Kitchen Mad Scientist: Non-Dairy Chocolate Ice Cream
The following is the long overdue hijacking of Tammy's Recipes by none other than Joshua. Today I am posting the method to my madness with a case study of creating non-dairy ice cream.
When it comes to food rarely am I satisfied to leave, “Good enough” alone. I like to tinker and try new things, work out the kinks, and refine the product. This may be why I like to cook. Boiling veggies and baking casseroles don’t excite me much—but you are sure to get my attention with an exotic cheese cake recipe that requires a water bath and chocolate shell.
If a dish is good I think of ways to make it great. And a great dish? If you ask me it always has the potential to be even better! But the best challenges are creating something completely new. It is probably a very good thing I am not responsible for serving edible meals on a daily basis because creativity and a sense of exploration sometimes take you to inedible places. Hint: Most of Tammy’s Disasters are, well, Joshua’s Disasters! That is what happens when, say, you want to find the perfect binder for your cheesecake! Who else is going to test corn starch, flour, tapioca starch, gelatin, various proportions of eggs, milk fats, and so forth to get the perfect texture and flavor? Creating something really good often requires creating something bad… like 10 times!
Lately I have been playing with Ice Cream. I love ice cream. A lot. Too much even. It is by far my favorite dessert. I even justify to myself that it is a healthy food (it has milk people!). I have always wanted to make my own fresh homemade ice cream so when I saw a quality ice cream maker on sale I jumped in. The results have been fabulous so far. Ice cream is pretty simple to make and opens all sorts of doors for creativity. Guests love a bowl of rich homemade ice cream but the best part is the reaction from the kids! They get excited when I tell them we are going to make ice cream, they eagerly offer flavor suggestions, they anxiously watch the maker churn, and they get huge eyes and mutter a lot of “Yums!” as they watch me scoop it into their bowls. Making ice cream is fun and easy and experimenting with new flavors and textures is a blast.
I recently planned a guy get together and planned to serve ice cream for dessert. Problem: one of my friends has dairy allergies. Undaunted, I took this as a challenge I could not refuse. But how do you make good ice cream without milk or cream? Not content to settle on a sorbet I started the processes to develop a non-dairy ice cream.
To start off with you need to envision what you are trying to make. In this case I wanted to make real ice cream—cold, smooth and creamy, and full of flavor. I wanted to capture all the greatness of dairy ice cream and avoid any odd flavors or textures that would be unfamiliar to this traditional treat. The key is to find quality ingredients to substitute the dairy bases (milk and cream) that will mimic the properties well. I try to avoid extravagant, hard to find, or expensive ingredients (although I have my heart set on trying xantham gum soon!). Finally, and most importantly, is to start off with a solid foundation and make as few changes as necessary in each iteration of your experiment.
The good news is ice cream is simple, flexible, and forgiving. A simple vanilla Philadelphia style recipe is 2c. heavy whipping cream, 1c. whole milk, 3/4c. sugar, a punch of salt, and 2tsp. vanilla extract. You can change the ratio of cream and milk (I tend to prefer 1c. cream to 2c. milk; some prefer all cream!) and even add 2-4 egg yolks for a French style. Chocolate ice cream is essentially the same recipe except 1/2c. cocoa powder is added and you substitute some brown sugar in for some of the white. Obviously our challenge is ice cream is almost all dairy! So lets start there.
Milk. Ice cream by liquid volume is usually about 25%-66% milk with the remaining volume being cream, fruit, etc. Thankfully our local grociers’ shelves are stalked with a variety of non-dairy milk substitutes. My options were between Soy, Almond, Rice, and Coconut milks. Our friend, a male, tries to avoid soy milk. In my experience soy has a flatter taste than milk, is thin, and can be slightly chalky. While serviceable I wanted to avoid these qualities. At first blush almond milk sounds like a great option. Surprisingly I don’t like almond milk as it tastes thin and, unless the almond flavor would compliment the dish, I dislike the taste. Rice milk is also fairly thin and lacks much of a nutritional substance. I could see rice milk making a nice vanilla ice cream or other “lite” variety but I am chasing a rich and creamy result.
Ahhh coconut milk! It does have a slight nutty taste, but not too offensive or strong. Importantly it has about 5g of fat per serving (whole milk has about 8g)—this will be important because heavy whipping cream, the typical source of fat that gives milk its rich flavor and light texture, cannot be used. I had never tried coconut milk before but I was pleased at the flavor and texture. I selected a sweetened vanilla variety because milk is fairly sweet and vanilla as I would add vanilla anyhow and find non-dairy milks taste more “milk-like” with vanilla as it tends to mask the undertones. Dairy milk has a lot of solids in the fluid so I was happy to see coconut milk appears to also have a bit of heft to the liquid. This should give the added bonus of helping avoid some of those menacing ice crystals.
