riding in the back of our family station wagon, with the windows down, gobbling up the ice cream as it melted and listening to Denny Matthews calling the play by play on the car radio....truly happy memories.
Most of the time I eat premium store bought ice cream and occasionally I will make a run to a local soft serve or traditional ice cream shop to satisfy a craving. I don't usually think to make it for myself. Then, a class or a private dinner that features ice cream will come up and I will have to make a batch. I am always struck by how easy it is to make homemade ice cream—and how very good it tastes. I always wonder why I don't make it for myself more often.
In a couple of weeks I am teaching a dinner class that features Butter Pecan Ice Cream with Peaches "Foster" for dessert, so I've been making (and eating) ice cream this week. Not only did I end up with what I think is the best butter pecan ice cream I have ever had, but I learned some interesting things in the process.
Butter pecan ice cream has a characteristic flavor that is recognizable as "Butter Pecan" to anyone who has ever tasted it. After examining several different recipes, it seems to me that there are four essential things that make up butter pecan's flavor profile. These are: pecans, butter (preferably browned), brown sugar and salt.
The addition of the pecans is obvious. I suppose that the butter should have been too, but for some reason it never occurred to me that there would be actual butter in the ice cream. As I mentioned, the flavor is best if the butter has been browned. Butter is made up of butter fat, milk solids and water. When butter is "browned" it is melted and brought to a simmer. As it simmers, the water percolates off and only the fat and milk solids remain. As the butter continues to cook, the milk solids begin to brown. The cooking process should be stopped before the milk solids blacken and burn. Browned butter has a rich, nutty flavor and aroma which provide a nice accent for the flavor of the pecans.
To incorporate the butter flavor into the ice cream, most recipes that I came across simply tossed the pecans with a small amount of melted butter and left it at that. I found a recipe at Simply Recipes that adds butter that has been browned to the ice cream base—but the pecans themselves are only optionally coated with butter. Another recipe that I found directs the cook to toast the nuts in melted butter (giving you actual "buttered pecans") but then inexplicably strains off the resulting pecan flavored butter, calling for it to be "reserved for another use."
To get the maximum amount of buttered pecan flavor, I combined these two ideas—I browned the butter and then added the pecans to it to let them infuse the butter with their flavor.
Since the pecans themselves are only added to the ice cream at the end of the churning process, I then strained out and reserved the pecans and added the pecan flavored, browned butter to my custard base. Since fat carries flavor, this results in a richer pecan flavor that permeates the ice cream.
As for the use of brown sugar and a generous amount of salt, their addition gives a slight butterscotch-y note that is a hallmark of Butter Pecan. One warning about the use of brown sugar: Typically an ice cream recipe directs you to add half the sugar to the yolks and half to the milk and to then bring the milk/sugar mixture to a boil. You'll notice that in my recipe, all of the brown sugar is added to the egg yolks. The reason for this is that brown sugar contains molasses, which are acidic. When an acidic ingredient is added to milk and the milk is heated, as it nears the boil it curdles. This is actually a rough description of how the cheese making process starts. Since I was thinking about ice cream and not cheese making, I followed my usual method (just described) for my first batch. I was pretty dismayed when the milk curdled.
I departed from standard Butter Pecan ice cream by substituting honey for some of the brown sugar. This is just my own personal preference—it's not traditional. I think the addition of honey gives a better texture and a better flavor and I frequently use part honey when I make ice cream.
I haven't fleshed out the "Peaches Foster" portion of my recipe yet (so I can't include it in this post), but a simple dish of the butter pecan ice cream on its own made a fine finish to a warm June evening.
Butter Pecan Ice Cream4 T. unsalted butter
3/4 c. (3 oz.) pecan pieces, lightly toasted and cooled
1/4 t. salt
1 1/4 c. whole milk
6 egg yolks
1/2 c. golden brown sugar
1 1/2 c. cold heavy cream
1/4 c. (3 oz.) honey, warmed slightly if not pourable (I use raw honey)
1 t. vanilla
Melt the butter in a small, wide sauté pan set over medium heat. As the butter begins to sputter and pop, whisk occasionally. The butter solids will begin to turn brown. When the solids are golden brown and the butter has a pleasantly nutty aroma add the pecans and stir to coat. Continue to stir and cook until the nutty aroma smells distinctly of pecans—2 to 3 minutes. Do not let the butter burn!—it will continue to darken to a deeper brown, but if it appears to be darkening too much, remove the pan from the heat and continue to stir. Strain the butter into a heat proof dish and set aside. Toss the nuts with the salt and let them cool. Chill the nuts. Before adding the nuts to the ice cream, chop medium fine.
Place the milk in a medium-sized saucepan. Bring to a simmer. While the milk is heating, briefly whisk the egg yolks with the brown sugar until smooth. Add the hot butter to the egg-sugar mixture in a thin stream, whisking constantly—be sure and get all of the browned bits.
When the milk simmers, temper the egg yolks by gradually whisking in about 1/2 to 3/4 c. of the hot milk. Stir the tempered egg mixture back into the saucepan and place the pan over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the custard begins to thicken and a path forms when you draw your finger across the custard-coated back side of the spoon—an instant-read thermometer will read about 175°. Immediately strain the custard over the cold cream in a chilled bowl. Stir in the honey and the vanilla. Place the custard in the refrigerator and chill until cold. (To speed up the chilling process, place the bowl of custard in an ice bath and chill, stirring occasionally.)
Freeze the ice cream in an ice cream machine according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Add the buttered pecans to the ice cream during the last few moments of churning. Transfer the ice cream to a chilled freezer container and freeze for at least an hour or two before serving. Makes 1 quart ice cream.
Variation: Substitute maple syrup for the honey to make "Maple Butter Pecan".