Kulfis and Gelatos
Last time, we looked at the water-based or non-dairy frozen desserts, from the simplest popsicles to the poshest sorbets. This week, we will tackle what most people think of when talking about frozen desserts: dairy-based desserts. Unlike the ones we saw last time, dairy rather than water forms the base for these desserts.
An intermediate between the dairy and non-dairy desserts is the sherbet, which incorporates the fruity elements of a sorbet or granita reinforced with dairy elements. Proper dairy-based ice-creams can use anything from whole milk to cream. Italian-style gelatos use more milk, while the French style uses a base enriched with egg yolk. Another off-spectrum candidate is yoghurt, which forms the basis for the frozen yoghurt or froyo.
Not all frozen desserts require churning. The simplest recipes simply involve pouring the base into moulds and letting it set up in the fridge. This simple technique is the basis for one of the best-known Indian desserts, kulfi. Easily recognizable by its conical shape and uniquely Indian flavours like pistachio, cardamom, rose and saffron, kulfi is often called Indian ice-cream, although it has a markedly different texture, denser with a slower melt. The kulfi mix needs to be reduced enough so that it has a high fat content. Kulfi is an example of a non-aerated frozen dessert. Other popular examples are the dairy cousins of popsicles, the creamsicles and fudgesicles, prepared in a similar way to popsicles except with a dairy base.
The technique of folding in egg whites into a cake batter or whipped cream into a chocolate mousse can be used to produce an array of dishes called aerated still-frozen desserts. The texture is midway between a firm kulfi and a pliable scoop of ice-cream. Two classic still-frozen French desserts are the bombe and the parfait. The parfait (meaning “perfect” in French) uses a base of a cooked egg yolk foam or an Italian meringue made using egg whites (more on meringues some other time). A bombe is similar, except that it is also reinforced by whipped cream. The Italian semifreddo (“half-frozen” in Italian) is so called because the incorporation of air in the form of a triple dose of sabayon (egg yolk foam), meringue (egg white foam) and whipped cream, gives the final dish a bit of flexibility, or a “half-frozen” feel. There are also frozen souffles and frozen mousses, which use a similar foam-lightened base set in the freezer.
Which finally brings us to churning. Churning is what makes ice-cream what it is, as it helps incorporate the air into ice-cream, which lends it its unique, pliable texture. Firstly, it helps keep the forming ice crystals small, as large crystals keep breaking down due to constant agitation, which renders it a smooth texture. A modern alternative for the same is the use of liquid nitrogen, which freezes the mixture so quickly that large crystals don’t get time to form. It Is necessary to start with a cold mixture while churning, since a cold mix can hold small, seeder ice crystals which results in a smoother product. Start from warm and you risk the formation of large, rogue ice crystals that can throw the texture completely, no matter how much you churn.
Secondly, it incorporates air into the mixture, much like the whipped cream and egg in a still-frozen dessert, but with one crucial difference. In case of a semifreddo for example, the mixture is aerated before it goes into the freezer. An ice-cream or sorbet starts as a non-aerated base, and aeration occurs simultaneously with freezing, as the mixture is agitated. The resultant air bubbles are much smaller than what we can achieve in any parfait, giving the final product a level of pliability that is unmatched by any semifreddo.
Depending on the duration and intensity of churning, the air content in the final product, the technical term for which is overrun, can be adjusted. More air gives it a lighter texture with a compromise in flavour (think dense fudgy brownies versus airy spongecake). An extreme example is the soft-serve, which has so much air incorporated that the resultant texture is reminiscent of whipped cream. The incorporated air also makes the final product seem less cold, and can be eaten with immediacy without getting a brainfreeze.
If you’re like me and prioritize flavour over texture then good news, the Italians have got you covered. A gelato undergoes a slower churning process leading to less overrun and a slightly denser texture than ice-cream, which translates to stronger flavour. Unlike the soft-serve which focuses primarily on texture, the gelato delivers an intensity of flavour that is hard to come by in a scoop of ice-cream. Premium ice-creams also have relatively less overrun, which is why their flavour seems more pronounced than your everyday, run-of-the-mill ice-creams.
Gelato also has a lower fat content compared to ice-cream, so it is technically healthier. An even better option for health freaks is the frozen yoghurt, a tangy, low-fat alternative to ice-creams with the same texture and cold rush as a scoop of ice-cream. It has a unique, tangy flavour profile similar to yoghurt which is why fresher flavours like mango and berries work brilliantly when it comes to froyo. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the rich and decadent frozen custard, which is richer with a more luscious mouthfeel. This is the kind of base ideal for decadent flavours like chocolate and caramel.
So far, the focus has been almost entirely on texture, from the firm, slightly icy kulfi to the evanescent soft-serve. The realm of flavour is infinitely more complex. Ice-cream parlours serve up not just the classics like vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, but local varieties like mango, tender coconut and nolen gur, a personal favourite. And then there are the daring and downright weird, like the mind-boggling wasabi ice-cream we talked about in our Not Too Sweet series. I’ve had a duo of ice-creams in Burma Burma in Gurgaon: a scoop of avocado which tasted pretty bland, and a contrasting scoop of durian (that super-stinky fruit that is banned in public transports all over Southeast Asia) whose unique and intense flavour more than made up for the shortcomings of the former.
Ice-creams are not often served as it is, but garnished or paired with other stuff: a crunchy waffle cone, a smattering of chopped toasted almonds, tart macerated fruits or a drizzle of chocolate syrup. Banana splits and ice-cream sundaes showcase the ice-cream in all its glory, adorned with all sorts of goodies. On other occasions, the ice-cream is not the star of the show but provides a temperature contrast and a complimentary flavour note to a larger dish. You could go with an unimaginative scoop of vanilla ice-cream, but choosing an appropriate flavour can really improve a dish, like the Besan Barfi ice-cream at Rooh, or the bitter coffee ice-cream in this amazing Snicker’s Bar dessert from Monkey Bar.
It is difficult to explain why exactly we love frozen desserts so much. But these closing words by Alton Brown from a Good Eats episode is something that has stuck with me, so I’ll let him have the last word: “A single bite of the simplest fruit ice, sorbet, sherbet or ice-cream is an enigma. A slap of cold giving way to a loving hug of creaminess, textures morphing, flavours releasing and overlapping waves and then……it’s a memory. No wonder, ice-cream rates as the top pre-adolescent sensual experience.”