I remember the first time I had vanilla ice cream infused with peppercorns. I was in France for the first time, backpacking for nearly four weeks as a prelude to moving to New York to start work for a big investment bank. My friend and I have been making our way down from Paris all the way down to the French riviera and were spending a few days in Nice. My first impressions of Nice were less than favorable. I found the city disagreeable especially after traipsing around Nantes, La Rochelle, the Bordeaux region (St. Emilion, be still my heart), Avignon and many others in between. Nice was chalk full of tourists, like a tightly packed can of sardines, and I suddenly felt as if we were no longer in France. I was also a little on the tense side, nearing the end of my traveling funds, every franc carefully considered and measured.
A combination of heat, poverty and an overabundance of Russian tourists made me slightly cranky towards Nice. Also, it was hot, humid, our hotel room didn’t have any air conditioning and when we inquired about a fan, the hotel proprietor yawned and recommended we take frequent showers and sleep au naturel. Yes, he actually said that. So, poor and sweaty, I was in quite a state. Nothing helped – not even the salade Niçoise which was sheer perfection, but it was going to take more to draw me out of my misery. (Even as I write this, I can’t help but roll eyes at myself. My goodness, miserable while on vacation in France? What a spoiled brat I must sound like!) My poor traveling companion had to make do with my grumpy mood and put up with my sulking.
On the third day of skulking about, I decided enough is enough and ventured to check out Vieux Nice, a beautiful, older part of the city with brightly colored buildings and tiny weaving streets. It was there that I discovered this ice cream cafe in the middle of the plaza – now realizing it was the famous Fennochio’s ice cream parlor, which apparently makes over 200 different flavors. If memory serves me right, and I hope I’m not making this up, but the proprietor of the store told me they made around 70 different ice cream flavors on that day alone. I had choice overload. I was smitten with all the flavors available. There is that moment when too much choice makes your decision-making difficult. My travel buddy selected a boule of pistachio and a boule of orange flower. I went with lavender, and also pink-peppercorn vanilla. I know it’s a bit cliche to use Julia Child’s sole meuniere experience as an example here, what with the movie opening in a few days, but that’s sort of the closest I can come to in giving an example that mirrored my own experience. The flavors were magnificent; it was like nothing I expected. I still remember swirling that first spoonful in my mouth, my eyes closed as I tried to take everything in. And in a few moments, and a few spoonfuls later, I was happy, smiling, completely blissful and my misery evaporated instantly.
I realize that the recipe below is for black peppercorn ice cream and what I had in Nice was pink peppercorn, which are totally different flavors. But the point is that the infusions of peppercorns in my vanilla ice cream, woke up my palate. At 22, I hadn’t thought of combining flavors like pepper with a sweet one of ice cream. Even after sampling chili-infused dark chocolate, I hadn’t made the link. That afternoon at the plaza made me reconsider the whole flavor palete and how unexpected notes combine to create something lovely and elegant. While plain vanilla ice cream, done well, is nothing short of spectacular, vanilla ice cream with infused with pepper (black or pink or white) takes vanilla to a whole new level. Think of it as vanilla in fourth dimension. Notes and depth comes out that otherwise you might not have been aware of before. And the nice warm sensation in the back of your throat is an added bonus.
I had filed that experience into the archives of my mind and hadn’t given it much thought until I spied the recipe in David Lebovitz’ ice cream book, The Perfect Scoop. And just like that, the memory came rushing back, and the flavors I remembered tasting returned. Luckily, I managed to find the missing part to my ice cream maker, and felt it my duty to relive the experience that so many years ago changed the way I taste. I prefer the black pepper to the pink pepper flavor, personally, as the latter gives a more flowery aspect to vanilla, whereas the former has an earthier, spicier note.
And I assure you, if you have a case of the grumpies, try this rather holistic remedy. I guarantee smiles and bliss within minutes of consumption, and to save you the trouble of learning the hard way, you might want to make a double batch, in case your guests don’t understand your unwillingness to share.
Black Pepper Ice Cream
Adapted from The Perfect Scoop
1/2 cup (125 ml) whole milk
1/3 cup (65 grams) sugar
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, coarsely cracked
1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped out
pinch of salt
1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream
3 large egg yolks
1. Warm the milk, sugar, peppercorns, vanilla, salt, and 1/2 cup of the cream in a medium saucepan. Cover, remove from the heat, and let steep at room temperature for one hour.
2. Rewarm the peppercorn-infused mixture. Pour the remaining 1/2 cup cream into a large bowl and set a mesh strainer on top. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Slowly pour the warm mixture into the egg yolks (I would even advise drizzling it at first as not to cook the yolks), whisking constantly, then scrape the warmed egg yolks back into the saucepan.
3. Stir the mixture constantly over medium heat with a heatproof spatula, scraping the bottom as you stire, until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula. Pour the custard through the strainer, pressing the peppercorns gently to extract as much flavor as possible. Discard the peppercorns and stir the custard into the cream. Stir until cool over an ice bath.
4. Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, then freeze it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Makes about 4 servings, or if you’re me, 1 serving for an ice cream lover with zero self-control.