Milk Fat. Heavy whipping cream is the key ingredient to ice cream. Functionally heavy cream (usually between 36-40% milk fat) is what gives ice cream its light texture because it captures small air bubbles as the ice cream churns. Heavy cream also gives ice cream the rich, silky mouth feel one experiences with a quality ice cream. Anyone who has eaten a quality ice cream made with real cream side-by-side a cheap store brand commodity ice cream fluffed with whipped corn syrup and hydrolyzed oils knows what I am talking about. Additionally cream has a pleasantly sweet flavor that makes almost anything taste better.
Unfortunately I had very few options on such little notice. Again, a general rule to follow when playing the part of the mad scientist in the kitchen: Do things simply, make the fewest major changes as possible, and use reliable ingredients. While I could have made my own non-dairy whipped topping from scratch (and I intend to!) or I could have used our non-dairy whipped topping powder from my experimental ingredient war chest in the kitchen (the stuff is like 5 years old??! Eeek!) I decided to go with normal non-dairy whipped topping. I didn’t have time to order a quality product like MimicCreme Cream Substitute or search the local health food stores for a 100% non-dairy solution so I went with Cool-Whip for this round of tests. Cool-Whip in our area has no milk or cream but it does have Sodium caseinate, a milk derivative. As there is less than 2% in the product our guest will be using some Pineapple tablets to neutralize the effects. But be warned: You will want to pick up some whipped topping that is labeled as non-dairy (don’t make the mistake I did and assume whipped topping is completely dairy free! Those with dairy allergies will probably know of good local sources for such products).
I chose whipped topping because it is a known quantity and should be serviceable for my needs. It will provide the air volume I need and provide a cream-like (sorta, kinda) texture and flavor. Many people love whipped topping, indeed, I formerly did as well until Tammy introduced me to real whipped cream. The first time I had the real stuff I wasn’t sure what to think, but I quickly realized whipped topping is not even in the same league as whipped cream. Beggars can’t be choosers and if I had dairy allergies this would be a compromise I would willing to make to enjoy a cold bowl of ice cream.
French Style or Philadelphia Style Ice Cream? French style ice creams use eggs and are sometimes called frozen custards. In a grocery store you may see vanilla, vanilla bean, and French vanilla ice creams all side-by-side. The French style will be yellower because of the egg yolks and is denser and silkier as the eggs emulsify the fats in the ice cream. Considering the lack of cream in this recipe French style would seem the obvious choice. The down side is I don’t usually use raw eggs (as some recipes recommend) and making the custard required more time (heating to 175 degrees and cooling over night) than I had. As this is my first serious attempt at a non-dairy ice cream I defaulted to the first rule of kitchen mad science: Simplicity first. Philadelphia style ice creams (cream and milk, no eggs) taste great, too, so this isn’t a deal breaker. The upside is this: if I can make a good Philadelphia style ice cream without eggs, future iterations with eggs will be even better!
Besides making your own homemade non-dairy whipped topping there are other options to play with as a kitchen mad scientist. Whipped egg whites would be serviceable for volume and I plan to test this but the taste, texture, and mouth feel don’t seem right in my head (note: mixing two ingredients often results in surprisingly good combinations that defy a single ingredients limitations). A gelatin (like beef; I have used this in ice cream) or agar agar (which I have not used) may be worth testing. With normal ice creams gelatin, used selectively, can add a nice layer of complexity. Gelatin in ice cream is simple to use: set aside some of your milk (e.g. 1c.). Dissolve about 1tsp. of gelatin in a couple tablespoons of cold milk and allow it to sit for about 5 minutes and then add a cup or so of boiling milk. Stir and fully dissolve and cool the mixture until it is cool. Now proceed with making your ice cream as normal. The gelatin will add silkiness to the ice cream’s texture, allow it to set softer and avoid ice crystals, as well as capture more air as the ice cream churns. For my first non-dairy test I didn’t use gelatin but I will attempt this later as the upsides to the gelatin should help fill in the texture gaps from losing cream. Where I have found it most useful, though, is in low-fat ice cream. With gelatin I was able to make a 7% fat ice cream that was surprisingly good. Not as good as 40% fat ice cream (!) but definitely better than no ice cream or a commodity product.
Flavor. So far we have had to make two big compromises. No milk (boo!) and no heavy cream (double boo!) The good news? No more compromising! Seeing as the whipped topping is a middling ingredient in terms of flavor I decided I wanted a strong, rich, and bold flavored ice cream. I needed something to help me forget about the substitutes. I pondered strawberry ice cream, but the quality is very dependant on the quality of the strawberries. Fresh, sweet but strong flavored berries would be a MUST. That is difficult. Furthermore without cream ice crystals and a “hard” end product would be hard to avoid. An orange “dream” style ice cream was another option as the orange is often a sherbet (i.e. no cream) but I had no orange extract on hand, it is expensive, and I am not confident a non-French style vanilla would suffice in our non-dairy experiment.
