Classic Vanilla Ice CreamFriday, March 8
In last week’s column I shared my experience of exploring the dining scene in Vancouver. Well, this past week I was on the road again. This time my travels took me to Calgary on business, and yet again, I managed to find the time to poke my head into some of the city’s hottest restaurants. From tasty lunches at Clive Burger, Una Pizza, and Market, to memorable meals at Yellow Door, Model Milk, Cucina, and Anju, it certainly was a delicious visit. It wasn’t all indulging and stuffing my face though. I also had the chance to catch up with a couple old friends and colleagues. I went for dinner with one of my first chefs and we shared stories and memories of our time working together, and had a few laughs at just how green I was back then, but it was my visit with another former colleague that was made this weekend special. Chef John Michael MacNeil and I first met in the summer of 2000, when he arrived at Buffalo Mountain Lodge during his practicum semester away from the Culinary Institute of Canada. He was a fresh-faced kid, not even 20 years old, who had a seemingly endless vault of creativity. We hit it off pretty quickly and shared a passion for learning and growing our skills for our craft.
In the summer of 2002 I was working in Switzerland and he was looking for a change, so, after a little convincing, he joined me overseas. We spent a few months there together, before I left him high and dry to return home. Over the years we have kept in touch and visited each other when we could, but in recent years it seemed that social media was the only way we could keep track of one another. As I would peak in on his life I was continually more and more impressed the food he was making. After eight long years working in the same kitchen he was finally given the opportunity to become the chef about a year ago, and boy has he made the most of it.
As I arrived on Wednesday he was preparing a series of appetizers for an event for Avenue Magazine. Typically that would be just another catered event, but not in this case. The event was to honour the city’s best restaurants and chefs. John’s restraurant, Teatro, was being honored as Calgary’s best restaurant and the best wine list. As if that wasn’t enough, he was being honored as Calgary’s best chef. That is quite the honour for a chef 32 years of age, having only taken the reigns just over a year earlier.
Having spent a few days in his kitchen I quickly realized why he had been bestowed this honour. His kitchen resembled that of a lab, more than a classic kitchen. In the “chef’s office” is a hydroponic plant set up where they grow their own micro greens and herbs. There are liquid nitrogen canisters lying around and jars filled with chemical compounds to long to name. As I perused the kitchen line I found induction burners, antigriddles, and I even saw the pump of a saltwater fish tank. Somewhere along the way John had become the Willy Wonka of the culinary world. There was one fundamental difference than most modernist cooking I had tasted. It actually tasted good. Somehow John had managed to maintain enough of the classic food pairings and fundamentals of cooking in his experimentation, and despite creating some mind blowing concoctions you could always see his basic understanding of cooking fundamentals. All of his years of preparing classic dishes and fine tuning his techniques allowed him to better understand how food would behave and then look for opportunities to turn those principles on their head.
Working together we prepared fun items like balsamic spheres, Tabasco pearls, and passion fruit marshmallows, but my favorite “experiment” of all was creating liquid nitrogen ice cream. Rather than preparing a classic custard style ice cream mix, then cooling it, and then putting it into an ice cream maker, a process that can take two hours or more, we simply combined cream, sugar and vanilla, then mixed it in a mixer while adding liquid nitrogen. In a matter of less than 5 minutes we had prepared the most delicious and velvety smooth vanilla ice cream I had ever enjoyed. It was so smooth that it felt as though you were spooning butter on your tongue. Liquid nitrogen is stored at nearly -200C, which allows it to freeze the cream almost instantly, creating extremely tiny ice crystals, essentially eliminating any graininess, that can often be found in ice cream. It was so much fun learning from John and having him so willingly share his secrets to success.
The ice cream was truly delectable, but the reality is that John couldn’t experiment with manipulating the ice cream in just right way if he didn’t fully understand the basic principles behind making ice cream. So, with that in mind, this week I will share with you our more conventional recipe for a classic vanilla ice cream, because I am assuming that most of you don’t have easy access to a supply of liquid nitrogen.
French Style Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Churning Time: 20-30 minutes
Special Tools: Ice Cream maker- you can pick up a decent home model for
anywhere from $40-300. The Kitchen Aid model is really quite good and can
be found for under $100
1 lt. milk
300 ml. heavy cream
10 egg yolks
250 gr. sugar
1 vanilla bean or 1 Tbsp. vanilla paste.
*you can find vanilla bean paste at Qzina, 12547-129 St NW, I do not
recommend using vanilla extract, it has nowhere near the same flavour
Place a medium pot with about two inches of water on the stove
In a another pot place milk, cream, and vanilla bean or paste, if using the vanilla bean, split open from end to end, and scrape the seeds out into the milk
Bring a slow simmer
Meanwhile, in a metal or glass bowl big enough to sit over the pot of water, place egg yolks and sugar, whisk to combine
Once your milk mixture is hot remove the bean, leaving the seeds behind, if using the paste, don’t worry, you’re all set.
Now, whisking vigorously, slowly add the hot milk to the egg yolks, this is called tempering, you want to slowly bring up the temperature of the yolks, but if you add the milk too quickly you will scramble the eggs
Once the milk and eggs are combined place the bowl on the pot of hot water, this will create a double boiler, allowing you to heat up the custard without overcooking the eggs or scrambling them. Continue to stir vigorously as the mixture thickens, this will take 3-4 minutes
You will know when it’s ready when the mixture will coat the back of a spoon without running down, it will be thick like a warm pudding
Remove from heat and continue to stir until the mixture begins to cool slightly
Once cooled slightly place in the fridge and allow to cool completely,
this step is important, trying to mix this right away from hot will create large ice crystals and very grainy ice cream
Once cool, plug in your ice cream maker and begin to churn, don’t overfill it either, as that will also slow the process and create grainy ice
cream, do it in batches if necessary.
Once you understand this basic ice cream recipe you can begin to experiment and create virtually any flavour combination. Fold in nuts, candies, chocolate chips, even cookie dough if you choose, as the ice cream is just about set. Enjoy!
Once you have this nailed down, head to Teatro in Calgary and compare your ice cream making skills against Chef John’s. Let me know when you think you have him beat!