I brought a Tupperware container of my Cocoon ice cream out to my friend Taylor who had been patiently sitting on my couch waiting to try my newest flavor. She wasn't really a dessert person, but she was intrigued nevertheless. I watched her dig the spoon into the ice cream and break through the surface. She dragged it towards her, leaving jagged ridges behind. She inspected the spoon, now full of honied white, birch flavored ice cream, with seductive ruby-red ribbons of raspberry-fig fluid gel and crisp sugar pearls.
"Tell me about this ice cream," she said.
"It's inspired by Björk's song Cocoon. Björk, in Icelandic, means birch. So the base is made with a birch syrup harvested from Icelandic birch trees. In the music video, red threads seep out of her body and eventually cocoon her as she sings about a sensual love. The red swirls are made from raspberry and fig, two fruits that are often associated with love or sexuality. In the song, she sings about a train of pearls, and so quite literally, I added in sugar pearls."
Taylor rolled the ice cream over her tongue and smiled. "That is a very thoughtful ice cream."
That was the moment I realized that ice cream could have more than just flavor, it could have a story and through that story, new flavors could be created. For example, another song I interpreted was 5 Years, and after musing over the meaning of the lyrics, title, mood and overall emotional experience of the song, I mapped out how I was going to communicate all of those through ice cream. The song, in my interpretation, (as songs can have a different meaning to every listener) is very much about her challenging and confronting someone she surely had feelings for, and for whatever reason, those feelings were not reciprocated because that person was either not able, willing or emotionally ready to handle what love is. There is a lot of emotion behind a situation like that. I thought how would that feel to me? Angry? Frustrated? Confrontational? How does hearing her dare them to love her resonate with me? What emotions does that bring up for me? Then those emotions and feelings began to translate into ingredients. Confrontational and challenging a lover became candied ginger and pink peppercorn. Unrequited love turned into passionfruit—tart, slightly acidic, sweet and bright. The lyrics, "You're the one who's missing out, but you won't notice, till after 5 years," inspired me to think about maturity, and that led me to the pomegranate. The Angel Red pomegranate tree can grow up to 10 feet tall once it is fully mature, but that can take anywhere between 5 to 7 years, and only then will it be able to handle the weight of the fruit. That was it, that was all the information I needed to go on. It was perfect. The title of the song and declaration of not knowing what you had until it's gone became a pomegranate swirl.
Not every single flavor I create has to be analyzed so deeply. There are flavors like mint chip, cookie dough, or chocolate. However, that shouldn't suggest that a great deal of care doesn't go into making those flavors too. Just because something may be simple, or stereotypically plain, doesn't mean that it has to taste that way. The wonderful thing about food is how many variables there are. One cook can follow a recipe for braised short rib, and have it taste considerably different from another cook's final dish based on their technique, ingredient choices and alterations. This is one of the many things I love about food, the abundance of ingredients and one's approach to them. It's why I'm a snob about vanilla, why I'm incredibly particular about a chocolate chip cookie and why my life was changed after tasting the Butter Dumplings with purple cabbage, fried brussels and garlic chile kefir at Bad Hunter in Chicago. One of the things I learned in pastry school was that I knew way less than I thought I did going into it. The further I explored, the more I learned. The way mouthfeel can impact flavor, the importance of salt in all desserts and savory dishes, how contrasting textures and temperatures add a whole new level of experience for the eater. Sugar doesn't have to be just sugar, it can be muscovado, demerara or bourbon. Chocolate isn't just chocolate, there are hundreds of varieties to choose from (I tend to prefer dark milks). All of this plays into why my triple vanilla ice cream is my favorite flavor. I get a good share of crinkled brows and perplexed looks when I say that vanilla is my favorite flavor. I think it's because so often people associate vanilla with something boring, plain, uninspiring with no depth. And so often, unfortunately, it is. Vanilla is so underappreciated and disrespected! In my vanilla ice cream, I use Mexican vanilla bean, Madagascar bean and my own vanilla extract that I have kept refreshed for over 8 years now.
The next time you're in the kitchen and you have a recipe in front of you (which are just guidelines really for the most part) think about how you can adapt it, change it, make it your own. You might not always get the best result on the first try, but that doesn't mean it's not a success! It's a learning experience. Play with it, have fun. Be an alchemist.