But that thought processes was just going through the motions as the choice was obvious. Is there anything better than chocolate? (Tammy says NO!) People love chocolate (both cheap and expensive, so there is a forgiving range of expectation), high quality chocolate is readily available, and is fairly affordable. A dark Dutch processed baking cocoa powder is the obvious choice as it has a great earthy flavor and dissolves well in liquids.
Chocolate recipes should always have salt and I find that vanilla is a great undertone to the bold chocolate taste. Since we are going all out on flavor (again, we need to fill in all the flavor gaps lost from the cream and milk) I also added a pinch of instant coffee and a pinch of cinnamon as both compliment chocolate and add complexity to the flavor. For sweetener I used a combination of dark brown sugar (the rich molasses accent works great with chocolate ice cream) and refined white sugar, although you are welcome to use evaporated cane juice or a more natural raw sugar.
With no further ado here were my results:
5 cups coconut milk (sweetened vanilla)
1 cup white sugar
2/3 cup brown sugar (dark or light)
1 cup Dutch processed baking cocoa powder (not cocoa mix/hot chocolate mix!)
Pinch instant coffee
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
8 oz non-dairy whipped topping, thawed
1. In a large bowl combine milk, sugars, cocoa, salt, coffee, and cinnamon. Mix well and then add vanilla.
2. Slowly add the non-dairy whipped topping, being careful to fully incorporate. Do not over mix as it will “deflate” your ice cream!
3. Chill mixture for 2 hours (optional, depending on your ice cream maker).
4. Follow your ice cream maker’s instructions for preparation. For my 1.5Q maker the steps are simple: Remove the freezer bowl from the freezer and place on the mixing stand and assemble the dasher. Turn on the machine, pour in the ice cream mixture (half this recipe, about 5 cups total), and mix until complete (less than 20 minutes). I allow my ice cream to stand in the mixer 10-20 minutes to hard set before spooning out with a non-metallic spoon.
Yields: 12 cups (2 batches in my 1.5Q Cuisinart Art Ice Cream Maker)
The results were surprisingly good. Tammy’s reaction was, “This is really good” and then asked for more. Tammy has an affinity for soft serve and likes to allow her ice cream to melt before eating so this seemed right up her alley.
As an ice cream snob I must admit that this is no substitute for a 70% milk fat French style chocolate ice cream. That is my baseline. I like it frozen hard so I can “chew” it and then feel it melt in my mouth and I expect it to have a silky texture on my tongue. Those are my expectations for a good ice cream. I was surprised to find that this recipe doesn’t scream, “There is no milk in me!” It has a pleasant “milk” texture and taste. Just as importantly it is light, has a creamy mouth feel, and has a robust milk-chocolate flavor. I would rate this as a better ice cream than a corn syrup/hydrolyzed oil commodity ice cream which is saying a lot because it lacks milk and cream. Then again some of that cheap stuff is air, sugar, and oil so that is a low target. I do feel it falls short of, say, Breyer’s brand chocolate ice cream—but not by much. This was a good first effort and a serviceable recipe to experiment on. For those looking for something simple they can stop right here knowing they can have a real ice cream experience without the dairy.
For the more adventurous with more time on their hands I think there are two obvious improvements. The first is finding a higher quality cream source. What I have read about MimicCreme Cream Substitute seems positive. The next thing would be to convert this to French style (4-10 egg yolks for this recipe) as it would improve the density, texture, and richness. I would suggest this before gelatin. For the adventurist types I will throw this one out: solve the milk fat problem by adding cocoa butter! Yep, melt down some high quality chocolate and mix it into the ice cream mixture. This will add fat, add density to the mixture (which this recipe lacks compared to a milk/cream recipe), and improve the flavor.
My guests are coming tomorrow night for dinner so I will let everyone know what they think. One of the keys of being a kitchen mad scientist is to be brutally honest with yourself, even when others compliment your food. People are polite and tend to reward effort with pleasantries, especially when free food is involved! But I would never recommend a recipe that wasn’t good and I appreciate it when people are frank and offer feedback. But there is no better critic than yourself. Think of all the qualities you appreciate in a recipe (tastes and tones, texture, appearance, sweetness, surprises, etc) and apply these categories to your dish. Where it falls flat think of ingredients that may improve that area and what impact they may have on the other categories. Sometimes you may be half way through prep and realize you created a disaster… it comes with the territory. You win some, you lose some. In some cases it is best to leave good enough alone.
But not if you are a kitchen mad scientist ;)