Sea Salt and Burnt Sugar Ice Cream

In the winter months, my cravings for ice cream and frozen custard really doesn’t subside. If anything, it gives way for more intense flavors in the ice cream, reserving more fruity flavors for the spring and summer. This sea salt and burnt sugar ice cream was inspired by a few things, mostly because I was craving ice cream and second I was really intrigued by a Thalia Ho recipe I had been eyeing for some time.

I love this ice cream. Technically, it is a frozen custard, but we’re all adults here. And, I would venture to say that due to the smoky-bitterness from the burnt sugar, this frozen dessert is for those who don’t mind bitter with sweet. For me, the bitterness tones the sweetness down. Adding sea salt numbs some of the bitterness, and heightens the sweet. The creaminess of the dairy and richness from the egg yolks harmonizes everything together. It is such a fun recipe to make – scorching sugar, thickening with egg yolk, churning. So much is happening!

I think the only aspects of the recipe that I would change are: actually following the prescribed amounts of heavy cream and whole milk, and to also allow the caramel (burnt sugar) to cool before introducing it to the dairy. The original calls for adding the blazing hot caramel to the dairy, which causes a ton of sputtering (steam escaping from the milk), and also really shocks the dairy proteins. I observed some instability (i.e. denatured proteins) and over-heated notes in my dairy mixture, but I strained the custard and proceeded. This may have been due to me using half and half instead of heavy cream as well.

One would think I would have thought ahead, since my masters research was on denaturing proteins in caramel (really, that is a whole other topic), but….we learn as we go. Fat does a fantastic job of protecting proteins. Today, incidentally a day after making the ice cream base, I was inspired to take Volume 2 of Mastering the Art of French Cooking off my shelf. Page 423-424 has a procedure to heat milk/cream in the pan that a praline was made in – which is also not a bad idea (i.e. make the burnt sugar, then allow it to cool, then heat the milk/cream in this pan which will melt the caramel seamlessly and with no scorching).

Either way, this recipe is a keeper. I added a small strip of cara cara orange zest and 1/4 of a vanilla bean to my dairy as it heated to infuse. The orange pulls this into an almost candy-like caramel profile, and also confuses the senses since citrus can have some bitterness to it as well – same as the burnt sugar. As orange oil terpenes oxidize, they start to smell herbaceous like black licorice (thanks to carvone) – so you may notice this in your ice cream over time if you include the orange zest. The vanilla is welcome to round it all out. Add the salt to taste, and optionally add the booze and/or vanilla extract (I find that homemade ice cream benefits from some alcohol to keep it soft, but it is entirely optional). The key is the custard base, then the rest is to play with, keeping in mind that cold blunts taste.

Sea Salt and Burnt Sugar Ice Cream

Makes about 1 quart (4 cups)

Custard Base:

  • 2 cups heavy cream OR half and half (1 cup whole milk and 1 cup heavy cream)
  • 1 3/4 cups whole milk
  • 1/4 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped out
  • 1″ strip orange zest (Optional)
  • 1/4 to 3/4 tsp fine sea salt (use half as much if using coarse sea salt)
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 1/4 (50g) cup sugar
  • 1 to 2 TB vanilla extract or booze of choice, such as bourbon (optional)

Burnt Sugar Caramel:

  • 1 cup (200g) sugar
  • 1/4 cup (60g) water
  1. Combine the half and half, whole milk, vanilla bean, orange zest (if using) and sea salt in a large sauce pan. Use a pan large enough to withstand some sputtering milk when adding the caramel, if using that approach. Heat on medium-low to infuse the dairy.
  2. Combine and egg yolks and 1/4 cup sugar in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Set aside.
  3. In a medium-large sauce pan, add the 1 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water. Do not stir, only swirl gently the combine and water and sugar. Heat on medium-high, swirling to ensure the sugar dissolves. Once the mixture turns clear, swirl as needed as the sugar beings to caramelize. The darker your caramel, the more intensely colored and flavored the ice cream will be. I aimed for a copper-amber color, keeping in mind that the caramel will continue to cook as you take it off the heat. Swirl to ensure even cooking.
  4. At this point, you can CAREFULLY add the liquid caramel to the dairy; the dairy will sputter and steam a lot! Stir to combine the caramel into the milk. OR, I recommend pouring the caramel out onto a lined sheet tray (using silpat or parchment) and allowing it to cool, or even transferring the caramel to another medium sauce pan and placing in the freezer to halt the cooking.
  5. If you choose to cool your caramel, this will take about 15 minutes. Break the pieces up, and add them back to the caramel pan. Add the dairy to the caramel pan, and gently heat to dissolve the caramel bits and the parts stuck on the pan.
  6. Once heated to where you can see small bubbles forming around the edges of the pan, gently add about 1 cup in a slow stream to the egg yolks while mixing constantly (tempering the yolks). Add the yolk mixture back to the heated milk mixture, and cook over medium heat while constantly stirring with a spatula, just until the mixture coats the back of a spoon.
  7. Pour into a large bowl or a baking dish (increased surface area will cool the mixture quickly), and immediately cover the surface with plastic wrap, ensuring the wrap touches the surface of the custard to prevent a skin from forming.
  8. Chill for 30 minutes in the freezer, to rapidly cool, then place the mixture in the fridge for at least 8 hours, up to 1 day (overnight is perfect).
  9. Churn the mixture in your ice cream machine accordingly, and store in covered container. Ice cream will keep up to 2 weeks, with ice crystals growing as it ages.

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